Question: I'm applying to a college and the application asks for "choice of major," with slots for first, second and third most-preferred majors. Is there an advantage or disadvantage to listing all three, or would it prove my commitment to my first choice by just listing one?
The first question you need to answer, before listing a major on an application, is, “Will the choice be binding?" In other words, if you show up at this school in September, will you be expected to major in one of your application options when you get there?
Often that answer is, “No, not at all," especially if you're applying to a liberal arts college (or to a university's “School of Arts and Sciences"). And many students do change their major once college is underway. (“The Dean" has heard estimates of up to 80 percent!) But you should never apply to any college or university where your choice is considered binding with the assumption that you can make a prompt and easy change. Some students try to game the system by aiming for a less competitive or undersubscribed major with the hope that it will boost acceptance odds and with the intention of switching to a more desirable department almost as soon as they've stashed their suitcases under their dorm-room beds. Granted, even at colleges where the major listed on an application is viewed as binding, you'll never be stuck forever in a major you despise. But you still can't count on getting into the major you do want if you initially applied to a different one.
So before you continue, you need to confirm that the major — or majors — on your application won't seal your fate. If the answer is “No, your choice of major on the application is not any sort of commitment," then “The Dean" recommends that you use up all three options on the application form. When you select two possible areas of concentration beyond the primary one, admission officials will get a sense of your breadth of interests, and it can work in your favor if those interests are varied. For instance, the candidate who puts chemistry at the top of the list and then follows it with anthropology and dance as second and third choices may stand out in a crowd more than the student who selects chem alone and leaves the other slots blank (or who selects chem followed by biochem and math).
Of course, never list disingenuous choices just because you think they'll “look good" on an application. Not only could you end up with a boatload of bad karma for your deception, but — above all — admission folks will be suspicious if they spot subjects on the list that seem to have no connection at all to the interests demonstrated elsewhere in the application. While, sure, it's possible that, although you've never sung in a chorus or played an instrument, you've always had an itch to explore “vocal music." But if it seems to come out of left field on your application, it could work against you.
Moreover, when choosing a major on your application — especially your first choice of major — try to see your selection through an admission officer's lens. If you really want to study engineering but your lowest grades and test scores have been in math and physics, this could diminish your admission chances as an engineering major. So you might want to consider another major that's more in sync with your successes or apply to some less selective colleges in order to have a better shot at engineering.
Also, when selecting any of your major choices (first, second or third), it can be a plus to lean toward the less popular departments. Again, don't be disingenuous. “The Dean" recalls a time not long ago when the word got out that certain sought-after universities were short on classics majors. So suddenly applicants who'd never taken a single course in Latin or Greek or even in ancient history were putting “classics" on their applications. That was certainly raising some eyebrows in admission offices.
Yet, on the other hand, let's say that you'd planned to put down “English" as your top-choice major, but this was largely because you've loved reading novels by African-American authors. So perhaps choosing “African-American Studies" instead — a department that almost always has far fewer students enrolled than any English department does — can help to set your application apart. It's not dishonest ... just different.
BUT ... when a target college expects you to at least start out in the major that you indicated on your application, you have to tread more carefully. If you already feel committed to one specific major and would not want to attend a school where you were placed into an alternate one, then you should only include this single choice on your application, even if it's with the understanding that the lack of another choice might mean a rejection.
Bottom line: When the major indicated on an application doesn't require a firm commitment, it's advisable to include more than one option. This won't diminish your passion for your first choice but will, instead, showcase your diversity of interests.
If, however, your choice of major is binding and you won't happily consider options beyond your top choice, then list this choice alone.
And if you're not sure how a target college treats the major selections on your application, find out! Send an email to your regional admission rep (the staff member who covers applications from your high school, whose name can be found on the website or via a phone call). This can be a valuable way to not only receive a clear response to your concerns, but also to establish a “relationship" with the person who will likely take part in deciding your fate.
Hope that helps and good luck.
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