For many colleges, there is one undergraduate school that all students apply to. That school will contain all of the college’s undergraduate programs, so if you are accepted and choose to attend that college, you will have access to all of the college’s undergraduate classes, resources, and major choices. However, this isn’t the only type of college. There are a number other colleges which have multiple undergraduate schools, each with a specialization in a certain area. For example, Northwestern has six different undergraduate schools—when you apply, you don’t apply to Northwestern as a whole; rather, you apply to a specific school or program of your choice. Each school has a different applicant pool, and as a result, some schools are more competitive than others to gain admission into. In addition, some colleges that only have one undergraduate school still segment their applicants by dividing them into different pools based on intended major choice (i.e. engineers vs. non-engineers). Some colleges are currently striving to attract more talented engineers, so whether you apply as an engineer or not can make a difference in certain cases. This might seem very confusing at first, and questions might already be popping into your head:

Perhaps you’re a potential engineer applying to Brown, a school that has been trying to attract more engineers recently—you’re definitely interested in engineering, but you still don’t know with absolute certainty that you’ll want to pursue it as your major. Should you write that extra essay and apply as an engineer?

Or perhaps you’re dead set on pursuing computer science—you absolutely love Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, but the competition for the school of computer science is stiff, and you’re not sure you can get in. You’re not exactly interested in studying social sciences, but Dietrich, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, has a less competitive applicant pool, and you have a strong shot to be admitted there. Should you apply to Dietrich and try to transfer into the School of Computer Science?


Here are some tips for deciding which school or major to apply to within a college.

For Choosing a Major:

  • Research the college’s needs.For some schools (like Brown and Yale), engineers are underrepresented in the student body, and having a balanced student body is important to the school. As a result, these schools are looking for talented engineers to fill up that void (Note: for other schools, like Swarthmore, even though there are few engineers, their admissions committee doesn’t see it as a problem, and thus, will not do anything to act on it). For engineer-seeking schools, applying as an engineer may give you a slight edge, as the competition in the engineering applicant pool may be less fierce than the competition in the regular applicant pool. For schools that have no shortage of engineering talent, like Princeton, applying as an engineer won’t give you an edge—rather, it will just put you in a different pool of applicants to be compared to. Of course, schools’ needs vary year to year, so there are no guarantees about whether applying as a certain major will help on a given year. Unfortunately, colleges generally don’t directly publicize their needs for certain kinds of applicants, so you’ll have to do some digging around to see what they are. There isn’t one single source you can rely on for this information; usually, the best way to find it is to read news about the college—that’s where you can find information about the college’s plans moving forward. You’ll also want to be aware of what the college’s current makeup is. Applying as an engineer to an already engineering-heavy school won’t help your chances even if the school is planning to further focus on engineering moving forward.
  • Evaluate your own application. Looking at your application, does it make sense that someone with your profile might want to major in the subject you’re putting on your application? If the major you choose seems completely unrelated to the rest of your application, some eyebrows may be raised when your application is read. For instance, if you’ve taken a very humanities-heavy course load, received recommendations from your English and history teachers, only taken the minimum number of required math and science courses to graduate, and indicate that you want to be an engineer, admission officers might scratch their heads. In this case, unless you have extracurriculars or experiences outside of school that show your passion for engineering, it might be wiser to hold off on applying as an engineer.
  • It’s generally disadvantageous to apply as a specific major unless you are genuinely interested in it. If you’re applying as an engineer to Brown just because you think it’ll be easier to get in, it will probably show in your application. The last thing you want is to have an otherwise stellar application land in the rejections pile because the admissions officers felt a disconnect between your intended major and the rest of your application. In addition, there’s no absolute guarantee that putting yourself in the engineering applicant pool would even help you in the first place—schools have different needs every year and the applicant pool varies as well.
  • Before applying as a specific major, make sure you have something to write about for the additional major-specific essay.If you have nothing to say about your interest in your intended major, it may not be the best to indicate that as your major, as you might not be able to write a convincing essay. Moreover, it may suggest that perhaps that major isn’t what you’re truly interested in—if you’re passionate about a particular field of study, it’s usually easy to talk or write about your interest in it.

Applying as a specific major can be advantageous, but can also be risky, especially if you’re applying as a certain major solely for the purpose of trying to increase your chances of admission into a college. If you’re dead-set on a certain major and it’s genuinely what you want to study, then by all means—apply as that major. However, if you’re just trying to find another way to gain an edge over other applicants, this is a risky route to take. If you’re able to write a convincing essay, the college you’re applying to has a need for your intended major, and your major fits with the rest of your profile, then perhaps you may gain an advantage. However, if you don’t execute this plan successfully, you run the risk of imparting the “pieces-don’t-add-up” feeling in admissions officers’ heads, which usually leads to a rejection letter in March.

For Choosing a School within a College:

  • Thoroughly research the different schools in the college. Learn about what each school specializes in and think about how it matches up with your interests. Know the college’s policies for taking classes from schools other than your primary school. Most colleges allow you to take a certain number of classes from its other schools, so if you have secondary interests that aren’t related to your major, you will likely be able to pursue those interests.
  • Know your own interests. This may sound trivial, but if you don’t know already, do some reflecting and try to figure out what you want to study. It’s important to know what your interests are before choosing a school—you don’t want to get admitted to a school that specializes in something you don’t really want to study. Also, if you have strong interests in two different areas, some colleges have programs that allow you to double major across schools. However, be aware that these programs are usually small and extremely selective. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology only accepts approximately 50 undergraduate students each year.
  • It’s a bad idea to apply to a less competitive school just to get into a college and plan to transfer into your school of choice once you’re there. This is a bad strategy for a number of reasons. Firstly, you would be misrepresenting your interests in your application, which is dangerous to begin with. If admissions officers sense that you’re not being genuine, chances are your admissions chances will suffer significantly. In addition, this plan is usually only tempting when your school of choice is one of the harder schools to get admitted to. You might think that it’s easier to transfer into your school of choice if you’re already a student at the college, but this usually is not the case. For instance, at Carnegie Mellon, the School of Computer Science (SCS) is significantly more renowned, and as a result, more competitive, than CMU’s other schools. Because of this, many students try to transfer within the college into the School of Computer Science. As a result, there are many qualified transfer applicants for SCS and the competition is fierce, comparable to what it would have been applying as a high school senior. Thus, relying on transferring to get into your top school choice is not a reliable plan—there are no guarantees of admission when it comes to transferring schools within a college.

While selecting an underrepresented major or choosing a less competitive school within a college could boost your admissions chances in the right situations, there are large risks associated with resorting to these methods if you misrepresent who you are in your application. Ultimately, the main determining factors of your admission to a college will still be your transcript, extracurriculars, standardized testing, essays, and recommendations—focusing on doing your best in all of those areas will do far more for your admissions chances than anything else. Applying as a certain major or choosing a school within a college are supposed to be additional ways for you to let a college know what you’re passionate about; they are more ways to ensure you get admitted to a college that’s a great fit for you. There’s no need to make things any more complicated than that.


Andrew Liu

Andrew Liu

Andrew is a Mathematical Data Science and Economics double major at Dartmouth College. In his spare time, if he’s not in the kitchen perfecting French macarons or butter-poaching halibut, he can likely be found near a piano, practicing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Ravel. He enjoys spending time with his cat.
Andrew Liu