How to Write a Strong “Why Major” Essay (Guest Post)

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There’s a reason colleges ask why you’ve chosen your proposed major. It’s not to torture you. And it’s definitely not because they want to hear you muse philosophically about Math or whatever it is.

Colleges ask “Why Major” to see how your academic (and extracurricular) interests match up with a particular field of study. In particular, the college wants to know if you’re likely to be an academic success in that subject at their school or in a particular program at that school.

As college essay coaches, we know that if you write your Why Major answer with those goals in mind, you’ll boost your admissions chances. Even better, though this essay often scares students, if you follow our 3 steps below, it’s actually one of the easier ones to write.

This article will show you exactly how to get it done.

Step 1: Brainstorm your academic interests

Don’t stint time grokking with what your academic interests really are. This isn’t a Pixar movie — you don’t have just one, clearly defined passion that’s the throughline of your life. Your interests are emerging and they may be messy. You need to spend the time to figure them out.

The easiest way to brainstorm — has actually created a “Why Major” module in its free set of brainstorming tools. (You do need to create an account. Then it’s right there in our Dashboard.)

The other way to brainstorm — if you want to do it on your own, here is a list of questions you should try to answer, whether in a word doc or on paper.

  1. What subjects do you enjoy learning about (or doing)? What aspects are most interesting to you? Why are you curious about them?
  2. What have you done to further your interest in these topics? For example, have you independently read books on the topic? Have you sought out academic or summer courses or opportunities related to it?
  3. What’s your “academic origin story”? You can add depth and meaning to your essay by showing a long history of loving a particular subject. Understanding that history can give your college admissions reader confidence that you and this subject are a good match that is likely to go far.
  4. Going further — what are you especially curious about? What kinds of classes do you want to take related to this field? What types of skills do you want to develop?
  5. Career [optional] — will this interest likely play a role in your ultimate career? What might that be? How will you get there?

As you brainstorm, plan to come back to these questions a few times, giving yourself at least one break. And get another person’s opinion for an outside perspective (ex: your parents, a teacher, or an essay coach.) You’ll benefit from a little extra time thinking deeply on these issues.

By the end, you should have the material to tell a strong story about why you’re genuinely interested in and have an aptitude for the major you’ve chosen. This will help reassure your reader that you’ll succeed majoring in this subject at their school.

For example, your answers might be —

  1. What subjects: I plan to major in History.
  2. What have you done: As a Junior, I wrote a research paper based on Ann Putnam’s Salem witch trial, arguing that her accusers acted for financial gain. My teacher nominated it for a Newbery Award, only the second time in his ten-year career he has felt that a research paper was strong enough to submit.
  3. Academic origin story: I’ve loved History since learning about the Salem witch trials in Middle School, which started me down the path of reading everything I could on that topic.

A few things to note on these example answers:

  • These simple sentences are great as-is. You could copy and paste them together and they would work fine as the essay itself.
  • Obviously, the answers overlap a lot. The questions should get you thinking about why you love your subject and how you’re a good match for it. (In this example, you answer Number 4’s “especially curious” part in Numbers 1-3 (ie: Salem witch trials).) It’s okay not to have clearly delineated answers for every question.

Step 2: Research the school’s opportunities for your areas of study

Sometimes, the prompt is specifically asking “Why this major at this school.” Cornell is one example. In that case, you need to show what your passion for this topic will look like on their campus. This involves researching the school and its programs.

Even if the prompt doesn’t specifically ask about their campus, it’s a good idea to do some of this research. It shows your level of preparation and how seriously you’re taking this interest by investigating what’s out there. Also, it’s a fun and relatively easy task, so why not?

Try to answer these questions:

  1. How will you continue developing your interest at this school?
  2. What classes might you take?
  3. Did you find any interesting course syllabuses? Any enticing research opportunities?
  4. Which professors teach your subject? Are there any whose work you’re particularly excited about?
  5. What opportunities does the school offer related to your major?

For example, your answers might be —

  • At this school, I look forward to taking classes with Professor Williams on women in the American Revolution and with Professor Smith on the precursors to feminist thought.
  • I’m excited to write a senior research thesis, and hope to get a Powell Grant to be able to devote a summer to archival research.

Again, the two example sentences above would be fine for an essay as-is. No need to make them fancier than what’s above: just plunk them together and you would have a great essay paragraph.

Also again, it’s basically impossible to decide which bullet answers which of the questions above — the questions’ only job is to get you dreaming about you, pursuing your favorite academic topic at this beautiful campus.

Step 3: Put the 2 pieces together straightforwardly

Often this essay tends to have a short word count. Therefore, you’re likely to be cutting a lot of the great brainstorming and research you’ve done. That’s okay because it means that what you’ll keep is only the very most compelling parts.

Focus now on the best specific, concrete examples of things you’ve done that prove success in the field. Then, briefly give specific, concrete examples of how you’ll engage with this field on campus by mentioning a class you might take, a professor you might study with, or a research opportunity you would like to pursue.

With your limited space, don’t worry about fine language or painting a vivid picture. Be as straightforward as you can. As we wrote above, the example sentences provided are plain and simple, but would work great for the Why Major essay.

Finally: Get feedback

Last but not least, seek out a second opinion from someone who understands what colleges are looking for in essays. You want to make sure what you’ve written is not only grammatically correct but, more importantly, that it shows off your potential to the fullest extent.

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