Major Selection Effect of College Admissions

As April arrives, Emily, a high school senior hailing from the East Coast and aspiring engineering student, eagerly awaits responses from her prospective colleges. With stellar test scores (1530 SAT) and near-perfect grades, mostly in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, she anticipates exciting news. However, her college admissions journey takes an unexpected turn when she receives rejection letters from Purdue and UIUC—both schools boasting acceptance rates of over 60%. Yet, her delight knows no bounds when she secures acceptances from USC and NYU, prestigious institutions with acceptance rates of less than 13%.

Emily’s friends and family are bewildered by this turn of events. How could she gain admission to two esteemed colleges while facing rejections from public institutions known for their higher acceptance rates? However, Emily remains unfazed by the outcome. Thanks to the guidance of her insightful college counselor, she was well-prepared for the complexities of the highly competitive admissions process, particularly for sought-after majors like engineering.

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The most competitive college majors

Identifying the most competitive college majors is a challenge, as it encompasses various factors that can vary widely across institutions. However, based on our observations, computer science emerges as the most fiercely contested major in the United States, closely followed by all branches of engineering. Business stands out in the next tier, often joined by pre-med tracks like biology at select elite institutions.

From our experience, we emphasize the significance of major selection in the college application process, a factor often overlooked yet profoundly impactful. While some parents and students may possess a degree of awareness regarding the competitiveness of certain majors, the stark reality often exceeds their expectations. This disparity between perception and reality underscores the importance of informed decision-making when navigating the highly competitive landscape of college admissions.

Missteps in Evaluating Admission Chances for Highly Competitive Majors

When it comes to gauging admission prospects for highly competitive majors, relying solely on conventional metrics can lead to misguided assessments. While metrics like a school’s overall acceptance rate, median standardized test scores, and GPA of accepted students are commonly scrutinized, they may not accurately reflect the challenges associated with admission to certain disciplines.

In many cases, these statistics serve as a solid starting point for evaluating admission chances at a particular institution. If your academic profile closely mirrors that of the typical admitted or enrolled student at University X, it’s reasonable to assume you have a fair chance of acceptance. However, when it comes to applying to highly competitive majors, such as computer science or engineering, placing undue emphasis on these metrics can be likened to assessing a baseball player’s potential success in the majors based solely on their performance in little league.

Redefining Reach, Target, and Safety Schools for Competitive Majors

For high-achieving students eyeing competitive majors, the traditional categorization of colleges as reach, target, or safety schools may require a rethink. Often, students with stellar credentials find themselves puzzled by college lists curated by professionals.

“Why isn’t Purdue engineering considered a ‘safety’ for me?” questions an engineering student with exceptional qualifications. Similarly, a computer science applicant with Ivy League aspirations may be taken aback to hear that the University of Maryland, boasting a 50% acceptance rate, is labeled a “reach.”

Conversations like these are commonplace, particularly among strong students vying for spots in undergraduate business programs or engineering schools at institutions like Indiana University—Bloomington, UIUC, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Also see Gender Disparities in College Admissions: Analyzing Advantages for Men and Women

A Strategic Approach: Consider Alternative Majors

Aware of the fierce competition in STEM and business fields, some parents contemplate presenting their aspiring engineer as a fine arts or English major. However, the feasibility of this strategy hinges on the student’s genuine interest and involvement in those areas through elective choices and extracurricular activities. While it may seem strategic, the presentation must remain authentic.

It’s important to note that this approach doesn’t need to be applied uniformly across all applications. Tailoring your strategy to each institution can significantly impact your admissions outcomes. For instance, you might prioritize acceptance to your top-choice major at one institution, while being open to studying a related field like psychology or sociology at another. Flexibility and thoughtful consideration can make a substantial difference in your overall admissions journey.

Consider Your Second Choice Major: A Strategic Approach

When applying to colleges, it’s essential to consider not only your first-choice major but also a backup option. While some institutions, like Northwestern, the University of Michigan, and Virginia Tech, have policies that prohibit listing an alternative major, most universities allow applicants to designate a second-choice major.

However, it’s crucial to approach this decision thoughtfully. Your second-choice major shouldn’t be arbitrary; instead, it should align with your goals and interests, allowing you to make a compelling case for its suitability. Before making your selection, take the time to research and reflect on potential backup majors that resonate with you.

Navigating Major Changes: Considerations for Transfer

Another important factor to consider is how easy it is to switch between majors at your chosen institution. While some universities offer flexibility, allowing students to transition between schools or colleges with relative ease, others impose stricter limitations.

For instance, at some universities, such as UMass—Amherst, transferring into competitive majors like the Isenberg School of Management may be highly selective or unavailable altogether. Before committing to a college, it’s essential to understand its policies regarding internal transfers and the feasibility of changing majors if your academic interests evolve.

By carefully considering both your first-choice and backup majors, as well as the institution’s policies on major changes, you can make informed decisions that align with your academic and career aspirations.


When navigating the college admissions process, it’s crucial to approach major selection strategically and thoughtfully. Considering both your first-choice major and a backup option can increase your chances of admission and ensure alignment with your academic and career aspirations. While some institutions may restrict the listing of alternative majors, most allow applicants to designate a second choice, provided it’s well-reasoned and relevant to their goals. Additionally, understanding the policies and procedures for changing majors within a university is essential for long-term academic planning. Some institutions offer flexibility in transferring between schools or colleges, while others impose stricter limitations, particularly for competitive majors.

By carefully evaluating your options and considering the potential for major changes, you can make informed decisions that support your academic journey and future success. Ultimately, approaching major selection with foresight and flexibility can pave the way for a fulfilling and enriching college experience.