Is it better to apply undecided or with a major? Learn the pros and cons
As your child applies to college, you might find it confusing that many college applications ask students to identify an intended major.
Your child may fear that checking “undecided” on an application will make them appear directionless, wishy-washy, or lacking in passion. On the other hand, your child might fear that choosing a major—especially one that’s competitive (e.g., computer science) or popular (e.g., psychology)—will hurt their admissions odds, or even lock them into pursuing a field about which they have doubts. How do you, as a parent, help choose?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For some applicants, applying with a major is the right call. For others, it’s better to apply with an undecided major. It all depends on your child’s particular situation.
We’ve broken down cases in which it’s better to apply with a major, and others in which it’s the best choice to mark undecided. Recognizing that this list of situations isn’t exhaustive, we’ve also included a generalized list of pros and cons of marking each to help your child reach a decision.
The important thing to remember: this portion of the application is often relatively minor when compared with portions like your child’s Common App Essay and other college essays, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and SAT or ACT scores. It’s an indication of your child’s future professional interests—but an accurate representation of who they are presently is the most important part of the application.
Part 1: When your child should indicate a major
If your child has longstanding interests, specific passions—mark a major
If your student has had an idea of what they want to do in college for several years—or since childhood—it makes sense for them to mark their desired major on the application. For example, if your child has loved biology all through middle and high school, has excelled in biology courses and biology-related extracurricular activities, and professes a strong interest in becoming a doctor one day, marking the Biology major on the application will only further show colleges that they’re serious about their passion and have a plan for when they arrive on campus.
Remember, at most liberal arts colleges and private universities, marking an intended major on an application doesn’t lock you into pursuing that major. Mostly, it signals interest. It’s a good way of showing that your child has done their research about what the school offers, and suggesting where they may belong academically if they enroll.
If your child is seeking special programs, colleges, or specific scholarships—mark a major
If your child is interested in pursuing a specific accelerated program, it’s a good idea to mark a major. According to U.S. News & World Report, if your student is interested in “a special program like a 4+1 combined bachelor’s-master’s option” declaring a major early can fast-track them into their interest area once they get to college.
Your child may even be required to apply directly to that program, or to write a special essay. Yale and Cornell, for instance, expect special supplemental essays for students applying to engineering programs, while UPenn has an entirely separate application component for their prestigious international business program, the Huntsman. Some premed or prelaw tracks may also have similar requirements, either in terms of a special essay to write or a special application process.
Certain fellowships and scholarships may be limited to certain fields. For example, if your child hopes to attend a big research university—like the University of Michigan—that has an undergraduate college of engineering as well as a college of arts & sciences, there may be scholarships dependent on matriculating at one college or the other. To be eligible for a scholarship in the college of liberal arts & sciences, they may want to select a major in that college.
Smaller, private liberal arts colleges and highly selective private universities often give students two years of exploration before declaring a major. This means that the major students declare on their application is a nice way to demonstrate interest but has little bearing on their future. It might give them an extra opportunity to write about their interest: to continue with the Yale example, marking “engineering” and writing the optional essay doesn’t lock you into that major if you matriculate.
By contrast, at larger state schools, students sometimes apply for—and are either admitted to or denied from—a specific major. At UCLA, for example, major doesn’t factor into admissions decisions when you’re applying for the College of Letters and Sciences, but it plays a large role if you’re applying to Nursing or Art and Architecture.
In this case, if your student is passionate about majors within a specific school at UCLA, they should mark the major. On the other hand, if they desperately want to attend UCLA but care less about a specific school, it might make sense to apply undecided to the College of Letters and Sciences.
Other universities—like the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign—require that students apply to specific majors, but also allow students to mark a first and second choice. So, if you’re not admitted to the competitive Business program, for example, you can mark Undeclared as your second-choice major and still have a chance of being admitted to the university—and deciding further down the line.
If your child has genuine interest in an underrepresented field—mark a major
Maybe your child has middle-of-the-road grades and scores in math and science, but their dream school is Caltech. They want to live in California, they like math and science and are good in those fields, but their true passion is for English. They can back up that interest because they’ve taken lots of English APs and edited the school literary magazine. One day, they want to be a science journalist for NPR or National Geographic. It’s a good idea to mark their interest in the English major on their application: Caltech, looking to even out their class, might take note of an unusual applicant who will add academic diversity to their community.
However, your student shouldn’t use this strategy if they don’t have a genuine interest in English, or if they don’t have the math-and-science baseline competence to apply somewhere like Caltech. This strategy is great for students with a variety of well-developed interests to stand out in admissions pools where seemingly everyone is marking “computer science” as their preferred major.
If your child has a wide variety of interests or is interested in a combination program—mark undecided
Your child is seventeen and they have a variety of interests and talents. They’ve edited the literary magazine and done Science Olympiad. They’re in theatre and they love Math Team. Unlike the Caltech applicant in the previous section, they’re applying mostly to liberal arts colleges. Colleges appreciate honesty, curiosity, and a willingness to explore intellectually. Marking undecided in this situation can demonstrate flexibility and openness to new experience to an admissions committee.
