PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 203 | The Importance Of Your Intended Major

How important is your intended major in college admissions

Show Notes:

In this week's podcast, I discuss the growing importance of your child's "intended major" in the context of college admissions.

Would my son be better off selecting "Egyptian Architecture" as his intended major to differentiate him from the crowd?

The pitfalls of choosing "Computer Science" as your major.

Parents of 6th - 12th graders should give this episode a listen.

Show Transcript:

Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. In today's episode, I want to address the issue of intended major. Your intended major is the major you select on your college application that gives colleges an idea of what you plan to study when you get there. It's not typically binding, but it's supposed to signal what you're interested in.

And ideally the your application itself will be well aligned with your intended major selection. We talk about this all the time in our prep videos. This concept of intended major has been a recurring theme over the last few months because of the apparent influence it's having on college admissions, especially in light of how many things are having less influence.

Like GPA, S.A.T., A.C.T. scores, letters of recommendation. In fact, this week in particular, I heard from two very astute prep well dads who have picked up on this issue and reached out to me in two different ways. One, dad sent me an article about a student in Palo Alto, Stanley Zhang, who got rejected from 16 out of 18 colleges that he applied to, but turned around and landed a plum software development job directly with Google.

No college needed. How did that happen? And another dad who has a ninth grader who was wondering if I thought it would be a good strategy to select a super niche major that would allow his son to stand out from the crowd. Let's call it Egyptian architecture instead of biology, for example. Both of these interactions bring up great questions and hit this topic head on.

Why don't we start out with the student? Stanley Zhang from Palo Alto. Stanley applied to 18 colleges and was rejected from 16. That's almost a 90% rejection rate. Here are the schools that he got rejected from M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego. UC Santa Barbara. UC Davis. California Polytechnic State University. Or Cal Poly. Cornell.

University of Illinois. University of Michigan. Georgia Tech. Cal Tech. University of Wisconsin. And University of Washington. And yes, there are some lottery schools in there, but there are also some reasonable match. And you would think a few safety schools. The two colleges that accepted him were University of Texas and the University of Maryland. Now, the article doesn't go into great depth about his background, other than to say that he's not all that disappointed because he just landed a job as a software engineer at Google straight out of high school, skipped that whole college thing.

So this makes you wonder, how did this student get a job at a company that most students would be thrilled to get after four years of college and $350,000 in tuition, room and board? If Google thought the student was ready for full time employment without college, why did he get rejected so roundly? Obviously, we'll never know for sure, but here are some things to ponder.

It could just be the numbers. The number of students applying to colleges is so out of control that Stanley could have been the next Elon Musk and he may have just missed the mark through no fault of his own. Now, such a high miss rate would probably be atypical, I would think. But you never know. Big numbers equals big number of rejections.

It could have been his intended major if he selected computer science as his major choice. Maybe the colleges were just overwhelmed with computer science majors. You can only take so many students into a major, even if they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. We're going to talk more on this in a few minutes. Maybe it was his essays.

Maybe he did a poor job on his essays and didn't take it seriously. Maybe his extracurricular activities weren't all that up to snuff. Maybe he had something weird with his grades. Maybe his letters of recommendation were lacking. For some reason, some were suggesting that there could have been discrimination because he was Asian. We all know that that discrimination case that recently held in the Supreme Court makes that no longer legal.

He is from Palo Alto, so obviously, he's part of a very competitive cohort. Maybe he just was not quite at the top of the heap. There could be a number of reasons why he didn't get a nod at a bunch of these schools. A lot of them were super selective. We don't really know what his application looked like exactly, but that's not really the point.

My guess my instinct is that Stanley Zhang was no slouch. He went to Gun High School, which is one of the best high schools in the Palo Alto area. It just seems like something's not adding up. How did this kid who got rejected from 88% of his colleges land a job as a software engineer at Google? Where's the disconnect?

We didn't get that much information from the article, but we did learn that Zhang did start his own software company called Rabbit Sign. So he obviously had something on the ball. I have no idea what the company did or how successful it was or wasn't, but it was something. He had also posted his profile on the software development platform called GitHub, which got the attention of a Google recruiter years ago when he was only 13 years old.

So clearly, this kid's got some game and for some reason or another it didn't translate well into the college admissions success. And that's what's so curious. So what can we make from this whole story? A couple of things. Don't underestimate the importance of your essays, your extracurricular activities. In Zhang's case, his work in the software space got him some attention as a 13 year old.

Even just by his profile on GitHub and then obviously as an 18 year old by Google. Paid attention to him. He must have been doing something right in the front. Another thing to think about is doing actual work matters. Don't sit around and wait for college before you try to do something for real. Whether that's starting a company, creating something, building something, solving a real world problem, whether that's with software or a volunteer opportunity or travel or writing a novel, you name it.

As I mentioned in last week's episode, companies are losing faith in college graduates quickly and for good reason, and they're seriously considering candidates who have not been to college but have real world experience. I also want to make sure that you're not letting your acceptances and rejections define your self-worth. Stanley Zhang just saved four years and $350,000 and landed a dream job for him.

