Major Leverage

Some students go into the admissions process with the strategy of declaring a strange, off-the-beaten-track type major that will bolster their chances of getting into a selective school which otherwise would likely reject their candidacy.

The idea is once they’re in they’ll change their major with the advantage of being in the system not outside of it.

For most of the liberal arts colleges such as Middlebury, Pomona College, or Davidson, this strategy won’t work. While these schools have to balance their classes, ensuring an ample number of students are spread amongst their majors, their admissions decisions are based more upon the candidate than the intended major. Most of the liberal arts colleges actively encourage students to broadly sample subjects before declaring a major. So even if a student intends to major in biostatistics or Swahili Studies it’s probably not going to sway a decision.

The exception to this might be if a candidate has an arcane specialty, such as mastery of Greek and Latin, and has a record of accomplishment like publishing a new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Princeton’s Department of Classics might look favorably upon the applicant for its Classic’s track, as probably would Holy Cross. Yet, it’s a rare major that is going to upend the system and change the playing field for a candidate lacking in key admissions criteria.

Then there are schools that are going to hold you to whichever major you declare at the outset. Cal Poly SLO is one such university. SLO, however, does have a change of major application (ICMA), which first lets potential switchers know that all the majors at SLO are impacted (there are more students than seats for the major). Then continues: “Students who are unable to change into their desired majors might also need to consider applying to another university in the major of their choice.” There is little to no major leverage at SLO.  

Yet there are universities in which applying for a major in, say, theatrical design, might then be switched to a major in business administration with an emphasis in cinematic arts. USC is one. Head into the annals of College Confidential website and you’ll find postings mentioning, “I have been contacting USC and Marshall School of Business to see if I could change my major from art at Roski School of Fine Arts to Business Administration at Marshall.” There are cases of students seeking entry into the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) who first arrived as Sociology majors or Narrative Studies majors in the Dornsife College of Arts and Sciences. While none of this indicates such transfers are common or easily gained, they are happening and students are indeed leveraging majors to work their way into more selective departments.

One might gain admission to Cornell with its seven undergraduate colleges through its College of Ecology with a major in Fiber Science and Apparel Design and from there seek admission into one of the more competitive departments. To abet the switch there is an extensive website dedicated to internal transfers. One FAQ is, “Is it hard to transfer within Cornell?” Answer: “No, in most cases it is not difficult, as long as you fulfill all the requirements for the internal transfer given by your target college.” This is reinforced by Ellie Bayles, one of the peer mentors on the internal transfer site. She exhorts all, “if you find your true calling and it’s outside your current college, don’t be scared to go for it!”

Is it possible to game a university’s admissions process by placing on the application a less competitive or obscure major and then switching soon after gaining admission? It is probably not easy, and it certainly depends on where, but it’s not impossible. What is most important is to find a discipline that ignites a burning inquiry; how one discovers a major that evokes passion is only limited my how passionately one searches. Methods do vary.