Can I Switch Into a Competitive STEM Major?

Thinking of a career in STEM? 

As you’re working on building your college list and preparing your college applications, there are a few things you may want to keep in mind before choosing your 1st and 2nd choice majors.

Over the past 10 years, there’s been a 245% increase in students majoring in Computer ​​and Information Sciences. Because there are only so many seats in their classrooms, and only so many professors in their Computer Science departments, colleges simply can’t keep up with the demand. 

As a result, some some colleges with particularly popular tech majors have resorted to implementing a Restricted or Capacity-Constrained major system, where students must fulfill extremely rigorous requirements (either when applying as a freshman, or when applying to switch their major at any point in their college journey) in order to become eligible to declare their desired major. In some cases, even once students have fulfilled all the requirements, they’re still not guaranteed a spot in the program; they’ll need to submit additional application materials (including essays and a resume) if they want to even stand a chance.

Each year, new College Counseling enrollees here at Vanguard approach us with plans to apply for the most competitive Computer Science programs in the country, fully unaware of the challenges that would await them.

In those cases, after taking a full survey of every single component of their application– including test scores, GPA, transcripts and AP credits, resume activities, and essays– if we’re able to conclude that the student’s profile will pale in comparison to other applicants for that particular major, we follow one of these two strategies:

  1. Help them map out a plan to raise their GPA or test scores, and add meaningful, tech-oriented professional experiences to their resume, or 

  1. If it’s too late in the year to improve their profile, we guide them through the process of exploring other similar, less competitive majors with the same career trajectory.

Tech-oriented majors are often sought after by some of the most high-achieving, brightest students in the world, many of whom have their sights set on schools like University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Washington Seattle, and Purdue. While these schools aren’t even in the top 30-ranked colleges in the US, because they have such highly-renowned CS majors, even an extremely bright student’s chances of admission could plummet as soon as they select “Computer Science” as their major choice on the application.

UIUC actually provides us with data on acceptance rates by major in their incoming freshman classes. This is a great resource to applicants, because most schools don’t make this information publicly available, so we’re left trying to extrapolate data from other sources of information to get an estimate of acceptance rates by major.

Check this out:

UIUC’s overall acceptance rate sits at 44.8% for the 2022 application cycle, while its CS acceptance rate sits at a shocking 6.7%.

Its CS+ interdisciplinary majors, on the other hand, average a 25.4% acceptance rate. 

CS+ interdisciplinary majors allow students to integrate a secondary area of interest (such as Anthropology, Economics, Chemistry, or Music) with their Computer Science studies, allowing them to develop a specialized niche within the field. While their acceptance rates are still far more competitive than most majors in the university, and students with strong applications get turned down each year, these are a great, lower-risk option for any student interested in a tech career.

After reading all this, you might be wondering, “Can’t I just change my major after I get in?”

And it’s a good question! Because switching your major in college is actually quite common. I switched my major twice! It’s totally okay to change your mind and explore your options. Typically, as a freshman or sophomore, it’s as simple as meeting with your advisor to make sure you still have time to take all the classes you need before graduation, and then filling out a basic form.

But when it comes to restricted or capacity-constrained majors, you’re playing with a whole different deck of cards.

While at most schools it’s technically possible to switch into a capacity-constrained or restricted major, I always strongly warn my students against this route. It can get incredibly risky.

Let’s take a look at the requirements for switching your major to CS at Purdue:

  • First of all, you’ll need to apply to switch through an application Purdue calls Change of Degree Objective (CODO). The CODO application deadline is 5pm on the Thursday of finals week each semester. And what’s the CS department going to be looking for on that application?

1) You must have taken CS 18000 and gotten a B or higher (A- or higher is preferred). But here’s the catch: this course is only offered in Spring and Summer to non-CS majors. However, space in the class is limited because it’s so popular, and your registration will be prioritized after the AI majors who are required to take it in the spring.

2) You also must have taken a Calculus course that meets CS degree requirements (and they prefer you to get at least a B in that class).

3) It’s strongly recommended that you have at least a 3.0 GPA overall. 

* It’s also important to note that if you don’t get the grade you need to meet these requirements, you’re granted just one single attempt to retake the class.

Even after fulfilling each of the above requirements, you’re still not guaranteed a spot. The department accepts applicants on a space-available basis through a holistic review process (meaning they take your entire profile into consideration). It’s basically like applying to college all over again! At some schools, you’ll even need to write an essay or two. 

So when it comes time to choose where you’re applying and what you want to major in, it’s crucial that you do some research to answer the following questions:

(1) How popular is my intended major at each school?

(2) What is the acceptance rate for that major at each school?

(3) What are the major switch requirements for that major? (In case you get placed into your second-choice major instead).

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If you’ve got your sights set on a career in Tech, don’t let these obstacles hold you back. Instead, be sure to get a head-start on the college application process in order to allow yourself plenty of time to investigate the specifics of the major programs you’re interested in. And if you’re not yet a Senior, set some time aside to map out what resume-building activities you want to accomplish before your final year of high school, so you can really wow admissions committees with concrete evidence that you are paving your way toward the career of your dreams.

Madison B.

College Counselor

Washington University St. Louis (Full Scholarship Recipient)

Applying to college? Find out more about our college counseling services here!

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