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Navigating the College Search for Atypical Majors

The college search process is grueling for anyone, though students with specialized majors have a unique challenge. Find the program you've been 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 across the nation offer reputable programs (if any at all).

The good news is that you’re ahead of the game because you’ve found a passion before paying four years of tuition for college. I was in your shoes when applying to Journalism schools, and I’ve learned a few tips along the way.

Related: List: Colleges with Unique or Highly Specialized Majors

Talk to professionals in your field of interest

Guidance counselors and admission representatives are wonderful sources of information regarding college applications. For anyone looking to pursue a specialized trade, they should focus on getting advice rather than general information.

If you’re a potential Musical Theater major, ask the director at your community theater for assistance rather than your Algebra teacher. 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.

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 minimum quality of education, the validity of a program for employers. It enables graduates to sit for certification exams and assists other colleges in deeming what credits will transfer.

The Washington Post reports there are 5,300 colleges and universities in the country. Of those schools, approximately 117 are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. Other distinct majors may have similar statistics with regards to accreditation.

Plan your college list strategically

Deciding on a list of colleges to visit and/or apply to may be stressful, especially if there are a small number of programs within your state or even the country. Students should try to visit as many schools on their list as possible to form their tastes.

Many college admission counselors recommend visiting about five schools, though I toured at least 15 before determining my dream school. Finding your true-fit program is a lengthy process. Don’t be discouraged easily.

Related: Cut Down Your Giant College List With a College Search Rubric

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, or if all of your friends and classmates are applying to the same institutions.

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 for 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: How to Craft the Perfect High School Résumé

Convince your parents

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 many parents are wary of paying thousands of dollars to let their kids try. Students can combat this by conducting their own research and beginning their own application without being prompted. This shows parents maturity and seriousness about college.

Another approach is to apply to schools in rounds; apply 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. Some parents may be more receptive if their child 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 help reassure them. Also, bigger state or flagship universities tend to offer a wider variety of majors at a (much) lower price tag than private schools. Many accredited schools tend to be public universities as well. Try persuading your parents with outcomes of the alumni at a specific school that people in your field can be successful.

During the college search, please remember that specialized schools are not for everyone, even if you realize this midway through your education. These schools are intended for people who are wildly passionate about their field and future career. If you have any doubt during this arduous process, please seriously consider your options.

Find schools for your specialized major with our College Search tool!

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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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