March 1, 2021, by

How Learning the Difference Between “Department”, “Program”, and “Center” Can Supercharge Your College Research

It’s one of the most crucial questions in college admissions:

“Who is applying because they really know our school, and who is applying just based on the name?”

Whether you’re preparing to interact with an admissions officer, or writing your “Why Us?” essay, doing research that goes beyond what you learn in a virtual tour or college brochure makes all the difference. But diving into college research online can be daunting—most schools have thousands of webpages, multiple social media accounts, and an overwhelming number of newsfeeds.


So…Where to begin?

There is no single answer to this question, and we have a lot of advice about approaching remote college research. But in this post, we wanted to narrow the focus a bit and clarify three key terms that will help you know what to search for, and understand what you’re looking at, when browsing through a college’s many academic opportunities.

It’s important to note that not every college uses these terms in exactly the same way. But, here is an introduction to the way “Department”, “Program”, and “Center” are typically used:


A department is a group of faculty members all focused on the same subject. For example, the English department, Biology department, Women’s Studies department, etc. Departments almost always offer a major, and often a minor, in their particular subject.

What to look for: Departments in the same subject can vary from college to college. Take a look at course offerings, homepages, and lists of professors’ specialties. You might see, for example, that a Political Science department at one college emphasizes labor relations, where at a different college the same department has a stronger focus on ethics and philosophy. If one or the other appeals to you more, you’re one step closer to finding a best-fit school and writing a compelling “Why Us?” essay. Note: sometimes department names can vary from college to college—“Political Science” at one school might cover the same content as “Government” elsewhere.


University Programs Explained

Programs are typically majors or minors that require you to take classes in more than one subject and department. In the Biochemistry Program at Bowdoin College, for instance, you take classes through both the Biology and Chemistry departments. At Boston University, the African American Studies Program includes course options from a wide range of departments, from Philosophy to Sociology. Princeton’s Program in Archaeology draws from its Art History, Chemistry, and Anthropology departments.

What to look for: Where departments can often look similar from college to college, programs tend to be more unique, since they all include a mix of disciplines, and they all reflect different priorities. If the unique combination of subjects in a particular program draws you in, that’s a sign you’ve found a great fit, and excellent information for your “Why Us?” essay.

University Centers

Unlike departments and programs, centers (sometimes referred to as “institutes”) don’t offer majors or minors; university centers are funded and organized with a particular goal—for example, the Center for Urban and Environmental Research at George Washington University, or the Center for ImmunoEngineering at USC—and usually bring together faculty and students from a variety of disciplines.

What to look for: Centers are often geared toward high-level research, which means they don’t always offer opportunities for undergraduates. But the ones that do can offer extremely unique and amazing experiences. The Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, for example, offers a wide range of hands-on community work, research funding, and advocacy opportunities for undergraduates, centered on supporting women’s leadership worldwide. Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture offers an undergraduate fellowship for independent research across the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, and cultural studies. These kinds of centers can take your college experience to the next level; and learning about them can take your application to the next level, too!



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