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Applying to College as an Undecided Student

By Alecia, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

One of the most compelling and authentic applications I read during my time as an admissions officer at Duke University was from an applicant who applied with “undecided” as his primary area of academic interest. His college counselor had reached out to me earlier in the admissions season and explained that her student was having trouble deciding on which major he’d like to pursue and that his interests were evenly split between engineering and entrepreneurship.

In my response to the counselor, I stressed that the most important aspect of the college admissions process is authenticity. If her student was truly undecided, he should apply with an “undecided” academic interest and explain the context of his “undecided” status, as well as provide further details about his various academic interests, through the supplemental essays.

When I reviewed the student’s application later in the admissions cycle, I was floored with how his intellectual curiosity shone in his supplemental essay. This student was fascinated with many different academic topics and had explored them thoroughly through his extracurricular activities. He could articulate how interdisciplinary his interests were, and he demonstrated outstanding creativity and integrity.

Even without a major, this student is proof of how compelling undecided applicants can be.

Should You Apply to College Undecided?

Yes! Will it hurt your chances of admission? No, and here’s why: admissions officers are looking for authenticity and honesty in applications.

Colleges are looking for students who will bring unique and compelling talents, experiences, or perspectives to campus. They need to build well-rounded classes full of students interested in pursuing a wide range of majors. This means that not only do they need students interested in their most popular majors, but they also need students who would like to study some of the less-common majors. Because of this, you may be tempted to indicate your interest in a more obscure major to boost your chances of admission. However, if you do not truly intend to study that academic area, you risk coming across as disingenuous in your application. The most important aspect of selecting an academic interest and your admissions process as a whole is honesty. It’s important to stay true to yourself because inauthenticity in your application will be apparent and can sabotage your admissions odds.

Simply selecting a less-common major on your application with the hope that it will help you stand out in the admissions process will indeed make you stand out – but for all the wrong reasons. Applying to a specific major only makes your application compelling if you can demonstrate that these interests are legitimate through your extracurricular activities, writing, and recommendation letters. Admissions officers see this as authentic and honest evidence that you actually plan to study that academic area.

How to Apply to College as Undecided

In middle school and early in high school, you should spend plenty of time exploring your academic interests so when the time comes to submit your college admissions applications, your application provides a strong narrative that supports the unique ways you’ll contribute to your school’s community. If you’re already in your junior or senior year and still find yourself leaning undecided, that’s okay! Here are some ways to ensure you still provide that strong narrative, even if you don’t have a specific major to declare:

Do Your Research and Build Your List

Depending on the university and how it’s structured, academic interests may or may not play a role in the college’s admissions process at all. Every college or university is structured differently. Some universities have multiple undergraduate colleges and require that you choose one to apply to. For example, Duke University requires that undergraduate applicants apply to either the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences or the Pratt School of Engineering. The University of Pennsylvania requires that you apply to one of their four schools: The College of Arts and Sciences, The School of Nursing, Penn Engineering, or the Wharton School. Conversely, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill does not require that you apply to a specific major or college. Instead, you declare your major by the second semester of your sophomore year or complete an application process for a professional school (i.e. journalism, public health, etc.) during your sophomore year. Some schools even funnel all undergraduate students into a single college of arts and sciences and require you to declare a major by your sophomore or junior years.

Because of all these unique structural differences in colleges, you’ll want to do careful research to ensure that all the colleges you consider adding to your list have the majors you are most interested in pursuing at the time of application — even as an undecided applicant. Next, you will want to carefully ensure you are applying to schools or colleges within the university where you are meeting the minimum academic qualifications for admission. For example, some engineering colleges require advanced math such as calculus for admission. Some music schools require that you submit a portfolio. Despite applying as an undecided applicant, you may list an area of academic interest on your application that requires you to have prerequisites, so do your research to be sure you meet these requirements.

Articulate Your Interests

Many application supplements will ask you to list your top three academic interests. Typically, one option is “undecided” which you can list as your primary academic interest, followed by two other areas of interest. However, you can still list three areas of academic interest even if you are undecided among the three.

Most importantly, you need to be able to articulate your interests in a specific and compelling way through the narrative of your application — even if you are applying as an “undecided” applicant. Whether you have a desired major in mind or not, all applicants have interests. The best way to articulate your interests as an undecided applicant is through one of the multiple essays you’ll submit (either a supplement or your Personal Statement) to share why you are undecided. Make sure to provide specific areas of interest that you may decide to pursue. This ensures you are demonstrating authenticity and thoughtfulness through the process but gives the admissions officer reviewing your application insight into what major or academic program you may ultimately decide to pursue.

It’s important that your college applications present a strong narrative that conveys who you are to admissions officers. If you are struggling to find a single academic niche you feel is the right fit for you, applying as an undecided student may be the best choice. Contact us today to learn how our team of college counselors can help you identify academic interests that align with your passions and goals and the best-fit schools at which to explore them.

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