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Writing College Essays that Count


Spotlight on New Undergraduate Majors

Throughout the college essay and application process, we think a lot about how you can make a lasting impression by differentiating yourself. But it is important not to forget that colleges are trying just as hard to impress you: to stand out from other schools by highlighting unique strengths, values, and priorities.

First and foremost, it’s important to know what colleges emphasize about themselves to make sure that each school you are applying to is a great fit. But this kind of knowledge can also make your essays sparkle. Showing a school that you understand what sets them apart from the pack can mean the difference between a yes and a no.

This is why I’m a big fan of paying close attention to newly-added majors and programs at any school of interest, and writing college essays that are thoroughly informed. This is especially true for the “Why Us?” essay, which can be a challenge if you haven’t done your homework. A little research into new academic offerings can give you unique insight into what colleges are prioritizing, and what they see as areas of innovation and strength. This knowledge can help you zero-in on the ideal programs for you; it can also help you write a “Why Us?” essay that will make an impact.

Click on the links below for recent examples of new academic programs, arranged by area of interest, along with some questions to keep in mind when considering whether one of these might be the right fit for you!


[su_spoiler title=”New Trends in STEM” style=”fancy” icon=”plus-circle”]

New Trends in STEM: from Big Data to Neuroscience

The biggest story in new academic programs across the nation is the rise of Data Science—a major that combines mathematics, statistics, and computer science. As big data continues to transform a variety of industries and academic fields, many colleges have added Data Science to their undergraduate offerings. Among them are UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, Purdue, UC Boulder, UVA, Yale, and William and Mary.

Interested in Data Science? Keep in mind that, since these are multi-disciplinary programs, they can vary widely in terms of what particular schools emphasize—from computer science to communications. Most Data Science programs are geared toward students with significant knowledge of computer science, but a few, including the new Digital and Computational Studies major at Bates, are designed for students with varying levels of prior experience. Make sure you do your homework, and find the right program for you!

Neuroscience and its close cousin, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), are two other multi-disciplinary STEM majors that are also rapidly on the rise. Schools including George Washington University, Yale, Northwestern, Boston College, Reed, and Georgia Tech have recently added undergrad neuroscience majors. Carnegie Mellon has just launched the first undergraduate program in A.I., and MIT recently embarked on a $1 Billion initiative to start a new college of Computing and A.I. studies. Like Data Science, these new programs reflect a growing need for scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who are trained to think across the boundaries of traditional disciplines—biology, information science, psychology, cognitive theory, and comp sci. These programs can also have quite different emphases and expectations, so, once again, make sure you research carefully! Thorough research makes for stand-out essays: it is great to show a college that you are interested in a particular academic department; it is even better to show them that you appreciate what makes that department unique.

One final trend to note in the changing landscape of STEM programs: an uptick in the number of majors that offer deep dives into specific areas of applied math. The new Quantitative Biology major at USC, for instance, focuses on the intersection between big data and biology, from gene sequencing to ecology. Recently, Washington University in St. Louis has debuted two new areas of study along these lines: Mathematics and Computer Science, a joint program through their School of Engineering and Applied Science and their School of Arts and Sciences, and Financial Engineering, which will give undergraduates a thorough introduction to the math and economics of complex financial instruments. The new Biophysics major at Bucknell and Mathematics and Physics major at Harvey Mudd also reflect this growing demand for areas of specialization within applied math.

The areas of focus that these new opportunities draw together—data science, cognition, A.I., and applied math—are hugely in demand! Just make sure, as you investigate, to look closely at how these programs differ in terms of emphasis, requirements, facilities, and potential research opportunities for undergraduates.


[su_spoiler title=”Humanities” style=”fancy” icon=”plus-circle”]

The Changing Humanities

One of the most exciting trends in the humanities today is the wealth of options for students interested in combining ethics, social activism, politics, and international relations. New majors range in focus from political theory—such as UPenn’s new concentration in Political and Moral Philosophy—to programs more geared toward political organizing and engagement—like Tufts’ new Civic Studies major. You of course don’t need to have any specific majors or programs in mind to write fantastic college essays. But if you do, it can be a great guide: when considering Political and Moral and Philosophy at Penn, for instance, it would be smart to steer your essays toward political theory; a strong essay for someone aiming for Civic Studies at Tufts, on the other hand, would likely focus more attention on political activism.

There is no shortage of new options for the politically-inclined. The Luskin School at UCLA now offers an undergraduate degree in Public Affairs. Notre Dame has recently launched a Global Affairs major, which they describe as a program designed for students interested in “fighting poverty, making peace, promoting human rights and addressing climate change.” Emory will introduce a Philosophy, Politics, and Law major this coming fall. Rice now offers a major—European Studies—for those who would like to study Europe’s ongoing social and political impact, and you can now major in Nordic Studies at UCLA.

Another trend to keep an eye on is flexibility—programs specifically designed to accommodate students who are interested in studying similar material with different goals in mind. One interesting example is the new Music, Sound, and Culture track at Tufts, where you work closely with advisors to create your own path of study, whether you aspire to be a performer, musicologist, sound engineer, or industry exec. Does this sound ideal for you? If so, you could write a very compelling “Why Us?” essay by not only singing out the program, but also noting how you imagine taking advantage of its flexibility, or why you value its openness to students with very different goals. As you consider how your interests connect and overlap, you might find that one of these unique humanities majors is an absolutely perfect fit![/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”Performing Arts” style=”fancy” icon=”plus-circle”]

New Majors in the Performing Arts

Like STEM and the Humanities, Performing Arts education is constantly transforming to meet the changing needs of today’s students, with many of the changes meant to make it easier to study across disciplines.

At Bowdoin, for example, you can now major in Performance Arts, a program offered through both the Theater and the Dance departments, which culminates in a senior thesis project in which students are encouraged to create unique ways of combining choreography, playwriting, and performance.

For students interested in looking at performance through a more philosophical lens, NYU-Tisch’s recently-added Performance Studies major combines in-depth study of theories of performance along with workshops and classes focused on various kinds of performance in practice—a great option for anyone who loves academic discussions as much as being on stage!

In addition to interdisciplinary majors like these, colleges also continue to add more straightforward programs to their arts rosters, such as USC’s new Contemporary Musical Theater major, or the University of Chicago’s recently-added major in Creative Writing. Applying with a new program like this in mind—and making this clear in your college essays—can be an effective way to show a school that your interests are in synch with their priorities. This is not to say that older programs are yesterday’s news; often the best departments are the ones that have been around for decades. But, when doing your college research, keeping an eye out for newer developments can be one way to narrow your list, and help your college application stand out! [/su_spoiler]



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