What is the right major for my student?
What if my student wants to apply to a popular major? Does it reduce his/her chances of gaining admission to his/her dream school?
What are alternate majors and how do they play into the admissions process?
These are just a few of the questions that parents ask about majors during the college application process. As if choosing the right college to apply to is not stressful enough, students today must also think strategically about choosing the right major. Depending on what major a student applies for, admissions results can vary since applying to popular majors (also known as impacted majors) is significantly more competitive than applying to non-impacted majors. Here are some of the reasons why impacted majors are harder to get into:
More Applicants: There are significantly more students applying to these majors (sometimes two to five times more students than the university can accept for that major).
More Competitive Applicants: Students applying to top tier universities and impacted majors are usually extremely well qualified with 3.8 GPA or above, SAT 1 scores of 2200+, and SAT subject tests of 700 – 750.
Identical Class Space: Unfortunately, even with more students applying and better qualified applicants, most universities do not have the budget to expand classroom sizes to meet the growing demand.
What is an alternative major? Alternative majors are majors that students can apply for that are related to the impacted major, but are not as popular and therefore do not receive as many applications. They usually have less stringent admission requirements than the impacted major, but can still offer similar coursework and employment opportunities after graduation. Below are examples of three impacted majors and their corresponding alternative majors:
1) Impacted Major: Business Administration/Economics: This is the most popular major in the country (with over 8% of college students graduating with that major). Since there are so many business graduates, going to a high-ranking university especially helps when applying for a first job out of college. UPenn, Berkeley, USC, and NYU have some of the most prestigious business programs.
Alternative Business Administration/Economics Majors:
2) Impacted Major: Biology/Pre-Med/Pre-Dental/Pre-Pharmacy: Biology is a very popular major among students seeking a medical profession, whether it is as a doctor, dentist, or pharmacist. This is because most of the undergraduate courses required for application to these graduate programs are already covered in the Biology major. John Hopkins University, Stanford, Cornell, and UCSD are some of the most highly-regarded biology programs with high acceptance rates into healthcare-related graduate schools.
Alternative Biology Majors:
• Marine Biology
• Environmental Science
3) Computer/Electrical/Mechanical Engineering: Engineering majors have always been popular, but they are now becoming even more so as parents and students see that the skills developed can be leveraged in almost any profession. Typically engineering majors require students to have taken a very heavy science and math course load in high school with high grades. MIT, Caltech, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University are world renown for their engineering programs.
Alternative Engineering Majors:
• Comp Science (College of Letters and Science)
• Information Technology (IT)
• Applied Math
Benefits of Alternative Majors:
The first benefit of alternative majors is an improved admission chance. Based on prior year admissions data, TTL has seen that students applying for an alternative major, instead of an impacted major, can have a 10 -15% improved chance of gaining admission into a desired college. Usually these students have a GPA and SAT range slightly below the average of the college they’re applying to, and choosing an alternative major can help them get accepted. This is by far the biggest reason TTL recommends students to apply for alterative majors.
Secondly, students still have a lot of flexibility with alternative majors and can transfer into their first-choice major in college. Most universities do not require students to declare and commit to a major until their Junior year. This means that students have two years to take the same pre-requisite courses as they would have with their first-choice major, and then apply to transfer into that major. This process is possible, but the degree of difficulty varies with each major and college.
Challenges of Alternative Majors:
The first challenge of alternative majors–transferring into a first-choice major can very difficult depending on the major, if it is in the same school of the university (e.g. School of Engineering vs. College of Letters and Science vs. School of Business), and on the policies and procedures of the university (i.e. whether a separate application is required or not). This process can be very cumbersome and there is no guarantee that the transfer will be approved. Transferring majors within the same college is usually very straightforward, but transferring into a different college usually requires almost a 4.00 GPA during the first two years of college in order to be considered.
The last challenge is that most universities have an admission essay prompt that ask students to explain why they selected their specific major. Some students struggle with writing a persuasive essay on a major that they are not familiar with or do not have a genuine interest in. This can obviously hurt a student’s admissions chances, so it is important to think carefully about whether choosing an alternative major is the right choice and if it can be backed-up with their life experience, essay, and overall application profile.
Like with all things related to the college admissions process, the major selected is just one part of the entire application. It is important to realize the role it plays, but also to see it as part of the bigger picture. In the end, the most important aspects will still be the student’s grades, test scores, and what unique qualities and experiences he or she brings to the university.
By John Chen , ThinkTank Learning Admissions Consultant and Academic Counselor