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With the current admissions process well underway, a number of students will be encountering questions about intended majors, and how they will best pursue their interest at a college of choice. The question might take the following forms:

USC: “Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections.”

Cornell College of Arts and Sciences: "Why will Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests?”

Northwestern University: “… help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you'll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.”

UC Application for Transfer Students: “… how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.”

Questions about intended majors and outcomes can leave many students confused and a little mystified. The general direction of the question is similar to the Statement of Purpose question asked on many master’s and Ph.D. program applications. The schools want to know how well thought out a student’s plans are, and what the student perceives as necessary to succeed within a major, concentration or interest.

Fortunately, many colleges, including UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, University of Michigan, Cornell, NYU — to name but a few — provide learning outcomes across a large portion of their majors, and this is a very useful tool for addressing what one should expect by majoring in, say, studio art, mathematics or architecture. The tricky part, though, is finding the learning outcomes. Sometimes they’re easy to find, virtually emblazoned across a department’s website. Other times they’re hidden at the end of a major description. And others are entirely missing, which might make a prudent applicant wonder just how diligent a school’s psychology department is.

UC Berkeley, for example, has an undergraduate learning initiative that encourages its departments to develop concrete learning goals. For instance, an economics major will have little doubt what expected program outcomes are. Blazoned on the website are critical thinking skills (economic analysis to evaluate everyday problems), quantitative reasoning, problem solving, specialized knowledge and lifelong learning skills. There is even a paragraph for "Mapping learning goals to courses."

Consequently, if you are transferring to a UC and intending to major in economics, talking about how you have been working on each of those skills during your two years at Long Beach City College might prove extremely beneficial in your admission’s outcome across all the UCs.

For the classics department at Northwestern, finding the learning outcomes requires a close reading of the department’s website. In the last paragraph of the main page you’ll find that the classics department:

“stresses the development of some exceedingly important intellectual sensibilities — close reading, analytical clarity, thorough research, evaluation of evidence, logical analysis, effective writing, appreciation of nuance and subtleties, historical variability, cultural differences.” Obviously, in response to the Northwestern prompt you’ll be using resources to gain the above outcomes.

While clicking around the studio art department in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, one will find the BFA curriculum learning outcomes: pure gold. They include a broad knowledge of the humanities, technical expertise, understanding historical and contemporary art modes, ability to critique, risk-taking in artistic ventures, self-discipline, and the importance to research to complete an artwork.

Once applicants gain access to the learning outcomes of a major, they can better sense how well that major might complement their aptitudes and interests. Knowing the skills required to succeed in the discipline allows applicants to write confidently about how they will "pursue their academic interests" at a given school.

Learning outcomes are not a panacea to all the challenges of the admissions process, but they certainly lighten up the pathway to an eventual successful undergraduate career. That alone makes searching them out a worthwhile venture.

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 11 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800.

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