The Admissions Impact of Your College Major Selection
April 14, 2022
As the calendar turns to April, Emily, a high school senior and aspiring engineering student on the East Coast with phenomenal test scores (1530 SAT) and near-perfect grades (in mostly AP courses) begins to hear back from her prospective colleges. First, she receives rejection letters from Purdue and UIUC, two schools with overall acceptance rates of over 60%, but then, much to her delight, gains acceptance into USC and NYU, schools with overall acceptance rates of less than 13%.
As Emily tells her friends and family, they are flabbergasted. How could she get into two of the most prestigious colleges in the country and also be rejected by two public institutions who accept a majority of those who apply!? But Emily wasn’t particularly shocked; she had a wise guidance/college counselor who laid out a complete picture of the admissions landscape when applying to a highly competitive major.
The most competitive college majors
This is tough to fully quantify (more on why in a moment), but, in our experience, computer science is the most competitive major in the United States, followed closely behind by all other categories of engineering. Business sits mostly alone in the next tier, but is joined by pre-med tracks (e.g. biology) at certain elite institutions.
Based on our experience, we strongly feel that choice of major is one of the least discussed and most highly impactful components of the college application decision-making process. Sure, in-the-know parents and students have some level of awareness that these are more competitive majors, but the gap between their expectations and the reality we see unfold each year (particularly in the last few years) represents a truly massive chasm.
The wrong way to assess admission probability to a highly competitive major
When discussing the topic of college selectivity, much attention is rightfully paid to metrics such as a school’s overall acceptance rate, median standardized test scores, and other commonly released statistics like class rank and GPA of accepted students. In most cases, these statistics can prove to be a terrific starting point as one attempts to assess their own admissions prospects at a particular school. If your statistics look similar to that of the average accepted or enrolled student at University X, then you have a reasonable shot at gaining acceptance yourself. However, if you are applying to certain disciplines, relying on these numbers becomes about as valid and useful as sizing up a baseball player’s chances at success in the majors based on their little league statistics.
Where’s the data to prove this?
We would love to lay out a comprehensive data-backed case, illustrating precisely how competitive these majors are…However, very few colleges publish college/program-specific admissions results, leading to scant data on the subject being publicly available. Yet, we are able to offer you some degree of meaningful evidence:
CMU’s Class of 2024 data reveals that only 7% of the 8,329 applicants to the School of Computer Science were accepted. The mid-50% SAT score was an absurd 1570-1600 and the average unweighted GPA was 3.95. Of course, CMU is a less-than-ideal example, since they are fiercely selective across the board. Applicants to the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences had a still-incredible SAT range of 1530-1570 and an average GPA of 3.87.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
At UIUC, recent freshmen studying in the College of Education possessed mid-50% SAT scores of 1160-1350 and an unweighted GPA mid-50% of 3.36-3.80. Compare these numbers to the Gies College of Business where the equivalent numbers are 1360-1480 and 3.61-3.95 or the Grainger College of Engineering with its stats of 1440-1540 and 3.75-4.0.
University of California System (Transfer)
The University of California is extremely transparent with their admissions data. Even though they don’t release their freshman admissions data by major, they do compile just such data for all nine branch campuses for transfer applicants. Checking out this data can still be quite insightful. For example, you can see that at UC Berkeley only 4% of the 1,210 computer science transfer applicants in 2021 were accepted; the 2,549 applicants for the business administration major experience the same 4% admit rate. Meanwhile, applicants to majors such as American Studies (58%), Art History (53%), and Philosophy (51%) saw far more favorable outcomes.
Back in 2019, Purdue stated that the average SAT score for an entering freshman in the College of Engineering was a 1432. That same year, the mid-50% SAT range for the entire university was 1190-1440, meaning that you essentially had to have a 75th percentile school relative to the entire university to earn an average score within the College of Engineering.
Rethink what constitutes a Reach, Target, or Safety School
Chances are, if you are a high achieving student interested in one of the aforementioned areas, you are probably not going to be thrilled when you see a college list put together by a qualified professional.
- “What do you mean Purdue engineering isn’t a ‘safety’ for me!?” says an engineering student with superstar credentials.
- “University of Maryland has a 50% acceptance rate and you’re telling me it’s a “reach?” exclaims the computer science applicant with legitimate Ivy League dreams.
We have these conversations quite frequently with strong students applying to undergraduate business programs at schools like Indiana University—Bloomington, UIUC, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Likewise with engineering applicants in reference to schools like the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Purdue, UC-Davis, and Virginia Tech.
A viable strategy: consider choosing a related major
Parents who are aware of the cutthroat admissions process in the STEM/business arenas, sometimes ask us about trying to pass off their aspiring engineer as a fine arts or English major. Our first question is always, “Have they shown any interest in those areas through their elective choices and extracurricular activities?” Sometimes, a student really does bring a unique blend of talents and interests to the table and can be “packaged” as a candidate for a less competitive major. Yet, we place the word “package” in parentheses because there is nothing artificial or false about this—it is a strategic, but still authentic presentation.
Note that you do not have to employ this strategy universally across all of your applications, but a thoughtful approach can make a massive difference in your admissions outcome. For example, at one institution you would only want to attend if you could get into your top choice (which is business or econ), but at other schools, you’d be thrilled to get in and study psychology or sociology. Here, you can play it on a school-by-school basis.
