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How Academic Majors Can Impact College Acceptance Rates

Many colleges’ acceptance rates can vary significantly by academic major.

When teenagers are applying to a college, they often gauge their chances by looking at a university’s overall acceptance rate. That statistic, however, rarely tells the whole story.

Here’s an example: The acceptance rate at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, a popular school that specializes in practical majors like engineering, food science and architecture, has an overall acceptance rate of 61%.

That acceptance rate would seem doable for smart students. What your clients and their children don’t understand, however, is that whether a student gets accepted to a college can highly depend on the teenager’s declared academic major.

I recently helped a family friend’s daughter think strategically about declaring a major on her application to Cal Poly Pomona. Maria, who will be applying to this school, has a 3.3 grade point average. At this school, an applicant must declare a major on their application, and they have the option of including a second choice.  

Knowing that plenty of schools use the declared major in their acceptance decisions, I contacted the admissions office at Cal Poly to see what the odds for acceptance would be for different majors that interested Maria. While the rep didn’t give me acceptance rates for different majors, she did share the average GPA for accepted students for specific academic disciplines.

Maria’s No. 1 pick for a major was originally architecture, and that worried me because I knew that few state universities in California offered architecture so the competition would be fierce. And sure enough, the admissions representative told me that the average GPA for successful applicants wanting to major in architecture was 4.07.

Her second choice was business, for which successful applicants have an average GPA of 3.5. We focused on international business since she is bilingual, and we thought there might be less competition for this business major because of a foreign language requirement.

I told Maria that her chances of getting into Cal Poly’s architecture program were just about nil. I advised her not to risk getting rejected by putting this as her first choice. Instead, I asked her if she’d be interested in urban planning, which was probably the closest major to architecture offered at the school. The average successful applicant for an urban-planning major has a 3.1 GPA. And finally, based on my conversation with her, I suggested that she might want to look at the school’s hospitality major, which operates its own hotel and restaurant. The average GPA for that major is 2.5.

Unfortunately, many schools will not share the kind of information that I got from Cal Poly. When I called San Diego State University, for instance, the admissions rep would tell me only the overall average GPA of students who are accepted. Unfortunately, San Diego State lets applicants choose only one major so there is no fallback to include. When I asked about the feasibility of choosing “undeclared” as a major, the San Diego State rep suggested that it is probably one of the more competitive options.

Luckily, most colleges and universities allow applicants to choose an alternative major. College Transitions, a national college counseling firm that shares free, invaluable college information on its website, maintains a list of selective schools that indicates if a secondary pick is allowed.

College Transitions published an excellent post on its blog focusing on the need to be careful when selecting academic majors. “We strongly feel,” the authors stated, “that choice of major is one of the least discussed and most highly impactful components of the college application decision-making process.”

The post offered a few examples of what kind of academic profiles are necessary for different areas of study. It included statistics for the University of California, Berkeley, which doesn’t release freshman admission data by major, but it does provide information for transfer students. At Berkeley, only 4% of transfer applicants were accepted for computer science, as well as business administration. In contrast, the school accepted 53% of art history majors, 58% of American studies majors and 51% of philosophy majors.

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, accepted education majors had earned SAT scores with a middle 50% range of 1160 to 1350 and an unweighted GPA of 3.36 to 3.80. in contrast, the middle SAT range for accepted engineering students was much higher at 1440 to 1540 and a GPA range of 3.75 to 4.0.

While it makes sense to think strategically when declaring a major, the U.S. Department of Education has said that about 30% of undergraduates end up switching majors at least once. This makes sense because teenagers are exposed to only a limited number of academic disciplines in high school, which is why college is ideally supposed to offer an opportunity to explore different disciplines.

The reality, however, is that it can be difficult at some universities to change majors or move from one college within a university to another, such as from engineering to business. That’s why it makes sense to explore how easy or difficult it is to switch majors when exploring individual schools.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a nationally recognized college expert, offers an online course—Savvy College Planning—exclusively for financial advisors.

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