Major Competition: The Rise of Highly Competitive Majors

By March 29, 2023 No Comments

by Paula Wheeler

Over the past several years certain high-demand academic majors have become increasingly selective at colleges and universities across the country. As majors including computer science, engineering, business and nursing 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.

Take computer science, for which the National Science Foundation says the number 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%.

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 2022’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 26-33, SATs from 1210-1420, and GPAs from 2.5-3.9. The metrics for incoming comp sci majors, by contrast, were ACT 32-34, GPA 3.6-3.95, SAT 1400-1500. For engineering, they were ACT 30-34, GPA 3.7-3.96 and SAT 1360-1480.

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 and extracurriculars.