Of Major Importance: Student Designed Majors

A perennial question arises with each admissions cycle: ‘does the major I declare on the application affect my candidacy?’ Point blank answer: in approximately 99.6% of the cases, no. Most admissions officers realize that 80% or more of their freshman class will change majors at least once before the end of sophomore year. Consequently, whether you elect to major in sociology or chemistry, even if the department is impacted, it will not affect your admission chances. One of the 0.4% exceptions would be a major in Classical Literature, with the candidate under consideration having recently translated Virgil’s Aeneid.  Such major instances, however, are rare.            

This fact should lead most candidates to the conclusion that it really doesn’t pay to ‘game’ the system by attempting to declare a less popular major, getting in, and then trying to angle their way into a more appropriate major.  Yet, students continue to declare a major in computer science on one school’s application, art on another, and theater on yet another.  The problem with doing this is that their applications will not support their potential across all these majors, which means the credibility of their applications becomes suspect. Try to avoid such misguided efforts.

Instead, there is another approach that involves quite a bit of work, but then all good things do: design your own major. Even though it cannot be put into effect until well after you matriculate, it still might be worth mentioning somewhere on your application. Even the mere contemplation and discussion of SDM shows thought and initiative, and colleges tend to like both. Ms. Sue Shellenbarger wrote a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that gives a sense of what’s involved, Can’t Pick a College Major? Create One. Ms. Shellenbarger notes that over 900 colleges offer (SDMs). You can find a complete listing in the CollegeBoard’s Book of Majors. I didn’t count the number of schools, but it’s a formidable sum, and it includes virtually all the heavy hitters: the Ivy Leagues, Duke, University of Chicago, Northwestern, most of the University of California schools.

The process of designing your own major takes work and salesmanship. First off, as Seattle Pacific University mentions on its SDM site, students wishing to design their own majors must show ‘high academic achievement.’ Then, they will need to find a faculty advisor who is willing to make the extra effort to work with them. This faculty advisor will have to be convinced that they’ve carefully reviewed the classes and learning experiences available on campus. Once approved, they then will need to fill out the appropriate application form that explains their proposed programs, statements of purpose, and that research has been done to determine courses and learning experiences that will integrate content and skills from various disciplines into their SDM.  Creating a SDM shows initiative, energy, and passion for a subject. All these attributes, as mentioned, are in high demand among colleges and future employers. Take a shot.

One example Ms. Shellenbarger references is Will Shortz (who heads the NY Times Crossword Puzzle, and is featured on National Public Radio on Sundays presenting brain twisters to contestants). Mr. Shortz graduated with a SDM degree in enigmatology (the study of puzzles) from Indiana University in 1974. His selection of courses included a generous dose of game theory, statistics, design… and it suited his purposes, obviously, quite well.

The IECA each year publishes a list of ‘Top 10 Characteristics…Colleges Look for in Candidates,’ which can be found at: http://www.educationalconsulting.org/PDF/IECA_CollegeTopTenList.pdf. Not a mention of intended major appears, nor has it ever appeared on any earlier lists. This is not to say that selecting or, if you’re really engaged, designing a major, is not extremely important, it is. Do what intrigues you, not what you think might intrigue the admissions officers. It will make all the difference in the world to the most important person in the world, you.