Do I Need to Know My Major Before Applying to College?

Do I Need to Know My Major Before Applying to College?

At seventeen or eighteen years old, many people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. And of the people who do know, many end up changing their minds. So whether you know or have no idea, you’re actually right on track.

That said, college applications do ask you to select a major.

So, when applying to colleges, is it better to declare a major or not?

This is one of those questions that has no one-size-fits-all answer because it really depends on several factors. In short, it depends on which school and which major. Your most immediate concern should be whether you are interested in a popular (i.e. overcrowded and therefore “selective”/“impacted”/“capped”) major, such as engineering or biological sciences. You’ll need to check with individual colleges to find out which majors fall into this category.

To help you decide whether to definitely declare, maybe declare, or not declare a major, here are some considerations:

For Selective Majors

Definitely Declare:
Some selective majors at some schools are not possible to transfer into later, so, in these cases, you must declare them on your college application. Again, please check with the individual campus for specific restrictions.

Maybe Declare:
At some colleges, you can transfer into a selective major, but the major may have lots of class requirements that you’d need to start taking as early as freshman year. Starting later could delay graduation, which would also cost more.

Don’t Declare:
Not declaring may benefit you if there are requirements, such as a minimum GPA, for transferring into selective majors. You can take freshman year as an opportunity to prove your competence in the subject material so that you’re ready when you do apply to the major. You could also take this time to decide if you’re seriously interested in the major.

Also, keep in mind that selective majors may have additional admissions requirements, such as particular SAT Subject Tests.

Bottom line: Check with individual colleges for specifics!

For All Other Majors

Definitely Declare:
Some universities require you to list a first-choice major and some backups. If that’s the case, choose whichever major you think you’re interested in pursuing. You can always change your mind later. In fact, about 80 percent of college students change their major at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

(Another benefit of knowing your major is that some schools have major-specific scholarships, which could mean additional tuition money!)

Maybe Declare:
Just as it may be harder to get into a school when applying with a competitive major, it may be slightly easier to get in if your major isn’t so popular. This is likely true for schools who will review your application along with others who have declared the same major. Declaring a major could also slightly help since it demonstrates to admissions officers that you are dedicated to your interests and have thought about your future goals (even though you can, of course, always change these goals).

Don’t Declare:
The first two years or so of college, you will mainly be working to fulfill general education requirements, so even if you don’t have a major, you will still be earning credits toward your degree. Leaving your options open can encourage you to explore fields you may have never even heard of. This is your time to try new things and find out or confirm what you truly like, not what you think you are supposed to like.

Through all your exploration, my hope is that you enjoy yourself and eventually do what you are genuinely passionate about. If you love it, you’ll put everything you have into it, you’ll be really good at it, and then success will have little choice but to follow.


Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance.