“Will my admissions chances improve if I pick an odd major?”

Occasionally, a family will ask us if a student's chances of admission will improve if she selects an odd major.  The thinking here is that there are so many "business" and "psychology" and "engineering" majors applying to college, you might have a better chance in a lot less popular major, like "forestry" or "food science" or "viticulture" (it's wine making, and don't laugh–it's a real major).

And yes, this can improve your chances…if you've walked your talk. 

A student who's shown a real interest in forestry, who's taken AP Bio and AP chemistry, who's volunteered for the parks service over the summer, who gives tours of the local wilderness park on the weekend, and who has a great answer to the "Why are you applying to this college?" question that includes a good knowledge of the forestry program, that student has an advantage.  She's a good fit for a program that's not a popular one, and the standards of admission for her might be less rigorous then they would for someone applying as a more popular major.

I'm sure there are cases where a less qualified student applied under an odd major with no intention of ever actually studying "soil science" and managed to slip in.  But is it worth the risk to do that?  Do you want to go to any school badly enough to fake your way in?  That's like pretending to love The Beatles just because a girl you desperately want to date is a huge fan of them.  Sure, it might work, but it's also kind of pathetic.  And just like she might expect you to listen to A Hard Days Night non stop once you're together, what if you have to spend a year or two as a "soil science" major before the college will let you switch.  Is it worth it?  I don't think it is. 

Think a lot about what you want to study in college.  Be a mature college shopper who understands that what you learn in college is important.  Pick colleges that match your interests. And don't try to fake your way in by pretending to be something you're not.  

Is it OK to apply as an “Undecided” major?

Some students who aren't sure what they want to study in college worry that colleges might hold that uncertainty against them.  They wonder if applying as an "undecided/undeclared" major makes them less appealing than an applicant who's declaring what she wants to study.

Thankfully, as long as you're applying to the right colleges, you won't have to worry.

Colleges that offer the undecided/undeclared option are perfectly OK with students choosing it.  It's a college's way of telling you that they don't expect every seventeen year-old to know what you want to do with your life.  They'll probably have you take general education requirements, the classes that everyone has to take regardless of their major, so you can try different things.  And as long as you select a major by the end of your sophomore year, you'll be fine.

Not all colleges offer the undecided option.  Lots of schools see their mission as one to help you reach a career that you've identified (Northeastern, Drexel and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are good examples of colleges that do this).  When schools like those ask you what you want to study, you need to have an answer.  

But for colleges that offer an "undecided" option, be confident that you're uncertainty is OK.  If they ask you to describe your academic interests, tell them what you're considering studying and why you'd like to keep your options open.  You should be thinking about those things, but the right colleges won't hold it against you if you don't have an answer yet. 

Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?

In my next few posts I'm going to tackle some common questions about if and how the major you select impacts your chances of admission.  I'll start with, "Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?"

The answer is, "At some colleges, yes."

At some colleges, certain popular majors are "impacted."  "Impacted" majors have more interested students than they can accommodate.  It's like arriving at a party that can hold 50 people, but 100 people are already in line to get in.  It would be much easier to get into one of the other, less popular parties.

Not all colleges have impacted majors.  But those who do usually don't try to keep it a secret.  If you want to know if a major is impacted, a quick call to the admissions office will get you your answer.  

So here's the follow up question.  "If the major I want is impacted, should I apply with a less competitive major and then change once I get there?"

It's important to remember that an impacted major isn't just impacted for high school students who are applying; it's also impacted for students who are already enrolled at the college and hope to get into that major. That means you could spend four years at the college and still not get into your chosen major.

If you're going to college because you want to be a journalist, and you've picked your colleges based on the strength of their journalism programs, it wouldn't make sense for you to apply under a different major to any school just so you can get in.

But if you're just considering a particular major and aren't necessarily sure whether or not you'll like it, you might pick a less popular major at some of your schools so you don't unnecessarily weaken your chances of admission. 

Tomorrow: "Is it OK to apply as an 'undecided' major?"

Does the senior year count in college admissions?

Students often ask us how the classes and grades from their senior year are factored into colleges' admissions decisions.  Here's the answer. 

1.  Any college you apply to this fall will ask you what classes you're taking, and what classes you plan on taking second semester.  They want to see that you're still challenging yourself. 

2.  Some, but not all, colleges will ask to see your grades from the first semester of your senior year (the 7th semester) before they make an admissions decision.  If you apply to those colleges, the grades you get in your first semester can help or hurt your admissions chances.  Hint: you can go to the admissions sections on colleges' websites and see if they'll ask for 7th semester transcripts for admissions.   

