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Image from Pexels

The Common App (and other college application systems) typically ask you for your intended major when you sign up. It seems like a very easy question, but it gets tricky really quickly. Should you put down a different major than your actual intended one because it looks better on your application? Is that even right? Will colleges hold you to your decision?

My Experience

I will be going to a school that is renowned for its engineering program. Two months after sending in my decision on the scary May 1st deadline, I am tired of explaining to everyone that yes, I really do want to major in communications and that junior year will not see me changing my major in favor of an alternative technical major (the merits of majoring in a field notorious for its low job prospects is another affair).

In contrast is Stanford’s engineering program, which is often used by students to gain admission into the top college so they can conveniently choose the major they wanted all along. Of course, this program is highly selective in its own right, but for the students targeting these colleges, it is a viable option, and applying to the “easy” program is a way of getting an additional edge.

This then is the increasingly popular method of getting into colleges that you may have missed by a hair’s breadth. Usual suspects for this tactic include those with typically low enrollment such as Anthropology, Classics, any kind of ethnic or cultural studies (Asian/American/African Studies), Film studies, Gender studies, History, language majors like Greek and Latin, Library Sciences, Philosophy, Romantic Literature, Theology and the performing arts like Theater and Dance.

Does It Always Work?

Schools seem to be taking measures against this counter-productive trend. For instance, over at the University of Pennsylvania, transfer students to certain programs such as the communications major in the Annenberg School of Communication are not allowed to change their major.

This is understandable from the school’s perspective. They want to have an incoming class that is balanced and individual classes where students work well together to discuss the material from different perspectives and truly learn, introspectively. Numbers-wise, they want as many well-ranked programs as they can, and high enrolment numbers are an indication of a class’s success.

Matters of Ethics

Moreover, most schools have certain parameters that they do not go below, a minimum level of proficiency they demand from all their students. In such a case, with the hyper-competitive world as the one we live in today, where every point in our favour counts, where is the line of ethicality? A lot of schools don’t even place any importance to your major, but look at you holistically as a student. Putting a major down that you would not be interested in here would not only be unethical in the eyes of some people, but it is not even an intelligent college move, particularly because you do not know the process of changing your major, which may be difficult at that school.

So this is another way of looking it: could it be detrimental to apply for a major you are not interested in? The college saw you to be a fit for it, someone who would complement the rest of the class in ability and personality. The same may not be said of the major you may want to switch into, and you may not do as well in that major, being unable to handle the work. However, the school would be blameless in this, because they admitted you for a different major altogether.

Colleges: They Know

Another way in which employing this tactic may harm you is that you must remember that colleges have a lot of experience looking at applications, and they see thousands every year. If your resume screams science, right down to an internship in a pharmacy but your intended major is English, they will know that something is up, and while you may have gotten through to the pre-med or pharmaceutical sciences program of your own account, now your application would be thrown aside purely because colleges want personable individuals too and such a ploy may not come across as totally honest to the admissions office.

In any case, if we say that due to the competitive nature of the job market today, it is completely allowable to take what we can get to get ahead, what with the evaluation of the student as an academic, you are not really being more moral by applying to less competitive major. A student who would have anyway have gotten in does not face this battle of principles. Schools that have Divisions of General Studies and Undecided majors bring this concept to life. It is the borderline cases that come under fire for the morality of this decision.

On the other end are the other borderline students who you have taken the spot from, who may have genuinely wanted to major in that subject. While major type is not a deciding factor, in the unlikely (or likely, looking at application numbers) scenario that you are up against an applicant with the same stats and even similar extracurricular interests, we do not know how important the factor may be, especially because different colleges attach different levels of importance to it.

To conclude, because ethics are a personal decision, there is no right or wrong here, but this tactic may not always serve you well, so be careful. You’re smart, but colleges have been doing this for a lot longer.

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