If you’re applying to a school with supplemental essay requirements, you’ll likely run into a few similar questions that appear on many schools’ applications. One of the most common is the “Why this major?” essay question. Here are some examples of how a few different schools ask it:
- University of Southern California (USC): Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (Approximately 250 words) (1-250 words)
- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC): Explain, in detail, an experience you’ve had in the past 3 to 4 years related to your first-choice major. This can be an experience from an extracurricular activity, in a class you’ve taken, or through something else. Describe your personal and/or career goals after graduating from UIUC and how your selected first-choice major will help you achieve them.
- University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin): Why are you interested in the major you indicated as your first-choice major? (maximum 40 lines, or approximately 250-300 words, typically the length of one paragraph)
- Brown: Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about any academic interests that excite you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue them while also embracing topics with which you are unfamiliar. (250 word limit)
- Carnegie Mellon: Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time – what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study? (300 words)
Though the wording may vary from school to school, each school wants to know the same thing: what motivates you to study your planned major, and why their school is the right place for you to do so.
You might notice some common themes in these questions, which all reference your academic interests, your inspiration, and your experiences. Those themes are the perfect starting points to figure out how to answer the “Why this major?” essay question—and even help you decide on a major in the first place.
How to choose a major
Maybe you went into the college application process already knowing what you want to study for the next several years. But if you’re undecided, there are plenty of strategies you can use to figure out an answer to the “Why this major?” question.
Remember that your major doesn’t have to be an academic subject—and that there are plenty of college majors you might not have come across in your high school classes. If you aren’t sure what you want to pursue in college, or if there’s no one subject in school that tends to excite you, let yourself brainstorm more broadly. What do you spend your time learning or thinking about or doing when you aren’t at school? What have you been enthusiastic about in the last few weeks or months? Write down everything you can think of! One of these moments of excitement might point you toward your future major.
If you’re into music, if you’ve had fun coming up with ideas for your after-school job, or if there’s a part of the world that has always intrigued you, explore whether there might be a major focused on that topic. Perhaps your interests lie in business or marketing, music theory, or an interdisciplinary major focused on a particular region. You could even try browsing the course listings for those majors at your top-choice schools. If you could take any classes, which would they be?
Having to decide on one major might feel like a lot of pressure, but remember that you can change your mind later. Most schools won’t hold you to the major you write about in this essay. As with the rest of the essays you write for your applications, admissions officers use the “Why this major?” essay to get a sense of who you are and where you might fit in their campus community.
Writing the “why major” essay once you know your major
You’ve made your list of topics or activities that excite you, and you’ve narrowed those down to one or two majors you’re particularly interested in—great! But don’t put your pen and paper away yet, because the next step of writing your “why this major” essay is another round of brainstorming. (It will make writing the essay much easier, we promise.)
For this brainstorm, think about how you got interested in the subject you’re hoping to study. This is where it’s important to get specific, going deeper than the list of classes on your transcript or the activities on your resume. Was there a specific day in class, a field trip or event, a conversation or book you read, that sparked or reinforced your passion for your chosen major? List as many of those moments as you can think of. One of them might make a fantastic beginning for your “Why this major?” essay. If you’re planning to major in computer science, for example, maybe an early experience with Scratch got you excited about programming.
The “why major” essay is also a place to explain how you’ve already begun exploring the topic in which you plan to major. That doesn’t necessarily mean reading textbooks before you’ve enrolled in classes (unless that’s something you enjoy)—it can include any form of exploration, from clubs to after-school jobs to personal reading.
But if your high school doesn’t offer classes or clubs connected to your future major, or if your after-school job doesn’t relate to the work you hope to do in the future, don’t worry. If you’re interested in something enough to major in it, you’ve probably been exploring that interest or developing related skills without even realizing it.
What do you read for fun or talk about with your friends and family? What internet rabbit holes do you go down in your free time? When you have to choose a topic for a class essay or project, what do you pick? These all might be examples of ways you’ve developed an interest in your major before even setting foot on campus. They’re all experiences you could discuss in your essay.
Keep the focus on you
If you’re passionate about a topic, it can be tempting to share everything you know about it. But remember that admissions officers want to know about you, not how much you know about biology, literature, or history.
Reflection is just as important in the “why this major?” essay as it is in the rest of the essays you write for your college applications. As you draft your answer to the “why this major?” question, try sharing anecdotes and examples of how you became interested in your major and what you’ve done to learn more about it. See if you can explain why this subject strikes a chord with you. What specifically fascinates you about it? If you hope to study literature, perhaps you’ve always loved language and how it can express the complexities of human behavior. If you want to major in political science, perhaps you’re curious about how laws are made.
This essay is also an opportunity to write about where your major might take you in the future. Maybe you already know what kind of work you’d like to do after college. If not, individual departments will often post information about alumni careers—that’s one place to start exploring work you could pursue after graduation.
Why study this subject here?
Admissions officers don’t only want to know what you hope to study and why. They also want to know why you want to study this major at their school. Answering that question is a key element of a successful “Why this major?” essay—and figuring out that answer might require some research.
If you followed the steps above to brainstorm potential majors, you’ve done some of this research already. If not, it’s time to do a deep dive: Pull up the course catalogs and student organization lists for each of the schools you’re interested in. You might even want to browse some faculty webpages for professors who study your areas of interest. Finally, consider the school’s location—are there organizations nearby where you might be able to pursue an internship in your chosen field, or is the region or environment related to what you want to study? All of these are relevant details to mention.
Turning your research into an essay
Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to craft your “Why this major?” essay—and at most schools, you may only have 250-300 words, or about one or two paragraphs, to do so. But don’t panic! The research and thinking you’ve done up to this point only makes you better prepared to write this essay. Let’s go back to the example earlier of the student whose passion for computer science grew out of childhood experiences with Scratch, an online coding community. Perhaps that student also took related classes in high school, explored the topic in their free time, and looked for colleges that would allow them to pursue their interest in computer science. Here is an example of how they might approach their “why major” essay:
The moment I first got my motion blocks to work was the moment I knew I wanted to work with computers, specifically on animations and games. I was in middle school messing around with a Scratch project, and I was instantly hooked, thrilled by the thought that I could animate ideas that had only existed in my head before. Over the next few months, I designed more than a dozen Scratch projects, and even though my high school didn’t offer computer science courses, I worked my way through several online on my own.
Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary programs in technology, design, and arts will make it possible for me to continue doing what I started with Scratch: imagining projects and bringing them to life via programming with classes like “Introduction to Computing for Creative Practice” and “Little Games/Big Stories.”
Your task now is to winnow down your list to the most meaningful examples and specific details. You’ll only need a few to get your point across. Before you know it, you’ll have a convincing essay about why this major and this school are right for you.
Conquer the Common Application Essay with confidence from the comfort of your home with our virtual on-demand course, providing videos, resources, prompts and weekly office hours to help you achieve success.
Students will walk away with a complete, authentic Personal Statement that they can be proud to submit to the colleges of their dreams.