How to Pick a Major in the Common App: Using the Future Plans Section
March 28, 2019
How to Choose a Major on the Common App: Using the Future Plans Section
You’re answering the typical demographic questions on the Common App and moving on to the next section. As you’re filling out your grades and other educational information, you come across a section labeled “Future Plans.” Wait, colleges already want to know what you plan to do after graduation? It’s hard enough deciding where you want to apply in the first place!
Actually, if done strategically, you can use the “Future Plans” section in your application to show not only your individuality but your maturity and depth of thought. I’ll start with a couple of dos and don’ts of how to choose your major in the Common App, list a few examples that you can adapt for your own experience to make the best out of this seemingly daunting section, and finally, guide you through how to go about making the selection at different schools when the time comes to actually pick your major.
- Do list a career that is as specific as you possibly can in your Future Plans section. Colleges want to know that you have put thought and research into your ideal future job. This can be completely aspirational, don’t be shy to go into details - the sky is truly the limit.
Here’s an example of how to choose a major and future career on the Common App. Say you’re interested in being a biology major. Biology is an enormous field with many subspecialties and numerous career paths. The Future Plans section allows you to show the distinct focus of your interest in biology. Perhaps you want to put your biology background to use as a scientific researcher. Maybe your dream is to go to veterinary school. You might even become a conservationist. All of these unique options will stand out and make your profile much more interesting to an admissions officer than just stating biology.
- Do feel free to use the “Other” category to list a more specific career plan. The list of potential careers that the Common App allows you to choose from is in some ways incredibly vague and, in others, bizarrely specific. For example, you could select two different types of Clergy, but you have no options for banking. The “Other” category gives you the freedom to be truly creative. Show that you have given some thought about your career and know about specialized career options in your field. Specifying a unique career path will help you stand out -- you may be the only candidate who chose the career that you listed!
We had a student interested in the music business, who hoped to become the founder of a record label. Instead of listing that she was interested in the more predictable position of “Business Executive,” she took advantage of the “Other” option and then listed “Music Industry Entrepreneur.” This future plan was perfectly aligned with the rest of her application and helped her stand out as a student with a big but clear dream.
- Do consider changing this section depending on the major you list at different schools. Just because you’re filling out the Common App, doesn’t mean that you have to use exact same version for every submission. When thinking about how to choose a major on the Common App, know that different universities have varying names for different majors, and this may affect the way that you want to portray your future plans as well.
For instance, you may apply for the Behavioral Decision Sciences concentration at Brown, which is a distinctive program not offered at many schools. For your Future Plans section on the Brown application, consider listing “Other - Management Consultant.” Now, you might also apply to Dartmouth for the related, but distinct “Psychological and Brain Sciences” major. On this application, it might be more appropriate to list your future plans as “Clinical Psychologist.” Be strategic when considering how to choose a major on the Common App!
- Don’t list that you are Undecided. This shows that you haven’t given much thought to your future plans and have not focused your interests enough in high school. For most students who are seniors in high school, their future plans truly are undecided, and that’s completely normal. Admissions officers understand that conceptions of your future will probably change! However, you should still avoid the option, and instead choose something that is cohesive with your application persona - the theme of your application. By listing a major or career in the Common App, you don’t actually have to commit! You are only bound to your major choice if you are applying to a specific program at a university that requires this declaration (i.e. many engineering or nursing schools). Understand that in these situations, the choice will commit you to a clear academic and career path when deciding how to choose a major on the Common App!
If you’re a student applying as a film major, it will seem quite unusual that you haven’t thought about your future career. To an admissions officer, a student who goes into a specific field without a concrete long-term vision seems unfocused. On the flip side, if that same Film major lists their future plans as “Other - Documentary Filmmaker,” the admissions officer sees an ambitious student.
- Don’t say that you are interested in a career that requires graduate degrees without mentioning that you intend to attain those degrees in the second part of the question. Not doing so comes across as ignorance regarding the requirements of your career of interest.
If you intend to become a school principal or superintendent, you may not realize that you’ll need advanced degrees in order to do so. By researching your career ideas, you will be able to list that you hope to gain at least a Master’s degree for this career path.
- Don’t list a career that is divergent from the application persona connecting the rest of your materials. You’ll want to list a future plan that shows a clear trajectory from the work you have done in high school, to the work you intend to do in college, to your next step.
