Should Students Declare a Major on College Applications?

From our ongoing 'College Transitions' series
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Photo courtesy of Bryan Pollard/
Duke University, Old Chemistry Academic Building

The act of formulating a clear and decisive plan is as valorized in the college admissions process as it is in most other realms of American life. Highly selective colleges do generally give an edge to students who profess to have figured out their whole professional life by the tender of age of 18 — and possess a track record of activities and achievements consistent with those stated plans. Hence, applicants often feel pressured to list an intended major on their application even if, internally, the compass guiding their future path is spinning like a pinwheel in a windstorm.

To begin tackling this issue, we’ll explore whether or not applicants are locked into the major they list on their college applications.


Is Your Student Allowed to Change Majors After Being Accepted?

Let’s go right to the source on this one and hear from a few uber-elite institutions that know their applicants are having night terrors and heart palpitations about this very subject. 

MIT states: “Students apply to MIT for general admission and select a major at the end of the first year with the help of their first year advisor.” They do ask applicants to list a “course of interest” but explain that this has no bearing on admissions decisions, acknowledging that “a large percentage of students at MIT end up majoring in something other than what they listed as their field of interest as applicants.”

Similarly, Princeton University does not bind students in any way to the intended concentration they declare on their application. In fact, the university freely shares that 70% of Tiger graduates earn their degree in an area different from what they listed four years prior on their application. While many schools, even the most academically demanding in the country (like MIT and Princeton University), aren’t expecting your student to chart his or her academic course prior to even setting foot in a college classroom, other institutions will require your student to select a particular undergraduate school on his or her application — and that’s where things get murkier and more strategic.


Universities That Require Students to Apply to a Specific School

At a liberal arts college, moving between departments is typically quite easy. At a larger university that houses a number of schools/colleges — particularly ones with highly variable admissions standards — this may be quite challenging. Large flagships like the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Michigan or the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as large private research institutions like Cornell University, Boston University or Washington University in St. Louis, require you to apply directly to certain schools or colleges. 

For example, Dyson (Cornell University), Questrom (Boston University) and Olin (Washington University) business schools are all “direct admit” institutions, meaning that students apply specifically for entrance into that school. The three state universities referenced above all require you to apply directly to their colleges of engineering.

Fortunately, even at these highly-selective universities, switching majors within your given college is unlikely to cause trouble. A student at the University of Pennsylvania’s vaunted Wharton School of Business can freely change their area of concentration from accounting to behavioral economics. On the other hand, switching from the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences into Wharton School of Business involves another harrowing admissions process after one’s freshman year.

Here are the policies in place at some of the universities in North Carolina and nearby states.

North Carolina State University: Students wishing to study engineering or life sciences must declare those majors on their application. Everyone else enjoys greater mobility between areas of concentration. 

UNC-Chapel Hill: This university has a number of more selective majors, such as those within the prestigious Kenan-Flager Business School. There is an option to enter as a business major through an “Assured Admission” program. Anyone declaring a business major thereafter must apply post-freshman year. 

Duke University: All applicants must apply to Trinity College of Arts & Sciences or the Pratt School of Engineering. Changing majors within those schools is fairly easy. 

Virginia Tech: Majors that are “restricted” include all programs in engineering, many business programs, architecture, studio art and human nutrition. Restricted majors are those that require an additional application process in order to move into that program (even for those students who are already admitted into the general university).

Clemson University: Business and engineering students must spend their freshman year on pre-business and general engineering tracks. 

The University of Virginia: Undergraduates are admitted to a particular school at UVA and can change/declare majors once admitted to that specific college. 

University of South Carolina: Movement between colleges is fairly easy at this institution. For example, current students seeking to transfer to the College of Engineering and Computing only need a 2.5 GPA and “C” grade in one calculus course. 


Quick Recap

In short, most students need not fret about what major they list on their college application. If they choose to list an intended area of study, they should do so in an area that makes sense, given the other particulars of their application (i.e. extracurricular activities, course selection, honors and distinctions, etc.). Generally, they will be able to easily change their major at a liberal arts college, but are likely to encounter more difficulty transferring into a highly-competitive school at a larger university.


Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at


Categories: College Planning