Preparing for College

Is Bio Major Bad Choice for Arts Aficionado?

Question: My junior daughter, a strong student, is applying to mostly match schools, a couple of safeties and 1-2 reaches. Right now she wants to major in Biology and become an immunologist (we know how these things change), but all of her ECs are in the arts - theater acting, theater crew, dance performance. She has other non-school related ECs, but nothing outside of classes in science other than being invited and participating in a STEM for women symposium. She's been advised she should probably not list Biology as her preferred major on applications because of this "imbalance". Do you agree with this? She can't find anything that would qualify as a Biology "EC" at her school. The problem she has with not divulging that Bio is her intended major is that virtually all of the schools she plans to apply to were selected because they had excellent undergrad Bio research opportunities, which would be relevant under the "Why us" essays. What would you do?

No, “The Dean” does NOT agree with the advice you’ve been given. A résumé that is top-heavy on arts and slim on sciences is NOT a reason to avoid listing "Biology" as a prospective major. The most compelling reason for making another choice is if your daughter’s science and math grades are her weakest ones, but it sounds like that’s not the case here.

Admission officials realize that a student's extracurricular life and academic life don't always intersect and that avid after-school participation in the arts can be a good way to de-stress from a rigorous school curriculum and to balance out a range of interests.

As you’ve wisely observed, your daughter can also score some points with admission officials by highlighting her interest in biology research in her “Why Us?” essays. (And, if any of her colleges don’t require such essays, she should feel free to send an unsolicited cover letter to these schools to explain why she chose them.)

Note, however, that biology is a very common prospective major. It won’t make your daughter stand out in a crowd. But what CAN boost her admission chances is specificity. As she writes those aforementioned essays or cover letters, it’s not enough to say that she likes biology and plans a future in immunology. Instead, she should hone in on exactly how her interests mesh with what each college can provide. In order to do so, she might want to exchange emails with a current bio major at each of her target colleges or even with a professor who teaches courses that especially excite her. (Some profs are very gung-ho to communicate with prospective students while others cringe at the prospect or are simply too busy.) Similarly, she may want to read some research that these professors have published and write about it in her applications. Whatever her approach, the more precise—and less generic—she can be, the better.

But don’t worry that your daughter needs to skirt the bio option entirely due to her EC list. Keep in mind, too, that the Common Application (as well as others) will offer three choices of major, so your daughter can show off her alternate interests by selecting a range of options, if she so chooses, while leaving bio at the top of the list.

(posted 2/8/2013)