For example, say that you have spent most of your high school career focused on advocating for immigrant rights. You’ve volunteered for immigrant groups and spent time paging for politicians who also campaign for immigrant rights. You’ll want both your major and your Future Plans section to be consistent with your current work. Listing “Policymaker/government” for instance shows a sustained commitment to a consistent career arc in advocating for political change.
Declaring a Major at Different Schools
Now that you have a clearer picture of how to choose a major on the Common App, it’s time to look at how the declaration process works once you’re actually in college. At most schools, your choice of major on the Common App does not impact what you actually end up studying in college and you can change your mind. Sometimes, however, you might have to apply to a specific college within a university, so it does limit your choice to an extent. Let’s walk through the protocols at three different schools (one major public university, one Ivy League school, and one liberal arts college) to show you representative samples of how the process actually works.
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
At UIUC, you have to apply to one of the 12 undergraduate colleges within the university. So, if you select the Grainger College of Engineering on the Common App, you’ll be given a choice of majors such as “Materials Science & Engineering” and “Agricultural & Biological Engineering.” Even though you’ll have up to the start of your junior year to declare once you’re there, your options will still be limited to the engineering campus. You might end up picking “Bioengineering” instead, and that’s absolutely okay. But you can’t choose “Instrumental Music” because that falls under a completely different college. Selecting a major in a different college typical requires a transfer application process. So, when thinking about how to choose a major on the Common App, also carefully consider different schools within an institution and whether you’ll be happy with the course catalog.
Similar to UIUC, Yale students are expected to declare a major no later than the start of their junior year. Yale suggests that its students do so in the Fall term. Yale does not offer minors, but students are able to double major with the permission of their residential college deans. There are no shortcuts in this process, and each major needs to be completed independently of the other with no more than two courses overlapping (in other words, you have to independently satisfy requirements for both majors). Upon declaring a major, Yale assigns you a faculty advisor from that department to help you plan out your major and approve your course schedules in your junior and senior years.
Yale encourages exploration in the first two years within the boundaries of its distributive requirements which are designed to ensure that students enjoy a baseline in the diversity of course offerings. On its advising website for major selection, Yale tells students: “Sophomore year is the last time to really explore. As a sophomore, you can just enjoy your classes and at the same time think about which direction you might want to go in life. It’s OK if you don’t have your entire life planned by now. Most will change their minds anyways.”
The idea here is that you’ll take classes over your first couple of years to get accustomed to what your future major might be like, and that the university does not expect you to make a concrete decision right when you set foot on campus. On the contrary, they give you half of your time in college to figure it out and make the right decision for yourself!
As a high school student applying to college, you should not be excessively worried about how to choose a major on the Common App, whether you’ll double major, or major and minor. You should be focused on one or two areas of passion and excelling within those areas to make yourself a standout applicant. When you are doing school research and building your list of target schools, hone in on colleges with strengths in those disciplines. You can also look at specialty programs that embody your interest, but certainly, don’t need to make a choice upfront and apply to those majors.
Amherst features a completely open curriculum, which means that there are no distribution requirements (unlike Yale) and no core curriculum. With no central curricular requirements, it’s easier for Amherst students to double major and still have enough time to explore other subjects.
At a school like Amherst, you have so much curricular flexibility. Even though you eventually have to pick from the 40 available major options by your junior fall, there are no distribution requirements unlike at most liberal arts schools. You can take whatever classes you want whenever you want. Brown University features a similar Open Curriculum. So, when picking your major on the Common App for a school with such a curriculum, don’t stress too much about changing your mind about your major. You’re supposed to be exploring – so it’s more than okay if you stumble upon a path you prefer more when taking different types of classes!
Ultimately, you should be choosing a career path that is true to you and what you want to do in life. While your aspirations may not be set in stone, indecisiveness never looks good on an application. If you’re smart about how to choose a major the Common App, you can show many more elements of your passions through this one small question. When the time comes to declare your concentration, you can always change your mind depending on what you’ve discovered during your first semesters in college.
- What Should Go in the Common App Honors Section
- A Step-By-Step Guide to the Common Application
- Additional Information on the Common App: 5 Dos and Don’ts
For more tips on how to be strategic on your Common App, as well as a virtual walkthrough of the application, check out this video: