How to write the “Why this major” Supplemental Essay

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 50+ Real Supplemental Essays for Ivy+ Schools

If you’re in the process of applying to colleges, you likely already know that many universities (especially top-tier schools like Ivies) ask you to write essays in response to supplemental prompts. 

When it comes to selective schools, these supplemental essays make a huge difference! Some schools even prioritize your supplemental essays over your Common App personal statement. 

One of the most common supplemental essay prompts asks you to explain your choice of major or academic interest. In this guide, we’ll break down exactly what you need to do to craft the perfect response to this prompt. 

As universities get more and more selective, you’ll want to make sure you do everything possible to ensure your admissions application is perfect. At PrepMaven, that’s exactly what we do: for years, our expert tutors have guided students through the college application process, helping them land acceptances at schools like Princeton, Harvard, and MIT. 

Read on for our guide–backed up by years of experience–on how to approach the “Why this major?” essay prompt. 

Jump to section:
What is the “Why this major” essay?
Examples of “Why this major” prompts
What are colleges looking for when they ask “Why this major?”
Start with a story or a question
Get into “why”
Get into “how”
Things to avoid
Next steps


What is the “Why this major” essay?

This essay prompt can come in many forms, but the fundamental idea is the same. Colleges want to hear about what academic subject interests you and why. 

Sometimes, the college will ask you about major choice specifically; other times, they may ask you about “academic/intellectual interests.” Really, these come down to the same thing: what’s interesting to you, and why do you wish to pursue it?

At the same time, many schools will ask you how you plan to pursue this academic interest at their university specifically. This doesn’t change the core of the essay, but it does mean you’ll have to include specific information about the university you’re applying to, and how their academic offerings intersect with your own interests. 

After the “Why us?” prompts (on which we have a detailed guide here), this is probably the most common supplemental essay prompt you’ll encounter, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re ready for this one well ahead of the application deadlines. 

Below, we’ll walk you through what these prompts look like, and what you need to do to answer them effectively. 


Examples of “Why this major” prompts

Lots of schools ask a version of this question, but each university has their own spin on it. Take a look below for some examples from the 2022-2023 application cycle: 

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. (Approximately 250 words, USC)

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time – what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study? (300 words, Carnegie Mellon)

What academic areas are you interested in exploring in college? (200 words, Emory University)

As you can see, each of these looks a bit different, but really they all want to know the same thing: what interests you, and why?


What are colleges looking for when they ask “Why this major?”

Simply put, they want to see whether you’re really passionate about something. Almost nothing is as impressive to college admissions officers as real, demonstrated passion for some particular interest. 

College admissions committees want to see that you really care about some topic, that you’re the kind of student who has thought carefully about what they want to pursue. Why? Well, students with real passion for what they study are just more likely to achieve impressive things and to really give their all to their major.

Ultimately, you can think of your response to this prompt breaking down into three key components: 

  • Explain what you’re interested in specifically.
  • Show, with details from your life, why it interests you.
  • Address how you’ll engage the specific resources of the college you’re applying to. 

The good news is that, because this essay is mostly about you and your interests, you can develop a template and reuse it anytime you’re asked a version of this question. While you’ll want to edit it a bit for each school, you won’t have to start from scratch! 

Below, we’ll run down what one of these essays needs to have to wow admissions officers. Although this guide should give you the information you need, there’s never a substitute for a real college essay expert who can help you with your essay live–we always recommend reaching out to one of our essay coaches if you want to maximize your chances of admission.

  1. Start with a story or a question

This is often the advice with all college essays, and it’s no less true here: you want to start with something that grabs the reader’s attention. For these essays, think about it as giving your intellectual interests a sort of origin story. There are lots of people who want to study any particular major–if you want to stand out from those thousands of other applicants, you’ll want to connect your choice of major with something unique and personal. 

The easiest way of doing this is to tell a (very) brief story about where this interest of yours comes from. When did you realize you wanted to pursue, say, neuroscience or English? What event in your life sparked this interest? If you can tell a concise story that describes that moment, you’ll immediately stand out to college admissions committees. 

