Selecting a major for the college application feels like an enormous decision – especially when choosing a popular major like computer science has the potential to make admission so much tougher – but what’s the best way to approach the alternate major? In my world as a college counselor, most of my conversations with students are about their goals, dreams, needs, preferences, and potential, and I actually have relatively few conversations around how to get into selective schools. But, selecting an alternate major is one of the rare topics that really is entirely about getting into a school or not.
Here’s how your teen can choose an alternate major that increases their chances of admission.
What is an alternate major?
Students are sometimes but not always invited to list an alternate major on their college applications. If the college cannot admit a student to their first-choice major, they may consider that student for the alternate major they listed.
The alternate major is college-specific, so it won’t show up on the main section of the Common Application and instead appears in individual colleges’ supplemental sections.
The alternate major has a few aliases, including “second-choice major” and “additional major of interest.” (No college will call it a “backup major,” but certainly some parents do.) Colleges may also phrase the question so that it leaves out the word “major” and instead asks about students’ interests, and the school may even ask students to rank their interests or describe their certainty around their choices. Some schools, like Occidental College, value exploration and are honestly thinking of interests more than seats available, but this is definitely not all schools. The feasibility of admitting a student to their alternate major depends on the space available in that program, assuming it is impacted. If a program is impacted, that means the school receives more applications for the program than there are seats for students. Impaction varies by college and program: Some universities have many impacted majors, and some have a few; some are entirely impacted; and many U.S. colleges have no impacted programs at all.
The most important context
If a college asks a student to list an alternate major in the application, that doesn’t mean the college needs to consider every denied student for their alternate major. If a college considers a student for their alternate major, it means the admissions reader really likes and wants to accept the student, and the college just doesn't have the space (relative to other qualified candidates) in the first-choice program to put them there. In this case, that student has already been denied admission into their first-choice program. So, at this point in the process, the admissions reader is truly thinking about where the college might have space to put this student. The college is very unlikely to admit students laterally to a program similar to the first-choice major (e.g. systems engineering over mechanical engineering) where the calculation on space available hasn’t changed much. Make it an easy choice for the college to admit you! Applicants should choose an alternate major that gives the admissions reader a realistic option to admit them into a program with space in it.
How should an applicant choose their alternate major?
They should choose a program where the college is likely to have a seat, and one that also aligns with their application story and interests.
Often, the best choice will be an adjacent major in the liberal arts, such as math, physics, or English. Do not choose a major in any of the most selective colleges or programs, including engineering, computer science, business, nursing, or architecture.
Here are some examples:
Computer science as first-choice major; statistics as alternate major
Mechanical engineering as first-choice major; physics as alternate major
Biology as first-choice major; anthropology as alternate major
Public health as first-choice major; health and society as alternate major
Psychology as first-choice major; sociology as alternate major
Accounting as first-choice major; applied math as alternate major
Electrical engineering as first-choice major; electronics system engineering technology as alternate major
In each case, the alternate major is likely to be less selective and have a more forgiving standard for preparation. Each alternate major also aligns with the core content of the first-choice major (assuming the student understands their major well) and probably fits as well with the student’s application story as the first-choice major does.
A student should never choose a more selective first-choice major than their alternate major. If they weren’t accepted for psychology, they’re not going to be accepted for business management. If they weren’t accepted for data science, they’re not going to be accepted for mechanical engineering. The alternate major should always move in the direction of the available seats more than the student’s interest.
Is there any benefit to declining the alternate major?
No, none at all. Just choose one.
What about the UC and Cal State systems?
On the UC Application, students choose alternate majors individually for each campus they select in the Campuses and Majors section. All campuses will allow students to list an alternate major, but some campuses – specifically UCLA and UC Berkeley – will not actually use the major except in rare situations. (So, choose your first major wisely.) Some UC campuses, like UC Irvine, are quite picky about the selected major. Other campuses, like UCLA, look more closely at the college the student chooses (e.g. College of Engineering vs. College of Letters and Science) than the specific major within the college. On Cal State Apply, students choose their alternate major when they add each college, and only some campuses will allow students to list an alternate major. Not all Cal State campuses have impacted majors, so some of the campuses without an option to select an alternate major genuinely don’t care about it. Cal State actually has a very straightforward resource on their website to identify impacted programs at CSU campuses. Here is that page for the 2024-2025 incoming year.
But my teen really loves their major.
Yes, of course they do! However, there is truly no benefit to choosing an alternate major that’s just the first-choice program in a different hat. If an engineering major selects a different engineering discipline as their alternate major, they are probably throwing away their opportunity for a second review. If the engineering-oriented student lists math as the alternate major and is admitted to the math department, there was really no situation where the college would have admitted that student to engineering; the other option was no admission from them at all.
You don’t understand. My teen seriously won’t consider attending any school if they can’t study their first-choice major.
No, I totally get it. I hear it all the time. Here’s the thing, though. Tons of seniors say that to me in October. They haven’t met their April selves yet, though. In the spring, when students are looking at a slate of denials for a highly selective major that they now understand was the most likely outcome, those students who wouldn’t budge on their alternate major often wish they had a few more admission offers to choose from.
Remember, most colleges will allow students full flexibility to choose any minor they want when they get to campus. So, students who love computer science will still be able to learn and practice programming skills. On top of that, those students can bounce off those skills to create projects (even start-ups) and apply for tech-adjacent internships. It may not be the student’s original vision of their college program, but it’s not a bad enough situation to throw it away before they even know their other options.
How does a student identify less impacted majors?
In most cases, common sense will work out for you. You probably already have a sense of the programs that are very selective (e.g. Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications) even if they’re not in the obvious colleges like engineering, business, and architecture. If you can find an adjacent major in the liberal arts (e.g. English major instead of communications at Syracuse) that’s probably a good choice for the alternate major.
Engineering technologies and other polytechnic majors, such as those at Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute, are potential alternate pathways to selective engineering programs, especially if a student does not want to choose math or physics as their alternate major.
If you really want to know for sure, this is a great question to call admissions about. They will understand the question and help students identify which programs are most impacted and which ones have more space.
What about an undecided major?
In most cases, I encourage students to avoid undecided and undeclared first-choice majors. However, the context is totally different for the alternate major. Undecided can be a great choice there, as long as it’s in the arts and science college. No, undecided engineering is not a good choice!
Can I change my major once I get to college?
Usually, yes, and especially within the liberal arts. If the program of interest is impacted, the college may require an appeal and have to communicate closely with the student so they can move them into the program when the space is available. Students usually cannot switch into the very selective colleges and programs like engineering (including computer science), business, nursing, and architecture. This isn’t just about the availability of seats there, but also about program requirements, which may require students to get started immediately when they arrive in order to finish on time.
How can I make sure my teen has their best chance of getting admitted to their first-choice major?
Plan ahead, of course! I recommend paying close attention to the college timeline and thinking early about the college admission process. Click the button below to download a free, comprehensive College Admission Timeline so you know exactly when to do what in the college process, including gathering evidence and preparing for your major of interest.
Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process, as well as a national expert on guiding LGBTQ+ students to safe, supportive colleges. Parents, join Robert's private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students. You can also find him on LinkedIn.