Also consider your second choice major
There are some institutions that do not let you list an alternative major on your application—Northwestern, the University of Michigan, and Virginia Tech are three prominent examples with such a policy. However, the vast majority of universities do allow you to list a second choice major, to be considered in the event that the school does admit you to your first-choice major. Again, you don’t want to list something seemingly random—you should be able to make a solid case as to why it would be a fit, given your aims and interests.
For list of which colleges allow you to list a back-up discipline, visit our Dataverse page: Can I Choose a Second/Alternative Major?
How easy is it to move between majors at a given school?
Some universities allow students to flow freely between their schools/colleges as they wish. For example, an applicant arrives in the College of Arts & Sciences undecided, develops an interest in business and simply transfers into the College of Business prior to sophomore year with little more than the completion of a form and brief chat with an advisor. On the other end of the extremes, internal transfer into competitive majors may be reserved for a select few each year, or may not even be an option at all—UMass—Amherst, for example, no longer allow students to transfer into its popular Isenberg School of Management.
For school-specific policies at the nation’s top schools, visit the following pages on our Dataverse:
- Changing Your Major to Business
- Changing Your Major to Computer Science
- Changing Your Major to Engineering
Looking into the policies at all of your prospective colleges prior to completing the application can be an immensely fruitful exercise.
At this time, it may be helpful to move into some relevant case studies to illustrate how these scenarios can play out in real life.
Case Study #1: Ethan vs. Siddharth – Computer Science
Ethan is an extremely well-credentialed CS applicant from New York (1500 SAT, 3.8 unweighted GPA) with his heart set on a school like Stanford, MIT, or Carnegie Mellon. He knows the reality that these are “reach” schools but assumes that schools like Georgia Tech, Northeastern, and UVA are solid “targets” at which he has around a 50/50 shot. As “safety” schools, Ethan would settle for UMass Amherst, Maryland-College Park, or the University of Washington.
Ethan’s college counselor reveals that for CS programs, Stanford, MIT, and CMU are “far reaches”, meaning maybe a 1% chance, at best. Each school that he assumed were 50/50 shots are actually “reaches”, and what he thought were “safeties” are more accurately slotted as “targets”. In fact, none of the previously listed schools can be considered “safeties” as they are all highly-ranked CS programs that attract more quality applicants each year than they are able to admit.
Doubtful of this advice, Ethan plows forward with his original list and, despite being an extremely strong student, fails to gain admission to any of those institutions, which all possess hypercompetitive CS programs. He ends up enrolling at a far less selective state school with a rolling deadline, as a last-second move to avert total disaster.
With solid but unspectacular grades and a 29 ACT score, Siddharth realizes that he’s not going to be a particularly strong applicant at the nation’s best computer science programs. He strategically shifts to various related majors such as information systems and data science (depending on the application), which ultimately leads to acceptances at the University of Florida, Purdue, UW-Madison, RPI, and a number of other highly-ranked programs.
Case Study #2: Abigail – Pre-Med focus/Biology Major
Abigail is everything you could want in a pre-med applicant. She earned a 1530 SAT and straight A’s in all AP/honors. She’s not only in the top 10% perfect of her class but among the top 10 students period. Her top-choice schools are Notre Dame and Duke.
Her counselor informs her that applying as a bio major will significantly reduce her chances of gaining acceptance to either school. Because both schools make it relatively easy to switch majors once you are admitted, Abigail’s counselor suggests avoiding the hypercompetitive premed sweepstakes by naming a different major—for example psychology or statistics within Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and she agrees.
Months later, when admissions decisions are announced, the strategy proved to be a success. Many of Abigail’s peers in AP Bio and AP Physics applied to similar schools as bio majors, with very poor results. Since many medical school applicants possess backgrounds in areas other than the hard sciences, Abigail now has the choice to stick with her current major or switch majors down the line, if she prefers.
Case Study #3: Ravi
Ravi is sure that he wants to enter the world of business someday, but he also recognizes that “business” is a broad field and there are a multitude of viable academic paths that can one day position him for success in that realm. As in our other examples, Ravi has standardized test scores in the 98th/99th percentile and a tremendous high school transcript, but he believes his college counselor who explains that despite all of these achievements, getting into the Whartons of the world is still going to be a significant reach.
So, Ravi adopts a flexible approach. When he feels he has a solid chance at getting into a business program, he applies directly to the College of Business. This is the case at Georgia Tech (where business is not the school’s main draw), but, at UVA and Carnegie Mellon, he instead makes a compelling case as economics major with the College of Arts and Sciences/Dietrich. While the econ move is a common strategy that colleges are aware of, Ravi’s essays thoroughly explain why he feels he will benefit from a more theory-based education in economics rather than a more practical business degree.
In the end, Ravi was accepted to Georgia Tech, UVA, and Carnegie Mellon.
Every year, we speak with countless parents and students coming to us for advice with transfer admissions following a disastrous first-year admissions campaign. The story is often the same—high-achieving high school student with a 32+ ACT/1400+ SAT score. Unbeknownst to them, their college list consisted of 90% reach schools and the result was a rejection from every school that they would even dream of attending. This is an understandably upsetting experience and not one that these hard-working and talented students deserve.
The College Transitions team agrees with the public sentiment that “college admissions is insane!” but ultimately you have two choices as to how to respond: a) acknowledge that the system is irrational and act rationally within it, or, b) ignore the known challenges and uncertainties and push forward on blind faith. We strongly recommend the former.