Help your students determine whether they should declare a STEM major on college applications

A recent article on US News & World Reports website made the point that it might be beneficial for your students that are considering a STEM career to go in as an undecided major and switch their major after their first year. Many STEM program slots are taken quickly at highly desirable schools but existing college students have another way in to their dream school if they declare their major as undecided and then transfer over. It’s a “back door” per se.

The author lists four questions your students should consider:

1. Is admission to a STEM major more difficult as a high school student? The specific colleges you apply to and the quality of the your application profile will determine the answer to this question. However, you should certainly research this further before deciding to declare a STEM major on your college application.

Some schools may encourage you to declare your major as a high school senior; others may wish to see your freshman-year performance – including in one or more STEM classes – before admitting you to your intended major. Also consider speaking with current or former STEM students to ask which path they found most advantageous.​

2. Is the difficulty and timing of admissions consistent across all STEM fields? Not all STEM fields are equally competitive. Whether you should declare your interest in a STEM major during the college application process will depend, to some extent, on the competitiveness of the school’s particular program. Careful research can help you make an informed decision.

Investigate the specific STEM major you are considering and determine whether admission to this program is more or less competitive than admission to others in the field.​ You may be able to find this information via an internet search, or you may need to contact the admissions office at each school that interests you.

Be sure to also ask whether declaring a major on your application could give you an advantage. If many students wait to declare this major as college sophomores, for instance, you may have an advantage applying as a high school senior with a declared major.

3. Does an undeclared major sacrifice you a year or more of support? Certain STEM departments at some colleges may offer support – such as scholarships, access to subject-specific databases or libraries and networking opportunities – that are exclusive to declared majors. If you find this to be the case during your research, you may want to indicate your intended major on your application, even if this doesn’t offer you any admissions advantage.

For example, major-specific scholarships available only to incoming freshmen can be excellent opportunities to help pay for college, especially if you are certain about your course of study. And don’t dismiss other resources available to students with declared majors, including counseling in course selection.

4. Should some students opt for immediate or delayed entry to a STEM major? If you are committed to majoring in a STEM field, be sure to inquire as to whether your schools of choice recommend either immediate or delayed entry for specific groups of students. For example, students with straight A’s in high school, as well as relevant extracurricular experience, may wish to pre-emptively declare a competitive major on their applications, while students with B’s or C’s on their high school transcripts may want to wait for delayed entry to first strengthen their academic records.

Given the increased competitiveness for admission to STEM majors at many schools, it’s important high school students hoping to get into the field consider all the factors before declaring a major. Don’t take this choice lightly.

And be sure to ask many questions – including the questions we’ve highlighted – before making your final decision. Doing so will help ensure you have the best chance of securing admission to your top school and program.

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