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Over the past several years, certain high-demand academic majors have become increasingly selective at colleges and universities across the country. The prime examples of these often direct-entry majors include computer science, engineering, business and nursing, and if anything will continue to experience growing popularity. The finite number of seats in these programs has led to intense competition that isn’t always reflected in the overall acceptance rates that colleges publish.

Competition for Admission as a Computer Science Major

Take computer science, for which the National Science Foundation says the number of majors in the United States has increased by more than 200% since 2010, driven by demand for the skills they impart and the relatively high starting salaries of graduates with computer science degrees. But because comp sci’s popularity as a major has far outpaced universities’ ability to invest in program expansion, the major’s admission rates continue to fall. For example, in 2021, the overall acceptance rate at Carnegie Mellon university was 17%, while that of its undergraduate comp sci program was just 5.3%. Or take an even starker example: the University of Washington, where the overall, out of state admission rate is 46%, but for those same students applying to comp sci, the admission rate drops to 2%.

Planning for Admission in Competitive Majors

Students who seek undergraduate degrees in the most competitive fields should look beyond snapshot admissions data as they work to assess which programs may be the most accessible for them. Sometimes the information can be found online, such as in this University of Minnesota data showing the average class ranks, GPAs and test scores of 2023’s incoming freshman at each of its eight schools. Note the relatively higher metrics for students admitted to the nursing, engineering, business and biological sciences programs.

Other times, admissions representatives will include data by major or school in presentations or may give it out if asked. Purdue University’s admissions office recently provided stats on a recent incoming freshman class. Overall, the middle 50% had ACT scores ranging from 27-34, SATs from 1210-1450, and GPAs from 3.6-4.0. The metrics for incoming comp sci majors, by contrast, were ACT 33-35, GPA 3.9-4.0, SAT 1490-1560. For engineering, they were ACT 31-34, GPA 3.8-4.0 and SAT 1400-1530.

Rising selectivity for in-demand majors is likely to continue as students seek to specialize in fields that impart marketable, in-demand skills. Even as colleges direct resources to program expansion, students desiring highly selective majors should make no assumptions about admission even at schools with high overall admissions rates. They would do well to expand their search and consider schools that weren’t previously on their radar – and, of course, to continue to distinguish themselves with excellent academics and extracurriculars.

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