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Top Tips for the College Search When You're Pursuing an Atypical Major

The college search is grueling and students pursuing specialized majors have a unique challenge. Find the program you're looking for with these tips.

The college search process is grueling for anyone, though some students have a unique challenge: They know exactly what they want to pursue, but not many schools offer reputable programs (if any at all). The good news is that you’re ahead of the game because you’ve found a passion and a field you want to pursue before paying four years of tuition for college. While it may be harder to find a school to pursue this field, they are out there and accessible with a little extra effort.

Talk to professionals in your field of interest

School counselors and admission representatives are wonderful sources of information regarding college applications, but anyone looking to pursue a specialized trade should focus on getting specific advice rather than general information about college. If you’re a potential Musical Theater major, ask the director at your community theater for assistance rather than a counselor. If you’re a future Aviation major, talk to pilots at your regional airport or local flying school instead of your cousin attending a private college. If you’re like me and don’t know a single soul with similar career interests, try researching the thread pertaining to your major on College Confidential. Just remember to take any advice with a grain of salt and further investigate to form your opinions before further pursuing your field.

Related: List: Colleges with Unique or Highly Specialized Majors

Understand accreditation

Another tool to help you find schools for your specific major is to search for an accrediting council that regulates programs within your field. They often have websites that list accredited programs by state or region. Accreditation helps determine the quality of education and validity of a program for future employers. It also enables graduates to sit for certification exams and assists other colleges in deeming what credits will transfer if you end up attending more than one school.

Get your parents on board

The college search process is exponentially more difficult if your parents or guardians aren’t on board with your career plans. Many atypical fields are hard to break into, and parents may be wary of paying thousands of dollars to let their kids try. Students can combat this by conducting their own research and beginning their applications—applying to schools in rounds and to more selective specialized schools during the Early Action timeframe. If the results are unfavorable, then apply to your fallback universities during the Regular Decision round. This will show maturity and dedication to your field and education to your parents. Some parents may be more receptive if a student can beat admission odds in their chosen field. If your parents are concerned about the projected salaries for your career, having a backup plan can also help reassure them. Try persuading your parents with the outcomes of the alumni at a specific school to show that people in your field can be successful.

Plan your college list strategically

Deciding on a list of colleges to apply to may be stressful, especially if there are a small number of programs in the country. You should try to visit as many schools on your list as possible to see what feels right. Many college admission counselors recommend visiting about five schools, though I toured at least 15 before determining my dream school. Don’t be discouraged easily. When compiling a list of universities, students may realize their target schools are across the country or overseas. This is a hard reality to stomach as an 18-year-old, especially if it’s your first time away from your parents. When I applied to schools, my top three schools were in Arizona, South Carolina, and Ohio, with a safety school in my home state of Pennsylvania. All of these options were a plane ride away, but I reasoned that if I was truly passionate about my career, the miles between myself and my home wouldn’t matter.

Nail your application

A typical college application consists of five components: your personal statement, transcripts, résumé, SAT or ACT scores, and recommendation letters. These components are important for all students, though students interested in a specialized major should be advised that SAT scores and transcripts may be used as a baseline rather than a singular determining factor in admission. Many programs prioritize aptitude for a skill over test scores. Aptitude and passion can be shown through your essay, recommendation letters from mentors in your career path, and your résumé. These areas show demonstrated interest and commitment to a particular skill. This doesn’t mean you should slack off—it means you should pay careful attention to your portfolio, audition, or certification in addition to your studies.

Related: 3 Easy Ways to Make Your Résumé Stand Out to Colleges

During the college search, please remember that specialized schools are not for everyone. These schools are intended for people who are wildly passionate about their field and future careers, so proceed with caution. It’s still possible to find a great program at a comprehensive school. So if you have any doubts during this arduous process, please seriously consider your options carefully. Good luck in your search!

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About Paige Miller

My name is Paige Miller, and I am currently a senior in high school who plans on studying at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University next fall. I consider myself a “chronic dreamer” who hopes to advocate for the betterment of all minority groups.


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