3.  Any college that admits you will ask to see your transcripts from both semesters of your senior year.  If you swapped out your hard classes for easy ones, or if you let your grades drop substantially, that can jeopardize your admission.

So for soon to be seniors, take the hardest classes you can reasonably handle while still enjoying your activities and a good night's sleep most nights.  Keep working hard and showing colleges what you're capable of achieving in your classes.  It will help you get into some schools and keep your admissions valid for any who accept you. 

AP or IB?

Students and parents often ask us which program is better, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB).  It's one of those questions for which there is no right answer.  Neither program offers more inherent college admissions advantages than the other.

Jay Mathews, a constant source of reason and just plain good sense on the subject of college admissions, has an interesting article tackling this question.  Here's my favorite part:

"One of my heroes on this issue was Harlan “Harpo” Hanson, a big man
with a dry wit who was once both the director of AP for the College
Board and a force behind the first big grant for IB in the United
States. He had four children. He gave each teen the facts about the two
programs and let them decide. Two chose IB. Two chose AP. In each case,
Hanson said, they made the right decision
."

From our student of the month…

We recently started nominating a “Student of the Month” in our office.  But our nominations have nothing to do with grades, test scores or accomplishments; it’s all about the students’ attitude towards the college process.  Are they engaged in their college search?  Do they research colleges and try to find the right fit, even at schools they haven’t heard of?  Are they excited about the opportunity to go to college, even if the school isn’t a famous one?  Those are the students of the month we’re looking for.

Our most recent nominee has a good system for discussing her college choices with her parents.  Here’s what she told us:

I just have different conversations with each of my parents. My mom spent most of her college days in the UCLA library.  So when I am
considering a college, I tell her the first thing I look at is how vast their library is. With my dad, who claims to not even know where the library is at his alma mater, Oregon State (the “Harvard of the West”, as he constantly calls it), I tell him that the first thing I look at is how their football team ranked in the SCC or PAC-10.  Well it’s a good thing the University of Florida has both, or else they’d figure out my secret!

That’s a smart kid.

Still need a college to attend next fall?

According to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) "Space Availability Survey" released today, there are currently 226 four-year colleges who have room for freshmen and will still accept applications for fall 2010 admission (240 have room for transfers).  Almost all of them also still have housing and financial aid to give. 

If you still need a college to attend next fall, this is good news. 

The survey is here.  Thanks to Allison for finding it approximately two-and-a-half seconds after it was released. 

Parent involvement in college applications

From Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond

"What admissions officers look for most in an application is authenticity. An authentic voice is very clearly recognized by an experienced staff member who reads hundreds of applications each year.  The problem, however, is that we find far fewer authentic voices now, probably because so many applications have been coached to be something that others think the college desires, to be something other than who they really are.  Admissions officers everywhere tell students to be themselves in the application–and we really mean it because we have a tendency to eschew the overly packaged candidate.  Parents often do not realize that when they get overly involved in their child's application–when they help write the essays, for example, or dictate how their son or daughter should answer the questions–they can actually contaminate their child's authentic voice. Admissions officers may not see the match if the application reflects a mixture of the student and other adults pretending to be the student."

Marilee Jones

Former Dean of Admissions, MIT

A message for the senior class of 2010

If you’re a high
school senior, you've likely decided where you're going to college (and
you probably won't have much reason to read our blog for long).  So
before you go, let me just say–congratulations.  You did it.  I hope you've taken some time to celebrate the fact that you're going to college, wherever is is that you'll be going.

Believe me, you've got a lot to look forward to.

Whether
or not you
were admitted to your first choice school, you’re going to
take classes that you actually want to take.  You’re going to learn from
professors who have dedicated their professional lives to one
particular subject and are willing to share their knowledge with you.
You’re going to go to
parties.  Good ones.  You’re going to date. 
A lot.  You’re going to
meet more new people and make more new friends than you’ve ever had the
opportunity to meet in your life.  Some of those friends will be in your
life forever.  Some will stand at your wedding one day.  Some will play
with your kids and tell them how you both pulled an all-nighter in your
dorm studying for your chemistry final or took a road trip for spring
break.  It's going to be a great four years as long as you commit to
making them great.

Great college experiences are equal opportunity employers; they do
not discriminate on the basis
of where your school ranks of the US News "Best College" list.  So if you're not excited yet, it's time to get there.  Wherever you go, the opportunities will be there waiting for you to take them. 

But remember, you
don't get to do a first draft of college.  Wherever you're going,
don't waste the next four years.  Lean into them.  Get all the learning
and fun out of them that you can.  You deserve it.

Thanks for reading our blog,
congratulations, and have a great time in college.