Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

Do You Have to Pick Your Intended Major in High School?

7 minute read

Choosing a college major is an important decision, but it can feel overwhelming. Depending on the college or university you end up attending, there could be over one hundred specific majors to pick from. Large universities offer programs ranging from Psychology to Civil Engineering to Computer Information Systems. However, high schools rarely offer classes in the highly specific subject areas offered at the college level, making the decision-making process that much more challenging for students. So, is it necessary to decide on an intended college major while you are still in high school?

Finding your academic passion as a high school student can make the difference in setting yourself up for a successful career in college and beyond. Before getting into the details of when you should pick your intended major, let’s define some key terms.

What is a College Major?

In the American education system, studies tend to become more specialized the farther you go. This includes at the undergraduate level, when students are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. A student’s academic “major” is the particular subject that they choose to concentrate in. Nearly all American colleges and universities require their students to graduate with a major. However, that doesn’t mean that you can only take classes in one subject! Requirements vary based on the institution, but it is typical for students to take between one third and one half of their total coursework within their chosen major.

Outside of the requirements of the major, American colleges and universities often have liberal arts or general education requirements. For example, many programs require undergraduate students to study a foreign language, and/or to take a core curriculum of foundational classes. Additionally, it is common to have a certain number of “elective” classes; these can be in any field, and don’t need to count towards your major. 

Some institutions also allow students to “double major”, or to graduate in two different subjects (it still counts as one degree). This can be a good option for students with very strong interests in two fields, although you may not have room in your schedule for many elective or liberal arts courses.

What are the Differences Between “Majors”, “Departments”, and “Schools”?

American Universities are often organized into different “schools”—for example, a school of engineering, a school of medicine, or a school of arts and sciences (which is often quite large and sometimes called the “college of arts and letters”). Each school, in turn, contains various departments of faculty members who offer classes in their specific areas of expertise. Majors are often associated with a single department, so a Physics major would spend a lot of time in the Physics department of their school. Keep in mind, though, that overlap is quite common. Departments may cross-list classes, and it is also possible for schools to offer interdisciplinary majors. These would be fields that straddle two or more departments, such as the history of science and medicine.

Note that some universities (especially smaller ones, such as liberal arts colleges) only have one school or “college” for undergraduate students. However, students applying for admission at larger universities may need to apply to a specific school, even at the undergraduate level. For example, it is common for universities to have separate schools just for engineering, with individual departments and majors within the engineering school for Mechanical, Biomedical, Electrical, and other types of engineering. While students can usually take some classes at other schools within the university, they generally need to choose a major at their own school. In other words: if you apply to the school of arts and sciences at a university that has a separate engineering school, you are deciding not to major in an engineering field, and vice versa. 

Switching schools after enrollment can be a long and complicated process that may require reapplying. So, in these cases, it is essential for high school students to at least have an idea of their intended college major before going through the full application process.

What is an intended major?

An intended major is what you plan to study and most colleges will ask you to include this on your college application. However, you are not fully locked in on what you choose at this point in time–you will have the ability to change your mind if you decide to do so later in your academic studies. One of the key purposes of an intended major is that it will help define which courses you enroll in when you first start college

Does Applying as “Undecided” Affect Admissions Decisions?

Aside from choosing the school to apply to (e.g. the school of engineering or the school of arts and sciences), universities don’t usually require you to declare a specific major when applying to an undergraduate program. However, there is a good chance that they will give you the option to specify an intended major when submitting.

In most cases, selecting “undecided” here will not directly affect the admissions decision one way or the other. Admissions officers at colleges and universities understand that not all high school students have made up their minds about their college majors. It is absolutely fine to choose “undecided” at this point!

However, if you are leaning towards a major with a lot of required classes, indicating your intention at the time of application could be a beneficial move. For instance, if your application essays express an interest in researching cell biology, selecting Biochemistry as your intended major would illustrate a clear link between your passions and your future academic success. Declaring your major early might also come with other advantages, such as consideration for department-specific scholarships or opportunities to pre-register for required classes. If you change your mind once you’ve had the chance to try out a few classes, don’t worry! Most students change their majors at least once during their college careers.

What are the Advantages of Selecting a Major (or Intended Major) in High School?

While it is usually not required, identifying your intended major while in high school comes with some advantages. Here are a few of the reasons that it is useful to think about your future academic track ahead of time:

1. Not all universities offer the same majors

With more than 2,000 possible majors across the United States, it would be impossible for one college to offer them all. Depending on the size of the institution where you end up, you might have 30 to 200 majors to choose from. While that sounds like a lot, narrowing in on your intended major early on will help you choose the institutions that are the best fit for your academic passions. For example, if you know that you want to study Health Science, you’ll want to apply to schools with Health Science departments.

2. Majors vary from school to school

Just because colleges or universities offer the same major doesn’t mean that the programs are equal. The specific faculty members in an academic department may have different subspecialties or unique teaching styles that could affect your experience. For example, if you know that you want to major in journalism, you could do some research and only apply to colleges whose departments have reputations for producing strong journalists. On the other hand, maybe you know that you want to study engineering but are unsure of exactly which type. In this case, you already know that you’ll want to apply to an engineering school or to a college with strong engineering departments. You could even try reaching out to professors as a prospective student in their class!

At the very least, having an idea of the types of fields you want to study in college will make it easier to decide which universities to apply to, and in some cases, the specific schools within those universities.

Through the Polygence Pathfinders program, middle and high school students can meet one-on-one with expert mentors to learn more about different areas of interest.

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Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own.

3. Sometimes, choosing your major in advance is key

For certain majors and academic tracks, colleges and universities recommend or require students to begin taking required classes from the first semester. Pre-Med, Pre-Law, Architecture, and other highly-specialized programs typically come with a long list of requirements. This means that if, for example, you decided to join the Pre-Med track part of the way through your degree, you may find yourself with a particularly high course load or completing summer course work in order to catch up. Depending on the situation, your institution might not allow you to change into one of these tracks and still graduate after four years. So, if you are considering one of these specialized, career-oriented academic tracks, committing to it before the start of your first semester will pay off in the long run.

When Do You Have to Declare a Major?

Again, requirements vary from institution to institution. However, it is typical for students to have until the end of their sophomore year in college to officially declare a major. After this point, it is usually still possible to change majors, but doing so will become increasingly tricky. Unless you choose to switch into a closely related field, changing majors in the third or fourth year of a bachelor’s program creates challenges due to the different course requirements across majors. That’s one reason that we recommend planning ahead starting in high school.

How Do I Choose What I Want to Study?

There are many factors that can inform how you choose your field of study. The most important one, though, is identifying the subject(s) you are passionate about. For high school students, it’s tough to know what it’s really like to be a Pre-Med student at a research university, or to picture how your career might look after graduating with a degree in political science. That’s where Pathfinders comes in. Polygence’s Pathfinders program is specifically designed to help students find what they love. You’ll match with three mentors in up to three different fields of your choosing. In addition to learning about colleges and majors, you’ll get personalized career advice from experts in each area.

Another way middle and high schoolers can explore their passions, and validate their choice of intended college major, is through a student-led research project focused on a topic they’re interested in learning more about. Through the Polygence Core program, you’ll be matched with a research mentor who can support and guide you through completing a fully customized project you design.

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Register to get paired with one of our expert mentors and to get started on exploring your passions today! And give yourself the edge you need to move forward!