How to Declare a College Major

When, How & Why Wait?

Pretty young college student study in the library
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Exploring, researching and deciding on a college major is your child's job, not yours. But it can be helpful to have a clue about the process, especially if it's a topic that sends your college kid into spasms of anxiety. At the very least you can murmur reassurances and ask a few pertinent questions.

When to Declare

Some kids begin their college careers knowing exactly what they want to do. For others, freshman and sophomore years are a voyage of discovery.

But every college requires that its students declare a major before the start of junior year.

Here's the thing: college majors and the requirements for entrance into that major can vary dramatically. Some majors are open to anyone who's interested. Others require prerequisites. Some heavily-impacted majors - i.e., majors everyone wants - require a specific GPA, essays and letters of support. And some departments only accept major applications - yes, your child has to apply to declare - at certain times of year.

So while your college kid might have until the start of junior year to actually file the paperwork, he'd be well advised to browse the specifics of the major and pay a visit to the academic advising office long before, so he knows what lies ahead and can plan accordingly.

How to Declare

Your college kid will fill out a form, either in person or online, declaring his major. But savvy students know that highly competitive majors may have application forms that require, for example, recommendations, a personal statement or interviews.

Some require portfolios or auditions.

Depending on the major, some students find out immediately that they're in. Others may have to wait weeks for an acceptance letter to arrive - and typically, there will be paperwork to sign and return, before it's official.

The Pros and Cons of Waiting

Waiting until the eleventh hour to declare gives a college kid time to explore and discover possibilities.

He may discover, for example, that university-level biology is a delightfully different field than its high school introduction - or that he's passionately interested in 18th century France.

On the downside, some majors have such heavy course loads and arcane schedules (a prerequisite, for example, that's only offered winter quarter of alternate leap years) that he may be hard pressed to fit everything in, unless he starts freshman year. That's especially true for double majors, students tackling minors, and anyone majoring in music and some science and engineering disciplines.

Making a decision early also means your child is less likely to run into wrong-class problems, such as taking Shakespeare for non-majors before deciding English lit is his life, or discovering that freshman year calculus class was the wrong flavor for a biochem major. (That said, it is possible to petition for an exception. It is, however, a royal pain to do and exceptions are not always granted.)