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Applying for a Highly Competitive Major

Clark Center at Stanford University in California

Many universities do not evaluate or admit freshman applicants by major, but some directly admit by major and others consider major in the application process. Applying to colleges that consider your choice of major in admissions can be challenging if you are applying for an extremely competitive major, like computer science, engineering, nursing, business, or fine arts. You may be tempted to apply for a less competitive major, with the goal of changing majors after you start college. However, that approach may not be wise, depending on your long-term goals. You will need to do some research and take extra care when developing your college list.

As juniors interested in competitive majors build their college lists, we recommend that you seek answers to the following major-related questions.

Does the college offer the major you are interested in?

Don’t assume that every college offers your major. You can easily search for colleges by major using the College Board’s BigFuture or other search engines.

Does the college admit by major?

This information may be available on the admissions website for a particular college, but if it is not there, you can simply call or email the admissions office to ask.

What is a competitive major? What is an impacted major?

An impacted major is one which does not have enough spots for all students who want to enroll in it. By definition, impacted majors are competitive. A highly competitive major in one which has a much lower admission rate than the university as a whole.

Here is an example: Suppose you have a public university with an overall admission rate of 35%. It may have an engineering program that admits 20% of applicants, which is much more competitive than the university overall, as well as impacted—but still achievable for high-performing in-state students. However, if the university heavily restricts admissions for out of state students, like the University of Texas does, then the engineering admission rate for out of state students may be as low as 2%. That would make it highly competitive for out of state students, while just being competitive for in-state students. There are many programs like this at many universities, public and private.

Some of the most common competitive majors are Business, Engineering, Computer Science (which is often taught inside engineering colleges or departments), and Nursing, as well as performance or talent-based majors. If you are applying for one of these majors, be sure to look into how competitive and impacted they are. Universities may not publish prescise admissions rates for their majors, but they may describe majors as "impacted", or require you to fill out an extra application to be admitted to them. You may want to consider applying to additional colleges if you're set on studying in one of these fields. Even if you aren't planning to study one of these subjects, it's worth looking into whether any of your intended majors are impacted at the colleges you're applying to.

How competitive is the major?

Most colleges provide admissions statistics for prior years’ admitted classes and some (mostly public) institutions provide admissions statistics by college (e.g., College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, College of Engineering), but admission statistics by major are often not available. You can try calling the admissions offices to ask what the typical GPA and SAT/ACT scores are for admitted applicants to your prospective major, but colleges often won’t reveal those admissions statistics. Sometimes the college website (e.g., College of Business) will provide minimum or typical GPAs or test scores for admission. If you can’t find any information, plan to compare your GPA and SAT/ACT scores to the general pool of applicants, while understanding that to be admitted to a more competitive major means that you will need to have stronger grades and test scores than average.

Have you taken the classes recommended for this major?

You will also want to look at the courses recommended for that major to make sure that you are on track to complete, and do well in, those courses before you graduate from high school. For example, engineering and business schools typically look closely at applicants’ math courses and grades.

Do you need to show interest in this major?

While strong grades, test scores, and course work relative to other applicants to that major are important, admissions committees that use holistic admissions processes will also consider your interest in the major. For example, to be a competitive nursing applicant, you will need to have completed many hours of volunteering in a medical setting to assure the committee that you understand what a career in nursing entails.

Does the admissions committee consider alternate majors?

In some cases, you are allowed to list an alternate, or second-choice, major on your application. Call the admissions office to find out if that is a possibility, and also ask if they always consider the alternate major in the event that you are not admitted to your first-choice major.

Is it difficult to switch majors?

Depending on the college and major, it may be very easy to nearly impossible to transfer from a second- to first-choice major once you enroll at that college. Call the admissions office to find out how difficult it would be to switch to your first-choice major and ask if there are minimum (college) GPA and course requirements to transfer into that major. You should also ask how hard it would be to register for the necessary prerequisite courses for the first-choice major, as a non-major. For example, students who are not admitted to engineering or nursing may find it very difficult to register for the lower-division courses for those majors.

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If you know that you want to go into a certain profession, such as nursing, engineering, computer science, or business, it would be best to accept an offer of admission from a college or university that either does not admit by major or that admitted you directly into your first-choice major. By starting your college experience in your major of choice, you will have fewer worries about your performance in your classes and whether you will even get into the classes you need to transfer into the major. If you choose to accept an offer of admission into your second-choice major, you need to be comfortable with the possibility that you may not end up being admitted to your first-choice major later.

We always recommend that students have a healthy balance of likely, target and reach colleges on their list. As an applicant to a competitive major, you will need to achieve a balance that is based on the competitiveness of the major, rather than university overall. You may also want to include one college that admits “by the numbers,” which means that they admit all students who meet the minimum criteria for admission. Bear in mind that the minimum criteria for admission may vary depending on major.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please reach out to our counselors at Capstone. We are happy to help!

Featured image (top): James H. Clark Center, Stanford University, 2019. Photo by King of Hearts @ Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 Int'l.

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