Admissions

Will an Application to an Unpopular Major Boost Acceptance Odds?

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I am in eleventh grade creating my college list now. Is it true that I'm more likely to get accepted at a college if I apply to an unpopular major? I ask this because I went on a tour and the tour guide said the history program "needs people" and I thought maybe it would help my chances to apply in that major. 

Applying to an unpopular major may boost admission odds, although it can often be hard to wangle a straight scoop on this from admission officials. Sometimes colleges hope to raise the enrollment in certain undersubscribed departments so prospective Slavic Studies students will go to the front of the line, ahead of budding biologists. College officials might even candidly disclose the areas that they're seeking (such as history, at the college you visited) but commonly you won’t get a straight answer about which fields are flagging, even if you ask nicely.


In the past, when “The Dean” has advised students who have several different academic interests, I direct them to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “College Navigator” website where they can determine which of their favorite fields is least popular at their target colleges. You, too, can find out how many degrees were granted in each major field in the previous year at the colleges that are contenders for your roster.  First, go to this website; then enter a college under “Name of School” in the upper left corner. Then click through to that college’s information page where you’ll see a list on the right that includes “Programs/Majors.” When you choose “Programs/Majors,” you can see the number of degrees conferred by each academic department. Be sure to look under the “Bachelor” heading to learn which undergraduate majors were most — or least — popular among undergraduates. I’ve told my advisees that they may increase admission chances if they avoid the fields with the highest enrollments when selecting a major on their applications. But it’s far from an exact science, and here are some pitfalls to avoid:

1. Don’t scroll through the list and then pick the major with the fewest recent grads unless there is other evidence in your application that you truly have an interest in this area. Sure, maybe you’ve always wanted to know more about “Atmospheric Sciences,” but if nothing on your resume suggests this interest, then the choice could actually work against you. And if everything else in your profile (extracurricular activities, summer programs, essays, etc.) screams “Science,” listing “Classics” as your future major may come off as a tad disingenuous, even if you did ace Latin 3 in tenth grade.

2. Beware of death-knell departments. It’s possible that a particular major is SO under-enrolled that it’s already on the chopping block. So if you should select “Floral Management” as your number-one choice just as the major is about to be disbanded, that could work against you, too. Many colleges these days are facing economic hardships and are trying to keep their coffers flush by axing unpopular majors.

3. Don’t pin high hopes on an undersubscribed major. While selecting a field that a college wants to promote might be a small plus for a borderline candidate, it won’t help a candidate who is unqualified for admission to ANY field!

Bottom line: Don’t make gaming the system a priority as you choose your colleges and complete your applications. But if you’re considering more than one academic area as a potential major field, taking the road less traveled by might make some difference.

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