January 21, 2016
For high school seniors filling out college applications, figuring out a major is a given for some and a headache for others. In the College of Arts and Sciences, ‘undecided’ is the most popular intended major — only around 30 percent of students actually indicate a major on their application.
The College tends to encourage exploration throughout different fields, as evidenced by its sector and foundational requirements. Associate Dean of the College Kent Peterman explained that there is no rush to make a decision.
“We want to use that information to say: Relax, if you don’t know what your major is, that’s okay,” Peterman said.
Both Peterman and Dean of Admissions Eric Furda agreed that marking an intended major does not give an applicant an advantage or disadvantage — it all comes down to explaining the decision in the essay and supplement.
“Undecided is a perfectly good major. You can’t infer whether an applicant is a good match for Penn based on whether they put undecided or, say, physics,” Peterman said. “It’s more how they address that major and how they write about it in their essays to Penn.”
Brian Taylor, director of the college counseling practice Ivy Coach, however, believes that students should indicate a major on their application.
“It’s important to have an angle while applying to a selective college,” Taylor said. “You should focus on a major to create that angle if you’re pretty certain that you want to study it.”
Perhaps more students are starting to think this way. The number of students who indicate their intended major on their application to the College is growing, as well as the number of students who stick with that major throughout their time at Penn.
Peterman attributes this shift to an increasing desire to use college as a pathway to a predetermined future, especially after the 2008 recession.
“We just had a major recession and people don’t feel like they have the freedom to just go to college and explore — that sounds too risky,” Peterman said. “They want to know what this is going to get them when they’re done. They’re less willing to engage in a liberal arts education for its own sake.”
However, indicating a major on their application does not necessarily mean that the student will follow through. Of the 30 percent of College students who indicated an intended major, only a quarter ended up sticking with that major.
Engineering junior Pia Kochar was one student who changed not just her major but also her school. Kochar initially applied to the College and indicated math as her intended major. However, after fully exploring her course options, Kochar decided to major in computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“When I put down math, I really just didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Kochar said. “I’m glad I was in the College because I just took a class in everything I was potentially interested in, and then I just found computer science, which I hadn’t ever done before.”