Does your major affect your acceptance into colleges? Can choosing a less popular major give you a better shot at getting into your dream school? If so, what major is easiest to get into college with?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the role your intended major plays in college admissions and which majors are "best" for people hoping for a higher admission chance. This guide will explain everything you need to know on how your major affects your admission, which majors are typically the most competitive and least competitive, and if it's a good idea to choose a major based on acceptance rates.
Does Your Major Affect Your Acceptance Into Colleges?
Does your major affect admission into a particular college? The simple answer is: no. In the vast majority of cases, your intended major does not affect your chances of being accepted to a certain school. A big part of this is because colleges know many students will change their major sometime during college. Data shows that about a third of students will change their major, and about 1 in 10 will change their major more than once.
Colleges are well aware of this. This means that, in most cases, colleges don't consider the major you put on your application to be binding or even an accurate predictor of what degree you actually end up graduating with. Many colleges don't even require students to officially declare a major until the end of their sophomore year because they expect students to change their minds as they take different classes. So your intended major isn't a factor schools consider, in most cases.
When Does Your Major Impact Your Acceptance Chances?
There are some instances when your major does impact your admission chances. This typically occurs with large public universities with multiple departments and limited slots for each major. The most well-known is the University of California system, nine schools that together enroll more than 280,000 students. The UC schools hire faculty and staff based on predetermined enrollment numbers of different majors, and they wouldn't be able to accommodate it, say, if 10,000 students suddenly switched from engineering to political science. So students get put into slots based on their intended major and, while it's possible for them to change their major once they're enrolled, they're not always guaranteed a new spot.
To make sure they have enough resources for each student, schools like the UC schools will consider intended majors when making admissions decisions. So, if you're applying as a communications major, and they've already filled all their communications major slots, it's possible you could be denied admission while you would have been accepted if you'd applied with a different major. However, even in these scenarios, your intended major will only be a factor if you're on the cusp of being admitted. If you're a strong applicant who schools want, they'll generally be able to find a place for you.
Some schools also cap certain majors at a specific number and/or have more competitive requirements for certain majors, even if they don't consider intended majors for the majority of their applicants. This is often the case for nursing programs (which often have lower admission rates than the rest of a school), or a program the school is particularly well-known for. For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign has a renowned engineering program. It factors intended majors into admissions decisions, and its engineering programs typically have lower acceptance rates than those of other departments. The same is true for the University of Pennsylvania. Its Wharton School of Business is one of the highest-ranked business schools in the country, and getting accepted as a business major is generally harder than getting accepted as, say, a chemistry major.
Does Choosing an Obscure Major Improve Your Chances of Getting Accepted?
Some students think that choosing a less common major will give them a leg up in admissions. However, there are several problems with this. First, as we mentioned above, most colleges don't admit a set number of certain majors. For these schools, your intended major will have no impact on your application process, regardless of how popular or obscure it is.
Second, majors with low enrollment numbers are at risk of being downsized or even eliminated. For example, Illinois Wesleyan University, a small private university, recently eliminated its French, Italian, religion, anthropology, and American cultural studies programs because enrollment had been steadily declining. The reduction of humanities programs is happening at many universities across the country, so applying to a less popular major can actually hurt you if the school is planning to eliminate that major soon. Even if they're keeping the majors, there may also just be a very small number of open slots for more obscure majors, so they can actually be more competitive than popular majors.
Third, and most important, one of the best ways to impress a college is showing your commitment to your future area of study. For example, if you want to major in engineering, we'd recommend a lot of math classes, high scores on the Math section of the SAT or ACT, participation in math competitions, a strong letter of recommendation from one of your math teachers, for example. If you want to be a journalist, we'd recommend high level English classes, participation in the student newspaper, or even debate competitions.
We call this a spike, and it's an extremely effective way to stand out from the thousands of other applications colleges review. This means that your application will be stronger if you're applying to a very competitive major and have a strong application that ties into it compared to applying to an obscure major that doesn't seem to tie into your class or extracurricular choices. Taking a lot of, say, writing and English classes and choosing Mechanical Engineering as your intended major will likely only confuse college admissions teams, rather than impress them.
What Major Is Easiest to Get Into College With?
So choosing an obscure major isn't a guarantee of an increased chance of getting into college. But are there certain majors that improve your chance of getting into college? Possibly, but before we get into them it's important to know that there are much more effective ways to improve your admissions chances compared to picking a less common major. Your major, at best, will only ever have a small impact on your applications, possibly helping you if you are right on the cusp of being admitted or not. To really improve your chances of getting into your dream school, it's much more effective to focus on your grades, test scores, extracurriculars, personal statement, and/or letters of recommendation.
However, it is true that, for schools that consider majors, certain majors have higher acceptance rates than others. Below we go over some of the more competitive majors and some of the least competitive majors. It's important to remember that this will vary by school, but we've included examples of particular schools to show how the data actually looks. This data comes from a combination of the most current admissions statistics provided on individual schools’ websites, data from US News and World Report, and the data compiled in this spreadsheet by a helpful Redditor! We’ve focused on UC System schools since they have the most complete data sets, but these trends typically hold true across other schools’ admissions statistics as well.