Do you think he's now lamenting those 16 rejection letters? I don't think so. He got the last laugh. The joke's on the colleges, so don't equate acceptances and rejections with your value in the world. It's not completely unrelated. College admissions aren't completely random, at least not yet. But don't take it too far. And lastly, be careful about your intended major choice.

Choosing computer science as your major could have Major implications on your admission status. At the University of Michigan, for example, the number of computer science degrees awarded rose from 132 in 2012, ten or 11 years ago to 600 in 2022. That's ten or 11 years from 132 to 600. Over the past decade, STEM degrees in general have gained rapid popularity spurred.

I would imagine, in part by the idea that they lead to better job outcomes with higher pay. And who can blame the students if they're paying $350,000 for an education, they're going to want to make it worthwhile. Or their parents are insisting that they get a degree with a path to some type of bright financial future. Computer science majors in particular.

But there are other majors as well are severely impacted at many schools. Schools can't handle it. They can't hire enough professors with PhDs and computer science to meet the demand. Probably because they're all out making bank in the private sector. Some schools are now requiring students to apply to a special computer science program upfront during the application process.

Others are forcing students to take competency exams once they get to campus to see if they can reach a certain level before they get admitted into that major. Some colleges are making students maintain a certain GPA in the beginner computer science classes in order to get into that major as a sophomore. Some are even resorting to a lottery system.

It's a massive, massive issue. And computer science is not the only impacted major on campuses. Psychology majors are at an all time high, especially among females. Business is a classic middle of the road major. For many males on campus. Biology is another one. If you're planning on selecting those types of majors, you better bring some juice into the rest of your application because it could be very easy to get lost in the shuffle.

What are you doing to stand out among the sea of sameness? Biology majors are a dime a dozen. How can you become a shiny object? Which leads me to the second dads question about the viability of selecting a little known esoteric, niche major like Egyptian architecture, for example. Well, it depends if you happen to have a genuine interest in Egyptian architecture from a relatively young age and you show a body of work that proves that claim, then you could be in great shape.

There will likely be much less competition in that major in certain colleges. If you travel to Egypt as a child or went to archeology camp and then decided to teach yourself hieroglyphics so it would be easier to read the ancient scrolls. And you were a research assistant to an Egyptian art professor some summer at a local college. Then you've got the ingredients of a story that aligns well with your intended major of Egyptian architecture.

If, on the other hand, you're a female who is involved in your book and photography club, you started an English literature club, you excelled on your AP language and composition test and have letters of recommendation from your English and Latin teacher. And that student also chose engineering as her intended major. That looks a little fishy. It looks like someone who's trying hard to stand out by being a female stem person, even though her entire background is non STEM related.

That would be a much tougher story to sell. I like to think of four different pathways. We've got the exotic pathway, the lazy pathway, the hybrid pathway and the generic pathway. Let's start with the exotic pathway. The exotic pathway happens when you happen to have a genuine, unique interest from a relatively young age in an esoteric topic like Egyptian architecture.

And you want to continue to pursue that passion in college. That's the gold standard. This is ideally where you want to be for the purposes of college admissions. Unfortunately, it's pretty rare that a high school student starting in, say, eighth or ninth grade has built up that type of momentum in a very unique interest. Let's move on to the lazy pathway.

With the lazy pathway. You have no idea what you want to do. In fact, you haven't even thought about it. You plan on figuring it out when you get to college. So you select undecided as a major or something generic like communications. This is going to be a tough sell. It makes you sound uninteresting, unreflective. And as the name would suggest, lazy.

What about the hybrid pathway? In the hybrid pathway? You take what I like to refer to as the Steve Jobs approach and claim that you want to combine two disparate areas into one. For example, just like Steve Jobs, who married esthetics and design with software and technology. Let's say you want to explore the intersection of music and poetry.

You've done some interesting things in both those disciplines and you make a pitch as to how this combination is going to lead to a breakthrough in how we listen to music, for example. How about the last one? The generic pathway. In the generic pathway. You want to be a business or biology or psychology major. You've done a smattering of generic extracurricular activities that admissions officers have seen many, many times before.

The Spanish Club. You played a varsity sport. You were involved in student government. You're a soup kitchen volunteer. They've seen all of that before. You may be well qualified. It's just that there are 4000 students just like you vying for 30 openings. For the purposes of admissions, the exotic pathway is typically the most effective. Then the hybrid, then the generic.

And then, of course, lastly is the lazy approach. Think about what pathway you're going down right now. The way to get to exotic and hybrid is to do some things while you're in high school that will ideally capture your imagination enough to double down on them. That means joining clubs, starting clubs, interviewing people, shadowing people, listening to podcasts, watching TED talks, watching documentaries, getting a job, traveling the world.

Start something, build something, create something, invent something, improve something, Do something that you can talk about on your application. If you're having trouble finding your thing, if you will feel free to set up a consulting session with me where I will do my best to help you refine your thoughts about what you enjoy, how you might find that passion, and or build a body of work that will play well with colleges.

You never know. You may get so good at your craft, whatever that may be, that you skipped college altogether, like Stanley Zhang did, and go right into industry doing that thing that you love. And then you too will get the last laugh. And nothing would make me happier. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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