The Ivy Coach Daily

May 17, 2024

Why You Should Never Choose Your College Based on Major

The top of the Baker Library clocktower is featured at Dartmouth College.

Previously Published on June 29, 2017:

In the age of viral success stories about bright minds who attend state universities and then rise to the height of their industries, and the online cottage industry of articles claiming that a lesser known school that excels in one discipline is a better investment than a prestigious school, some may not see the harm in choosing a college based on their track record in one specific department. A budding computer scientist, for example, could understandably be led to believe that her talents will be best served at Carnegie Mellon as opposed to Princeton. We at Ivy Coach are here to debunk that myth and point out the absurdity of choosing a college solely based on the department one thinks they will join once they are there.

Never Attend a School for a Major When a Better One is on the Table!

A student should, without a doubt, attend the best overall school they get into. While it is true that crafting a competitive college application requires students to showcase their specialized talents with a hook that disregards the myth of a “well-rounded applicant,” a very different approach should be used to choose a school once the admissions letters start rolling in. Even if the state school you’ve been accepted into has a biology department that is ranked #1 on a college ranking website (which should be received with a healthy amount of skepticism, in any event), it would be foolish to choose that school when an elite university, such as an Ivy League school, has also offered admission.

Overwhelming evidence suggests that graduates of elite universities out-earn their average university counterparts, but that’s not all. Students in the Ivy League, for example, are dropped into pools of the most successful young adults in the world. After rubbing shoulders with future captains of industry, politicians, renowned academics, and taste-making artists, Ivy Leaguers graduate into job markets where their credibility is never questioned. Elite schools do come with their stressors, but these success-driven campus cultures mold students into hard working professionals. Sure, an engineering major from a public university might out-earn a philosophy major from Harvard, but they are far less likely to out-earn a Harvard engineering graduate.

Your Major May Change But Your Alma Matter is Forever

The things that compel you as a high schooler may not have the same sway over you four years later. If you choose your college based on its reputation for economics, but soon lose interest in this major and pivot to the humanities, you’ll end up at a school that cannot supply you with the appropriate resources for you to pursue your passion. But attending Stanford or Columbia ensures that no matter where your interests take you, you’ll find faculty and departments with incredible reputations and opportunities. Where you go to school matters.

Many elite schools encourage students to meander for their first few semesters, experimenting with different disciplines and taking risks, because no matter where they end up, they’ll be able to excel. This sort of exploration is a natural part of the college experience, but it is less feasible for those who choose their college on the basis of their intended major. Such students must live with the consequences of this decision for four years, and many neglect to explore their intellectual horizons as a result.

A Specialized Admissions Hook, A Well-Rounded College

Again, it is worth reiterating that the most competitive applicants present themselves as experts in one specific area. But a letter of acceptance to an elite college is not an academic contract. That’s the beauty of the American higher education system. A specialized hook gets you in the door, and from that point on — with only a few exceptions at most elite schools, like engineering — you are free to roam. Even elite schools that admit students into different colleges based on their stated major, such as Cornell or UPenn, allow students to access the social life and resources of their wider communities (plus, it’s not actually so difficult to internally transfer between schools within the broader university). It would never be worth trading in on this access because of the imagined advantage of joining a specific department at a lesser school.

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