Alternatively, you can start with a question (or multiple) that demonstrates how deeply you’ve already thought about your academic interests. For example, if you want to study history, you could start by posing some historical questions that interest you and you wish to pursue further. 

You’ll want to be careful with the questions approach, however: if you ask questions that are too basic or come off as uninformed, you’ll actually hurt your case. You want to make sure that these are real, serious questions that only someone who truly cares about your field of study would be asking. 

Whether you choose to start with a question or a story, you’ll want to ensure that it’s specific and unique to you. The way to hook a reader–especially a picky college admission officer–is to show them something they haven’t seen before. 

Take a look at a few of the real supplemental essays collected in our free guide , and take careful note of how each one begins with something unique to hook in admissions committees!

  1. Get into “why”

Once you’ve introduced your choice of major or academic interest with an anecdote or question, it’s time to get into why it appeals to you. This is trickier than it may seem, and really requires some thought. How do you explain why you’re interested in a particular field to someone who likely isn’t?

The keys here are passion and specifics. The more passionate and evocative your language, the better you’ll be able to convey to admissions committees that you really do care about what you’re studying. And the more specific you’re able to be–raising specific issues or questions–about your choice of major, the more it’ll seem like you really know your stuff. 

This is also a great place for you to introduce specific experiences you’ve had that relate to this academic interest or major. Did you do some kind of research? Have you done a really deep dive on a particular author or topic? Did you participate in an internship or similar work experience?

If you can reference anything like one of the above, that’ll be a great addition to the body of your essay. You can use these experiences as a springboard to get into a discussion of why this field interests you. Perhaps you really fell in love with lab research or spent a lot of time digging through archives of 19th century writers–in any case, you’ll want to highlight those specific experiences as you explain why you want to pursue your chosen field. 

Not sure what kind of “why” explanation will really stand out to admissions committees? The best way to be sure is to work with someone who has experience wowing admissions committees themselves. That’s why we always recommend getting a bit of professional help from one of our many Ivy League essay tutors. 

  1. Get into “how”

Some schools ask for this explicitly, and some don’t, but as long as you have the space, you should address how the specific academic resources of the school you’re applying to can help you pursue your interests. 

This part doesn’t have to be long, but it is an important thing to add. Think about it this way: each school you apply to wants to know that you’re actually interested in going there. The best way to prove that is to show that there are specific, unique elements of that school that appeal to you. 

What kinds of things can you discuss here? The best resource is likely going to be the website of the specific academic department for your major. There, you can find specific information on:

  • Research programs
  • Work/internship/coop opportunities
  • Unique curricular offerings
  • Unusual minors or specializations
  • Service learning opportunities 
  • Thesis/honors opportunities

Each school will naturally be a bit different, so this part of your essay should change from application to application. While you don’t want to go overboard here, showing that you’ve done your research into a particular school will go a long way to showing them you actually want to attend their university. And that can make a huge difference. 


Things to avoid

While you’re doing all this, there are a few things you should avoid writing in your essays. Some of the Don’ts we list below are just too cliche; others are actually red flags for college admissions committees. 

Don’t: 

  • Reference money as a primary reason for your major choice.
  • Say you have no idea.
    • It’s fine to be undecided! But even then you should discuss what kinds of things interest you and why. 
  • Randomly name-drop professors or classes as the university you’re applying to. 
  • Forget to include a specific story, question, or hook to get the reader interested.

Next Steps

Though the steps here might seem simple, they can be astoundingly hard to pull off in just 250 words or less, which is usually the word count for this kind of supplemental essay. But if you can thread the needle and do everything listed above on this kind of essay, it can make a huge difference for your application. 

Most people don’t treat the supplemental essays as if they were particularly important, but they absolutely are: each college has put time and resources into coming up with these supplemental essay prompts because they want to see what you have to say. 

If you’ve read this guide carefully, then it’s time to start drafting! If you want to ensure that you’re writing the kind of essay that can get you into a top tier school, however, it often pays to get a second opinion. Our college essay experts have helped thousands of students get admitted into their dream schools, and are ready to help you do the same as soon as you’re ready. 

For over 50 examples of real supplemental essays that got students into schools like Princeton, check out our free collection of sample supplemental essays below–many of these are in response to the “Why major?” prompt!


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Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.