Preparing for College

Will "Undecided" Major on Applications Hurt Admission Odds?

Question: My son is not sure yet what his major will be but he knows it will science-related, and maybe engineering. Will that hurt him during the application process when he is asked to specify a discipline?

When the choice of major that the candidate indicates on the application is not binding (i.e., the student is not making a formal commitment to it), then I always advise students to write down something rather than answering "undecided." It usually works in a student's favor to show that he or she does have specific interests and for the admissions committees to have at least an inkling of what these interests are. Since most applications allow space for two or three prospective majors, the student can toss out a range of options which may be similar to each other (e.g., math, computer science, physics) or not at all (e.g., Spanish, chemistry, art history).

But ... at some institutions, candidates are applying to a specific major or program, and thus the choice is important. It is usually changeable down the road, once the student has matriculated, but often such changes come with hassles. At these colleges, most students can get out of a major they don't like, but they can't always get into the one they prefer. So, the first step for your son is to distinguish between the colleges on his list where his choices are expected to be binding and those where they aren't.

Moreover, because one of your son's possible majors is engineering, this can be a whole different--and more complicated--ball of wax. Most universities have separate colleges of engineering. Thus, a student who wants to be a biology or chem major might be applying to the "College of Arts & Sciences" while an aspiring engineering might be applying to a completely separate "College of Engineering" within the institution. So, by throwing engineering into the mix, your son's quandary becomes more complex.

Unfortunately, his best bet is to contact all of the colleges on his list and find out:

-if the choice he indicates on his application is binding

-if a possible engineering major means applying to a separate program or school within the institution

-if the college allows a first and second choice, when the major on the application is binding

-how the college responds to students who list "Undecided" as their choice but may possibly want to go into engineering

He may find this information on college Web sites, but--if this turns into too much of a treasure hunt--he should contact the admission office directly. He may also want to contact each engineering department directly, too, to find out their policies on when and how an undergrad who is truly undecided needs to make a commitment to this discipline. I think your son would have an easier time if he were stuck between political science and English lit. ;-)