Note: This final question differs slightly between applicants to Columbia College or to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. For applicants to SEAS, there is no option to apply as undecided, so the second sentence is omitted from this prompt.
The admissions committee is interested in knowing what you find fascinating about your field and what you have done to broaden that interest. They are trying to weed out people who are applying for a given major just because it sounds fancy. But, more than that, they also want to see what makes you tick, how your passion for learning carries you beyond your high school classes, and what keeps you up at night in a fever pitch of wonder and excitement. You want to find the best, and most concise, way to showcase your passion. 300 words are a lot fewer than you would think!
At CollegeVine, we have broken down the “Why Major?” essay into two main questions:
- Why do you want to study this subject?
- Why are you qualified to study this subject?
Your essay should seek to address both of these questions with as high a degree of specificity as possible. Because this essay is so short, it is difficult to address a general field. You cannot fully explain your love of a subject with a mere 300 words. “I love astronomy” is not sufficient. Instead, you could write more specifically about your interest in exoplanets and astrobiology. Include a personal story about stargazing as a child that sparked your love of the field and mention scientific research completed in high school that further cultivated your interest in the stars.
It’s also possible that you are still figuring out what you want to study. No intellectually curious seventeen-year-old is ever certain about the topics and disciplines that will drive their future studies.
One way to communicate your interest and your desire to continue exploring a given topic is to talk about a recent conversation you had with someone who is already immersed in a field that you are curious about. An essay might begin: “Ever since my high school teacher combined potassium permanganate and glycerol and set his lab coat on fire, I’ve been fascinated with the chemical property of flammability. In order to learn more, I reached out to John McJohnson, a graduate student studying autoignition temperatures at the University of California, Davis. What most excited me about our conversation was…”
Of course, in order to write this essay, you need to actually have a conversation with someone who is working in that field. If you live in a town that has a research university, and if you are considering majoring in chemistry, you can actually go to the chemistry department’s university website, find a professor or graduate student whose work looks interesting to you, and send them an email asking to meet for coffee.
This may seem intimidating, but we can assure you that there are lots of researchers who might be willing to take 30 minutes out of their day to talk with a young person about their work. You might not get a response (most of these people are very busy), but the sooner you get used to reaching out to potential future colleagues and making connections, the better off you’ll be.
No matter what approach you take to this question, you’ll want to be sure to avoid cramming in too much jargon in an effort to communicate your technical mastery. You only have 300 words, and the point of this essay is not to dazzle your reader but rather to show what practical steps you’ve taken to explore and develop your intellectual interests.
However, you choose to write your essays, dare to be a little creative. Don’t just describe the university that the Columbia admissions officers already know. Ideally, they will see their campus a little bit differently after having read what you imagine it might be to you. As Columbia’s website says, they are looking for students who “will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful in return to the community.”
Although not explicitly stated, MIT is using this prompt to combine two commonly asked questions: “Why X Major?” and “Why MIT?” As with the previous essay, there’s no room to provide too detailed of an explanation, but you must still briefly justify your response. The key word here is “why.”
If you’re interested in chemistry but are also looking into a career in pharmaceutical manufacturing, you might write about your interests in MIT’s chemical engineering program. Or if you’re interested in economics, you can praise MIT’s Sloan School of Management, analyzing the ways in which the school will help you hone in and develop your leadership skills. If you want to conduct research in a STEM field, mentioning the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and citing some specific projects can be a great way to highlight your interests.
For those looking to study EECS, you can discuss the appeal of MIT’s new curriculum, which offers more flexibility and independence for undergraduate students. Perhaps when compared to other campuses, you find that MIT offers a stronger entrepreneurial culture, a quality that you find necessary for your academic success. If you have hopes of one day launching your own startup or designing your own program, now would be a great time to mention the program’s emphasis on entrepreneurship.
Writing about your long-term goals and connecting them back to MIT’s academic culture (demonstrated through EECS example) is a very strong way to approach this prompt, as it answers both “Why X Major?” and “Why MIT?” Avoid vague answers such as “MIT is known for its excellent STEM programs” or “the Sloan School of Management is among the best in the nation” — these types of answers do not answer the prompt nor do they highlight your interest in the school.
No matter what major you intend on studying, remember to show admission officers how you plan to take advantage of MIT’s academic programs. Is there a specific professor you want to conduct research under? Is there a specific course you’re really excited to take? If so, mention it! There’s no need to write a creative response to this prompt; the best approach is to be straightforward and specific.