If you’re a senior starting to work on supplemental essays for college applications this fall, it’s likely you’ve encountered some version of this question: what do you want to study, and why?
Before you dive in, it’s important to understand what the question is asking (I know this seems like a duh, but stay with me). Like we discussed here, the way this question is asked reveals a lot about both the school itself and the way you should approach it. For some schools – many liberal arts colleges and universities where it’s relatively easy and encouraged to switch majors – this question is usually phrased as what you want to learn more about. Responses to questions like these should zing with curiosity. For others – more siloed universities where you apply into a particular college and into a specific major – this question is often asked to reveal how much thought you’ve put into your major of choice, both in how you’ve prepared for it and what you hope to do with it in the future.
For some students, if the way the question is asked makes it tough to answer, it may be a sign that the college itself isn’t the right fit. But for most students, it’s more about not knowing where to start. If you’re stuck with how to approach this style of question, this blog post is for you.
First, much like with the “why us?” supplemental essay, it’s important to know what style of question you’re answering. Once you figure that piece out, the essay is much easier to write. This question usually is asked in one of three ways:
1) Why major?
This is the most straightforward version. It’s typical of schools where you’re applying more directly into a specific major, and they want to hear how you’ve decided on that pathway. Classic examples of this one are Purdue, UT Austin, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Southern California.
Sample: Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections.
2) What do you hope to study?
This is a more open-ended version of the question above. It invites you to share multiple academic pathways, perhaps if you’re undecided or see many roads ahead for yourself. CU Boulder, U Penn, and Pomona all ask a version of this question.
Sample: Please share a bit more about your academic interests. What do you hope to study at CU Boulder? What has inspired your interests in this area? Or if you are undecided, what area(s) of study are you considering? Think about your prior/current coursework, extracurricular activities, work/volunteer experiences, future goals, or anything else that has shaped your interests.
3) Intellectual curiosity
This is a popular question for liberal arts colleges or any college that celebrates intellectual discovery and exploration (ie, where changing your academic pathway, or exploring many interests, is easy or encouraged). Some schools that ask this type of question are Yale, Stanford, Tufts, Barnard, and Haverford.
Sample: The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning.
As you approach this topic, it’s important to remember that while you can be undecided (except for schools that ask that first question), you can’t be uninterested. Colleges want to hear your curiosity in these responses. It’s very likely you’ll change majors or pathways in college (frankly, it’s what most American colleges are built to encourage). But what leads to academic success is a spark of an interest, so make sure you’re demonstrating those sparks. Here’s how.
4 Tips on How to Write This Well
1) Share honest stories about yourself and how you became interested in these subjects.
Origins of interest sound like this:
"I've never seen my father angrier than the day I took our family television apart just to see how it worked. I was 12 years old, and Monday Night Football was just about to start. It wasn't the first time I'd done something like that, but it was the first time I wasn't able to put something back together quickly. It took me three hours, but I did it, just in time for my dad to see his beloved Giants lose. I never made that mistake again, but I've also never stopped trying to learn how things work."
The development of interests sounds like this:
"My junior year of high school, I volunteered to lead a fundraiser to send our soccer team to Europe to compete in a tournament. And while I enjoyed organizing the car wash and the donation drive and the now much maligned "shrimp-a-thon" (Sizzler doesn't mean it when they say, "All you can eat shrimp,” by the way), what I really enjoyed was crafting personal emails to ask for donations, and writing the regular update newsletters I sent to people who were supporting us, and updating the travel blog I wrote during our stay in Europe. Every day, I thought about new ways to share our story with people who might be interested. Yes, we raised money. But we also raised interest. People who had never cared about our team started caring. We developed a following of loyal supporters, and 18 guys who had never been to Europe finally got to go because of it. That experience was the first time I started to understand the power of the well-written word."
2) Pick stories that show you enjoying what you’re learning.
"I truly enjoy working on complex math problems. There is no better feeling than persisting through difficult formulas and eventually working out the right answer."
"My friends and I are the only people I know who have fights about math. Not physical fights (none of us are tough enough for that), but arguments. We spend a lot of our lunch hours sitting at what we call the ‘coolest table’ working through problem sets for the “Math Club,” and you’d be surprised how worked up we get about it. But I love it. I love that I can sit at a table with some of the smartest people at my school and argue about the best way to solve a complex math problem. And the best part is, nobody is ever angry when they’re proven wrong. We love math too much to be mad when someone shows us a faster, better way to solve the problem.”
3) If the question is asked as “why major” (sample question #1) or “what are your academic interests?” (sample question #2), then tie these interests to your future college plans.
Imagine yourself studying and learning in a particular college. Do you see a clear picture in your mind? Have you really investigated your chosen major? Have you looked at what classes are required, what will be expected of you, and what types of students seem to flourish there? And when you're answering those questions, how much of what interests you is specific to this school? If the question is more open-ended (version #2), you can paint a picture of multiple pathways – perhaps dabbling in music and biology or using their core curriculum to help you decide on psychology or political science.
4) If the question is like sample question #3 (intellectual curiosity), stay open-minded and get nerdy!
Remember that your answer to this style of prompt doesn’t necessarily have to align with your potential major choice. We’ve seen great responses to this question that nerd out about Spanish literature from future physics majors, or the paradoxes of time from future English majors. Don’t box yourself into writing about your intended major pathway necessarily. Think instead of what has made you truly excited about learning in the past – whether it’s when you connected the dots in a murder mystery and explored the interplay of psychology and creative writing, or that time you went down a rabbit hole about parallel universes and never got out. These responses should sparkle with inquisitive excitement.
For more on supplemental essays, make sure to check out our thorough overview here of how to crush supplemental essays, the Collegewise way.
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