More Competitive Majors
This will vary by school, but these majors are often particularly competitive and have lower acceptance rates than the school's average.
Nursing programs are often very rigorous, so schools only want to accept students they're confident have the motivation and work ethic to complete the program. This means that nursing programs are often highly competitive. At UCLA, the acceptance rate for the entire school is 10.7%, but, in 2021, the acceptance rate for the nursing program was just 1%! Other schools may not be this extreme, but if a school has a separate nursing program or reviews nursing applications separate from the general pool, it's often harder to get accepted as a nursing major.
Business-related majors, such as business administration, accounting, and finance, are some of the most popular majors for undergraduates, so spots for them are often in demand. This is especially true at schools with highly-ranked business programs, where students from all across the country will be vying for a spot.
Computer Science is exploding in demand, and students have been enrolling in rapidly rising numbers. At many schools, it's not only the most popular major in engineering departments, it's one of the most popular majors at the school.
In 2021, for the University of Washington, the admission rate for Computer Science majors was only 9%, well below the school’s overall acceptance rate of 56% for that year. Similarly, at UC Berkeley, the acceptance rate for 2020 applicants to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences major was just 5%, which makes the school’s overall acceptance rate of 18% seem pretty generous!
Fine Arts programs (such as Studio Art, Drama, Dance, Theater, etc. majors) often have a lot of competition for limited slots. Especially for highly-ranked programs, competition can be stiff. Carnegie Mellon University released acceptance rates for different departments. In 2020, the university as a whole had an acceptance rate of about 15%, but its School of Drama had by far the lowest acceptance rate, at only 4%. However, these statistics can vary widely by school and program, depending on how highly it is ranked. For example, the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon had an acceptance rate of 31%.
Less Competitive Majors
What's the easiest major to get into college? Again, this varies by school, but these majors often have higher acceptance rates than the school's average.
Mechanical Engineering and Materials Engineering
These two are often the least popular engineering specialties to major in, which can make them easier to get into, especially compared to more competitive engineering degrees like computer science. While UC Irvine had an acceptance rate of 13% for Computer Science majors, it had an acceptance rate of 24% for Mechanical Engineering and 32% for Materials Engineering in 2019.
Social Science Majors
As many recent college graduates have struggled to find jobs, there's been a general shift away from social science majors, such as history and political science. This decline is fairly recent, so many schools still have a high number of professors and staff to support more new students than they're getting. As a result, some of these majors can be easier to get into. At UCLA (overall acceptance rate of 12%), history majors have a whopping 51% acceptance rate, art history has a 46% acceptance rate, political science is 33%, sociology is 36%, and anthropology is 28%. At UC Irvine (overall acceptance rate of 26%), art history majors have a 43% acceptance rate, and urban studies majors have a 41% acceptance rate, both of which are significantly higher than the general acceptance rate.
Mathematics, Statistics, and other pure math concentrations have never been as popular as related majors like engineering. However, because lots of students need to take math classes, universities often have lots of math professors and therefore lots of spots for math majors. This can make these majors less competitive but, make no mistake, you'll need to show exceptional math skills to be considered a strong applicant for a math major. At UC Berkeley, the acceptance rate for Statistics majors is 32%, and it's 26% for Mathematics majors. At UCLA, Statistics majors have an acceptance rate of 39%, and Mathematics majors have an acceptance rate of 37%. At UC Irvine, the acceptance rate for Mathematics majors was 34% in 2019.
Should You Choose a Certain Major to Increase Your Chances of Admission?
We don't recommend choosing a major you're not interested in to increase your college admission chances. There are four main reasons for this:
Most schools don't factor your intended major into their admissions decisions.
It can be difficult to know which majors are more or less competitive at a certain school.
Colleges want your classes and extracurriculars to relate to your chosen major. Randomly choosing an obscure major that you don't seem interested in won't impress them.
After you've been accepted, it can be challenging to change to the major you actually want.
So, for most people, we don't recommend trying to game the system by choosing a certain major. You're much better off strengthening other areas of your application, such as your grades, test scores, and personal statement.
However, there are a few instances where choosing a different major may give a small boost to your admission chances. This only works for colleges that factor intended majors into their admissions decisions (these are often large public schools). If you find that certain majors have a much higher admission rate, you may want to list one as your intended major. Before you do, however, consider three very important things:
Do you actually know that this major will make it easier to get into that school? As you've seen in this article, choosing an "unpopular" major doesn't necessarily mean you'll have an easier time getting accepted. Only base your decision off actual admissions data, not just a feeling that this will be an easier path.
Does your application show your interest in your stated major? If it doesn't (say, you're applying as a statistics major but have taken primarily English and social science classes and haven't been in any STEM extracurriculars), it'll just look random to colleges and will likely hurt you.
How easy is it to change majors? Colleges that consider intended major often have a certain number of slots for each major, and the major you actually want may be full by the time you switch. That is not a situation you want to be in, so be sure you fully understand the process for changing your major.
As you can see, choosing a major for the purpose of making it easier to get into college is rarely helpful, and it can be risky in some cases.
What are the best college majors? We've come up with a list of the very best majors by looking at their salary potential and employment growth. See if your major made the cut!
Considering double majoring? We tell you what a double major is and go over the pros and cons of having two majors in college.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.