One of the most important changes over the past few years in college admissions has been the increasing emphasis placed on an applicant’s intended major. Recently, selective colleges have moved toward preferring “pointy” students to “well-rounded” ones, meaning that they would like to admit students who, in addition to having strong statistics like GPA and standardized test scores, have begun to pursue their academic passions in substantive ways.
Colleges ask potential applicants to showcase these passions in various forms, particularly by asking about their fields of interest in essays, interviews, and other application materials, both to evaluate an applicant’s knowledge of their field and assess whether their academic programs are a good fit for the applicant’s interest. They also carefully review all applicants’ resumes to see whether they have pursued activities related to their intended major and thus evaluate whether they are sufficiently prepared to succeed at a high level in that field, in college and beyond.
What this also means is that colleges compare students within their stated majors of interest, which means if you’re going for a particularly popular major, you’re going to be trying to stand out from a big pool of other applicants! Colleges get many, many more qualified applicants for highly competitive majors like computer science, biology, engineering, and business than they can possibly admit, meaning that the strength of a student’s application for that specific field is even more important if they express interest in these hyper-popular majors.
Nowhere is this truer than for computer science, which was enormously competitive during the most recent application cycle. For instance, at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, which houses one of the best engineering and computer science schools in the country, the overall admission rate to the university was more than 50%, but the admission rate for computer science majors was under 7%. Although that disparity is, of course, an extreme example, the principle holds elsewhere: applying for computer science can turn a school that would ordinarily be in reach for an applicant into an unattainable goal.
So, what’s the best way to stand out if you’re applying to one of these ultra-competitive majors? For one thing, having an extraordinarily strong resume in high school is key. Colleges will look at every aspect of an applicant’s profile—their transcript, their extracurricular activities, their volunteer profile, their summer plans—and evaluate whether those experiences have prepared a student to excel in their chosen field. The more applicants they get for a particular major, the more exacting they will be in their review of these materials.
Beyond that, it’s also crucial that applicants convey their interest and goals in a field with specificity and sophistication. That means talking about past experiences, showing knowledge of current questions in the field, and being able to articulate their long-term goals, academic and professional. So, a student who is just interested in “biology” generally will not be nearly as compelling to admissions officers as someone who has specific intellectual questions within the field and who can articulate how the subject fits into their broader aspirations.
Additionally, it’s important that applicants tailor their application materials to a particular college’s resources in their field of interest. What courses will you take to further your developing expertise in your intended major? Does that college have professors currently researching the kinds of questions and topics that interest you about that field? Are there grant or scholarship opportunities to pursue your specific interests? Answering these questions in your application materials will be an asset when it comes to standing out from the pack.
Finally, although you might be tempted to check a different major in the application in hopes of avoiding these challenges, admissions officers are adept at telling whether someone is trying to hide their “true” interest. So, if you’re in the programming club, taking computer science classes over the summer, and taking part in hackathons and coding competitions, and you select “history” as your intended major, admissions officers will not be fooled. Not only would you not square up against history majors who have pursued activities related to history, you’ll likely be kicked over to the computer science pile anyway—and compared to the applicants in that more competitive pool.
Taking all of these factors into account, what’s the best approach if you’re excited to major in a very popular field in college? In essence, it’s the same as for any field—explore your passions in high school, build a strong profile in your interests, and write great application materials! And if you’re looking for more specific advice about how to stand out from the pack in your chosen field, give us a call.
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