How to Avoid Competitive Majors

Maybe it’s your dream to be an engineer. Or you really love working with computers. Or you managed to score a notoriously impossible 5 on the AP Biology exam, and you took that as a sign of things to come. You may be tempted to mention on your application that you want to apply to one of those, which happens to be one of the most popular college majors. Unless it’s an absolute requirement of the college to apply directly into a certain program, our advice is to tell colleges that you would prefer something else, then switch into your desired major if accepted.

Some majors are simply more competitive than others. This means that if you are aiming for entry to top colleges, you’ll make it that much harder for yourself if you express interest in those majors. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in one of those things, and we certainly aren’t telling you to give up on your dreams. We just believe that it would benefit you most to come up with alternatives to convey your passion while still doing something that you love.

What are the most popular majors, and how can I stay true to my interests?

The specifics of the most competitive majors vary from college to college. However, a few fields consistently appear on said lists, which you can see for yourself below. Here’s U.S. News’s data on the five most popular majors at America’s top six colleges:

  1. Princeton: Social sciences, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, computer and information sciences and support services, public administration and social service professions
  2. Harvard: General social sciences, general biology, general mathematics, computer science, general history
  3. Columbia: Social sciences, engineering, computer, and information sciences and support services, biological and biomedical sciences, visual and performing arts
  4. MIT: Computer science, mechanical engineering, general mathematics, general physics, electrical and electronics engineering
  5. Yale: Biological and biomedical sciences, engineering, history, mathematics and statistics, social sciences
  6. Stanford: Engineering, computer and information sciences and support services, multi/interdisciplinary studies, social studies, mathematics, and statistics

A few stand-alone, such as public service and visual/performing arts—and this is why you should look up the specifics of colleges you are applying to. We can also see there are many repeats on this list that speak to general trends in major competitiveness. Engineering, biology, and computer science are among them, with math following up close behind. In the humanities, history and social studies/social sciences have attracted the most students. Not pictured on this list are other common choices such as business, communications, and pre-med. Again, we’re not telling you never to pursue these things; we simply advise that if you are interested in one of these fields, you’ll have to think hard about ways to stand out. 

Ideally, you’ll have become aware of this early, so that you can plan your extracurriculars. Develop a balanced activity list, choosing extracurriculars you’re interested in outside of your dream major, and choosing activities that are related to that major while not being directly within them. For example, pick biophysics or bioethics instead of biology. Pick civil engineering instead of mechanical engineering. If you’re into a certain type of history, such as African-American history or East Asian history, choose African-American Studies or East Asian Studies instead of general history. Then, as stated before, once you enter college, transfer into the major of your choice.

What if I must apply for a major/What if it’s too late to shift extracurriculars?

Some colleges have separate engineering or business schools that you must apply directly for, and that would be an even more difficult process transferring into. You can’t avoid the competition there. You may also be reading this at a time when it’s too late to change or arrange your extracurriculars. If this is your situation, what can you do? Well, first things first, what’s done is done. Fortunately, our advice of finding a unique angle can apply just as much to you—with a few tweaks.

Let’s say you were super into engineering, and you’ve done a lot of extracurriculars towards that end. Try to think of a special angle that you can connect your extracurriculars to, and try to pick up another more specialized extracurricular if you still have the time. What’s a niche, lesser-known topic within this broad and popular field that you might enjoy, or have demonstrated enjoyment in? Applications in healthcare, such as prosthetics? Artificial intelligence, in which your philosophical side can also shine as you ponder the ethics of AI? Aerospace engineering and astrophysics, which will take humanity to the stars? Focus on that to set yourself apart.

How to Avoid/Handle Competitive Majors: A Summary

Look up the most popular majors at the colleges you apply to. Try your best to structure your extracurriculars around them early. If not, or if you have no choice but to apply directly to a certain program, find a unique spin on your activities; pick an angle that sets you apart.