Preparing for College

Declaring a Classics Major vs. "Undecided"

Question: I think I may be interested in majoring in classics in college, but I'm not 100% sure. Since this is not a popular major, will it help my chances for admission if I contact department chairs and/or admissions officers to state my interest?

Question: My daughter is interested in a few different areas as potential majors including classics. Is it better to pick one or declare "Undecided"?

The great intuitive powers of The Deanâ€"coupled with the recognition of identical e-mail addressesâ€"have led us to discern that you are a mother and a daughter asking similar questions that can best be answered in tandem.

It is indeed true that some borderline candidates are admitted to top schools because they plan to study in undersubscribed departments. Each year, most colleges and universities have what they call “institutional needs.” These include academic departments that may have dwindling enrollments or to which they want to attract more students for a variety of other reasons. While these priorities are rarely made public (in other words, you won’t see a rotating banner on the Yale Web site that proclaims, “We want more Italian majors and astronomers next fall”), if your area of interest coincides with one of these “institutional needs,” then you may have a better chance of admission than a candidate with similar credentials who is pursuing a more popular field.

Classics is commonly one of the less sought-after fields and thus can catch an admission official’s eye when named as a prospective major. Some college catalogs and Web sites list a school’s enrollment by major. If the number next to “Classics” is a low one, then it’s a good bet that aspiring classics majors will get at least a small “hook” in the admission process. However, admission officials will be looking for prior accomplishments in this area or at least a reason why you hope to study it. If you’ve done a number of courses in Latin or Greek or related fields already, then they’ll spot them right away. If not, an explanation of your choice is in order (e.g., a supplementary note that says something like, “My high school doesn’t have a classics department, but I have read the poetry of Catullus in translation and would now like to read it in the original Latin.”).

In addition, it may be a good idea for you to contact classics professors at your target colleges, if you have real reasons for doing so and aren't just trying some "suck up" strategy you read about in a guide book. If you don’t know where else to start, department chairs can be a good bet, but you can also use course catalogs and Web sites to identify profs who teach classes that specifically interest you and then write directly to them. Tell them about your interest and ask any questions you have that are genuine, not obsequious (good SAT word!). It’s possible that you’ll even establish an e-mail rapport with a faculty member who will put in a good word for you with admission officers. At the very least, this sort of correspondence should help you decide which colleges will land at the top of your listâ€"and which may not make the final list at all.

We feel that it is always preferable to list a prospective major on applicationsâ€"or even severalâ€"rather than saying “Undecided,” unless, of course, your choice will be binding (this is rarely true at liberal arts colleges but may be at universities). If a college has an unusual offering that truly catches your eye then admission officials will be pleased that you have researched their school and selected it because of this particular opportunity.

Many candidates do write “Undecided,” and it’s not heinous to do so if you truly are, butâ€"by selecting your current top choices instead (even if they change down the road)â€" you’re sending a subtle message that says, “I really am interested in something that’s academic and am not merely eager to get away from home and live in that great new dorm I saw on the tour last month.”