Katherine Cohen Gives Advice on Selecting a Major in Competitive Fields

The Record

By Karen Demasters
October 8, 2010

When you are 18, you probably do not want to decide what you are doing for the rest of your life, but in some cases teenagers are being pressured to do exactly that, especially if they want to get into popular academic fields in colleges with strict requirements.

Engineering and business majors are particularly subject to these problems, and it can affect communications and technology fields also. But there are ways to avoid the roadblock, according to guidance counselors.

Katherine Cohen, a college admissions counselor, and founder and CEO of IvyWise.com, has advised hundreds of students on the best approach to college acceptance and selecting a major.

IvyWise is a 12-year-old college admissions counseling company offering students and their families one-on-one counseling for all types of colleges, not just Ivy League schools. Based in New York City, Cohen is the author of “The Truth About Getting In” and “Rock Hard Apps” and is a frequent public speaker on college admissions topics.

In a recent interview she discussed who might get caught in this trap and how to avoid it.

Q. In what academic areas might a problem occur with students being shut out of a program?

For specialized programs like business and engineering programs, some schools want the student to declare a major immediately upon application. Others want a declaration by the end of freshman year. These are the exceptions, but it does not mean it doesn’t happen. Most schools want a declaration at the end of sophomore year. Still others will give a student until the end of junior year.

Q. Where does the problem of not getting in occur most?

Most schools do not cap the number of students in a major. If a student is going to schools like Stanford or Brown, she can pretty much do whatever she wants, and most schools will try to work with the student to get her into the program of her choice. However, the situation can occur. For example, at some schools within the University of California system, majors are capped because of high student interest and demand.

Q. Is there a way to avoid the problem?

Regardless of what major you are considering, the key is to plan ahead.

Q. How does a student do that?

Know the school. Whatever major you are considering, research a few different schools to see what their requirements are. When researching a college, see what requirements they have for particular majors, so you know how to plan your courses.

Q. What if a student does not know what he wants to do?

This is a double-edged sword. Colleges may want you to decide on a field of study as soon as possible, but college is also a time for exploration. Pennsylvania State University has done research showing that approximately 80 percent of students entering their first year in college are uncertain about what they want to major in. The research also shows that up to 50 percent of students change their majors at least once before graduating. Even if a student is dead set on a major before entering, I tell him to explore things outside the major; take advantage of everything the school has to offer, because you never know what you might discover.

If a student has three areas of interests, see what the colleges being considered want for each of those three areas. Start planning early, so you can be strategic in your selection of a school and specific about the classes you choose. Also, I recommend that during the first two or three years of college that a student takes care of general curriculum requirements. That way, once a student declares his major, much of the core requirements have been met and he won’t be inundated with extra course work that needs to be completed during the last one or two years of college.

Q. What should a student do if he cannot get into the major he wants as a junior?

I would almost never advise a student to transfer colleges. There is already a lot of time and money invested in the school. Transferring is a burdensome process, almost like starting the application process all over again, and not all schools share the same core curriculum, so he may not have the right prerequisites, and credits may or may not transfer from school to school.

If a program is closed, the student can select another major that is closely related. If it is a lack of prerequisites, a student can take classes in the summer or online while the school is on break to make up for what he does not have.

Q. Are there other alternatives?

If a student has to add an extra semester, it is not going to be the end of the world as long as finances are not a huge problem. Or she may be able to explore that area of interest further through internships or later on in graduate school. For example, you can be a history major and then go to grad school for business, or be an English major and go to med school. Many schools like students who bring a new perspective to the table.

Q. Here’s a hypothetical: A student has a first-choice college that has a popular program. Before enrolling, the college tells the student it will do everything it can to get the student into that program when he becomes a junior. He also has a second-choice college where he is guaranteed to get into the program. What would you advise that student to do?

There are many factors that go into choosing a school, and I would not advise a student to choose a school solely based on the availability of a particular major. The student should research the academic, social, and financial aspects of the college to determine if the school will be a good fit. It depends on those factors. If all factors are equal and the student likes both schools equally, he might want to choose the program where he can get in immediately.