Another possibility: if the application allows your child to indicate several possibilities, they can do so across fields—say, Theater Studies, Economics, and Slavic Studies. This is a good strategy if your child can identify a throughline across those interests. Let’s say your son loves Russia, and is interested in Russia from a literary/humanities perspective and a government/economics perspective. As long as he can spend four years thinking about Russia, he’ll be happy.
Or maybe your daughter has a highly logical mind. She might choose Linguistics, Math, and Philosophy. These three wide-ranging fields would all allow her to play the kind of quantitative intellectual games that help her thrive. Marking all three and indicating somewhere else in her application that there’s something holding these varied concerns together will be not only acceptable but actually impressive.
Another possibility for the logical daughter is choosing a unique interdisciplinary program, for instance, Ethics, Politics, and Economics (a Yale program) or Social Studies (Harvard) or even the Interdisciplinary Major Program (USC).
If your child has difficulty articulating what connects all of their interests, it’s fine for them to mark undecided.
If your child is on the fence about special programs, majors, or colleges—mark undecided
Some rigorous undergraduate programs—like the Business and Political Economy major at New York University—have students apply. If admitted to such a program, it may be difficult to transfer internally to different schools or majors.
However, there is a limited possibility of internal transfer if a student is admitted to NYU as an undeclared major but wants to transfer into the BPE program. Basically, if your child isn’t 100% sure they want to do a specific major, and admission is offered specifically for that major, they should steer away from marking that major. It may be easier to transfer into a major later than it is to transfer out.
This isn’t always the case. UPenn’s prestigious Huntsman program doesn’t accept any transfer applicants—you’re in freshman year or not at all. Doing some research on statistics for transferring colleges is helpful.
It’s easier to transfer internally at some colleges than it is at others. If your child is applying to a university like Cornell, where it’s relatively seamless to transfer internally, marking a major regardless of certainty may be okay.
By contrast, if your child is applying somewhere where internal transfer is more difficult—like the University of Texas-Austin—it may be best to mark undeclared.
Part 2: Pros and Cons of Indicating a Major
Demonstrates interest, direction, passion. This is especially valuable at highly selective liberal arts colleges and Ivy League universities who are looking to build a balanced class with diverse academic interests. These schools are also unlikely to hold you accountable for the major you mark on an application.
Demonstrates knowledge of a college’s academic offerings. If a student can demonstrate interest in a particular major—and expand on that interest in an interview or essay—it shows admissions officers that the student has taken the time to research the college’s academic offerings and is a serious applicant.
Makes your child eligible for certain schools, programs, scholarships. If your child is applying to a big university and is only interested in the Film School, for example, checking a major allows them to be considered by the program in which they’re interested.
Gives them a direction once on campus. By doing some of the work of considering which major to choose before matriculating, their freshman year may have more focus and direction than if they were to enter completely undecided.
Locks your child into a specific focus. If they’re admitted to a specific selective major, it may be hard to explore other interests—and transfer out of the major for which they were admitted.
May hurt admissions odds if marking a competitive major. If your student is applying somewhere like The University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and puts two highly-competitive majors as their first and second choices, it could hurt their overall chances of admission. That said, if your child has achieved at a high level in academics and extracurricular activities related to that subject, they could mark competitive majors and still have a strong chance of getting in.
Can seem dishonest. If your child marks a major strategically, rather than out of real interest, it can call the integrity of their application into question. And crucially, admissions officers look for continuity and consistency in applications. If your child has focused more on science coursework throughout high school and their Common App essay is all about their love of building homemade skateboards but they mark only Spanish, rather than a STEM major, admissions officers might have some questions.
If your child has a variety of interests and isn’t yet sure which ones to pursue, it’s best to mark “undecided” or “undeclared”—and demonstrate curiosity/flexibility.
Part 3: Considering Essay Questions
Perhaps most importantly, your child should use the space available to them in the application to tell a story of their interests, passions, and goals, regardless of whether or not they’re committed to a major.
Some schools will offer applicants a chance to write a whole essay about why they’ve chosen their particular major. That’s not an opportunity to waste. Your child should write eloquently and with verve about an intellectual and emotional connection they have to a set of interests or a given discipline.
But even if there’s no specific question about interests, you should encourage your child to paint a picture of their academic inclinations through their personal statement, Common App Activities section, Common App Additional Information section, and supplemental essays. An admissions officer wants to put down your child’s file with a sense of what makes them tick. Academics—and their manifestation in college majors—are a huge part of that.
The bottom line: unless your child is applying to a university that requires them to apply for admission to a certain major or school, it’s up to them whether or not they want to apply as an undecided major. There’s no harm in marking undeclared—in fact, if it’s the honest answer, it’s the best answer.