To set herself apart as the “American blonde girl who wanted to study Chinese,” Camelia Somers ’14 focused her application to the University of Southern California on her interest in the East Asian Languages and Culture major there.
When she applied to colleges, Somers knew that if she could build a “good story” that took advantage of the six years she had spent studying Chinese, she would have a better chance of getting admitted.
At the time, however, Somers wasn’t convinced that she liked Chinese enough to devote her college experience to it and planned to switch to a business major once she was in.
“I went into it not knowing if I actually wanted to stay in Chinese,” Somers said. “I just knew that it was something that would make me stand out on paper. And I definitely do think that it did help a lot, especially for interviews, when after reading the application, they would see that I’m not Asian at all and they would be like, ‘Oh wow, you’re actually very interested in this,’ so I think that was helpful.”
Somers wasn’t the only one strategically choosing a major uncommon to her demographic to gain an edge over other applicants while planning to change directions upon acceptance.
Others have also used declared majors they think are “un-stereotypical” for their demographics as a way to help them in the college application process.
University of Notre Dame freshman Lawrence* ’14, who wants to be a doctor, applied as a theology major because it was “different from the stereotypical Asian kids who apply as medical majors or engineering majors or pre-med.”
Although he was interested in religion, he switched into a pre-med science-business major as soon as he got to school.
Chris Han ’15 has already submitted his early applications and is working on finishing his regular applications as an economics and philosophy major.
Although he’s also interested in chemistry, he decided not to include that part because he wanted to “deviate from the crowd” of other Asian students.
“Truthfully, my dean has always been making me avoid the sciences,” he said.
Some students even choose specific schools because the majors they are interested in as less popular at those schools and admissions therefore less competitive.
Currently a political science and English double major, Robert Lee ’14 believes that his avoidance of the profile of the “stereotypical Asian who does math and science” helped him get into Johns Hopkins University.
“I put down ‘sociology,’ which Johns Hopkins is not known for,” Lee said. “I mean, it has a terrific department, but Hopkins is known to be a pre-med and engineering school. That’s what the [reputation] is. I think it certainly helped because Hopkins has a lot of nerdy math and science kids.”
Jay Park, a private college consultant for educational consulting group Admissions Masters, said students need to find ways to distinguish themselves.
“If you’re the odd man out, then it’s going to be a breath of fresh air,” he said.
College admissions officers are “kind of intrigued when someone [Asian] says they want to study sociology or English,” Lee said. “That’s actually something my dean and I talked about. That’s kind of an attractive thing being an Asian interested in humanities … I 100 percent believed it helped.”
Park has been introducing this strategy to his clients since he started private counseling six years and 10,000 applications ago.
He describes the college admission scene as a “supply and demand” situation where choosing an overly popular major can make or break chances of admissions.
“You can literally stroll into a geology program as opposed to a pre-med program, where even putting that into your application is going to be difficult,” Park said. “If you’re a Chinese-American or a Korean-American, by no means am I trying to be racist, but most of them are going to be in pre-med.”
Although Park does not steer his clients to choose majors they have no interest in, he discourages them from choosing majors that are extremely competitive. At the same time, he tries to find things students are passionate about.
“If you’re going to choose something like geology as an Asian-American, that’s definitely unique,” Park said. “It’s not often you see an Asian parent pushing for, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be a geologist,’ But if you don’t [have] that passion, you’re just choosing a random major, and that won’t work.”
In his years of counseling, he’s seen a mixed bag of students who switched majors as soon as they were accepted and students who found true passion for their selections and stuck with them.
Somers turned out to be one member of the latter category. She decided not to switch to a business major once she got to USC and plans to continue studying Chinese.
“I didn’t think I was going to [follow] through with it,” she said. “But [Chinese classes] are actually my favorite classes. I’m really, really happy that I am a Chinese major.”
*Names have been changed