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College selection: deciding based on your intended major

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Colleges can vary considerably in their strength in specific undergraduate majors, even after controlling for overall reputation and selectivity. Individual departments are usually fairly autonomous in terms of how they hire faculty, run the graduate program, and design the undergraduate curriculum. Finances and overall university reputation do play a role in keeping the quality of individual departments relatively similar, but there are numerous exceptions.

If you are interested in a specific choice of major or concentration, it makes sense to carefully compare colleges with respect to that major. This page describes some ways to go about doing that, as well as some caveats and pitfalls to avoid.

Sidenote: the role of major in the college admissions process

  • The majority of colleges in the United States do not require or expect you to declare a major at the time of seeking admission.
  • Some colleges do require declaration of one's major or division at the time of seeking admission. Although this declaration is non-binding (students may change major later), students who are admitted are guaranteed space in their declared major or division. For instance, many state schools handle admissions for engineering and non-engineering students separately.
  • The majority of college applications are processed by the college admissions committee and not handled by individual departments. There may be exceptions, but unless you have strong reason to believe the contrary, do not expect your application for undergraduate admission to be processed by the individual department.

Factors to consider and ways of gathering information

Consider the size and selectivity of the major

  • Ceteris paribus, a better major would be more popular. If a major attracts a larger share of the undergraduate population at a college than is typical for that major at other colleges, that is a (weak) indicator of high quality.
  • One flip side of highly popular majors is lower average quality of the people in that major. However, there may be distinctions within the major -- some majors have an honors version that is considerably more selective. A good major is likely to have a large number of people taking that major, and a small but still nontrivial number of people who receive honors degrees.

Consider the quality of the graduate program

Try to get information on the ranking and other quality indicators of the graduate program in the same subject. Some reasons:

  • The quality of graduate programs and undergraduate programs are generally correlated, since they both rely on the overall quality of people and discourse in the department.
  • As an upper division undergraduate student doing the major, you're likely to be taking classes with the graduate students, getting help from them, and collaborating with them. So, the quality of both the graduate students and the coursework they are doing will matter to you.
  • The quality and range of advisers available for Ph.D. students is closely related to the quality and range of advisers available for undergraduate research and independent reading.

Get information about the undergraduate program

  • Use the university website to get a sense of the requirements for the major and for honors, as well as the course descriptions.
  • Use resources like Quora and College Confidential, as well as discussion with people already in the undergraduate program (whom you may be able to contact through Unigo or some other means) to gather information about the undergraduate program as a whole, as well as about specific courses.
  • Use the website and other methods (such as Quora, College Confidential, and Unigo) to learn about the availability of independent reading and research opportunities. For disciplines such as mathematics, independent reading opportunities are most valuable. For the physical sciences and psychology, the availability of laboratories to work in may be more valuable. Colleges differ quite a bit in the availability of these opportunities. Ceteris paribus, controlling for reputation, the size of the department positively correlates with the diversity of opportunities available.

Get information on the future prospects (career or graduate school) of people who did the major at the college

This information is generally harder to acquire, but if you can obtain it, it is useful. If you are personally more interested in going to graduate school, give more weight to information about people who went on to graduate school. Likewise if you are interested in people who entered specific careers after the major.

Beware of possible changes to your plans

Students' intended major changes frequently. This is particularly true of people whose major choice is largely a placeholder choice not driven by a deep interest in the subject. But even people with a deep interest in a subject can change their mind because they end up liking another subject better.

Consider closely related majors

Suppose you are considering majoring in mathematics because you like the subject a lot, and are currently thinking of going to mathematics academia after that. If you change your mind about academia, or about mathematics specifically, you are likely to end up in a closely related major, such as computer science or statistics. Thus, it may make sense to investigate the computer science and statistics departments in addition to the mathematics department.

Consider evergreen majors

Some majors are relatively easy to switch into and offer good career prospects. A classic example is economics, which can be a good major both for continuing to economics research and for going on to careers in finance, law, and consulting, as well as for MBA programs. Computer science is harder to switch into, but also attractive on account of the vast career options that a computer science major offers. If a college has a high-quality undergraduate program in one or more of the evergreen majors, this creates a good backup in case your plans specific to your major do not work out well.