UC Freshman Admission – Choosing a Major


Your choice of major doesn’t usually matter when you apply to the UCs. The exceptions are: engineering, nursing, business administration, some art programs (that require auditions or submission of portfolios), and, occasionally, some science programs (not very often).

But that’s not what I want to talk about today … I want to talk about how you package yourself on the UC Application. You ask, “What does that have to do with my major?” Well, plenty!

We’ll do this by looking at a few fictional case studies. For each case study, I will provide an analysis and some recommendations to illustrate the role your major will potentially play in your application.

If you need more detailed information on how major choice affects your chance of admission, purchase a back issue of my July 2020 newsletter for a complete, campus-by-campus explanation ($25; on the PayPal payment confirmation page, scroll down and click “Return to Merchant” button to access download).

Case A

Andy wants to major in Biology and he is interested in becoming a doctor. Andy is in a humanities magnet program and is an active member in several clubs: Dead Poet Society – 2 years; Freedom of Expression Through Dance – 3 years; Creative Collages – 4 years. He was also on the school soccer team for 1 year and taught himself how to play the guitar 2 years ago. Andy will have completed APUSH, AP World History, AP English Lit, AP Studio Art, AP Music Theory, and Honors Pre-Calc by the time he graduated high school.


Andy’s coursework and activities do not support his interest in becoming a doctor. There is literally NOTHING in his life (that he disclosed) that would remotely hint an interest in medicine. So that begs the question of whether Andy is really committed to becoming a doctor or if he will succeed in a biological science major (he has not completed any AP science courses and whether he can succeed in college-level science courses is difficult to gauge).


If I am working with Andy, I would encourage him to select majors more closely aligned with his interests or choose undeclared in the College of Letters & Science, and have him focus on his arts and humanities achievements in his Personal Insight Questions, bypassing his interest in medicine altogether.


For UCs that have biological sciences majors in the College of Letters & Science, Andy will have the option to change his major later even if he started out as undeclared (everyone has to declare a major as a junior, so there is no advantage or disadvantage). For UCs that have biological sciences majors in a separate college (such as Davis or Riverside), Andy needs to decide how badly he wants to declare biological sciences. Switching is possible after admission, but it is not guaranteed.

Case B

Bethany is not sure what she wants to major in college and she has a hodgepodge of extracurricular activities:

  • She will have served in the student government for three years by the time she graduated high school, having served as treasurer in junior year and peer advisor in senior year.
  • Bethany tried cheerleading in freshman year and dance squad sophomore year, and did the tryout for track and field her junior year but didn’t make the team.
  • She applied for six different internships during the summer after her junior year, landing one with the city councilmember where she spearheaded a literacy project through the city library.
  • Bethany founded Environmental Club at her high school her freshman year … it failed miserably (who cares about the environment, right?) but she has since organized a school-wide recycling program through student government.
  • She volunteers at the animal shelter regularly since her sophomore year, spending extra time during the summer shadowing the veterinarian and assisting in surgeries.

Bethany will have completed AP English Lit, AP Gov, Honors Pre-Calc, AP Calc AB, Honors Chemistry, AP Biology, AP Psychology, and AP Art History by the time she graduated high school. She also took two semesters of French and an introductory sociology course at her local community college.


Bethany may not have made up her mind about her future career, but she has explored and taken advantage of numerous opportunities. I applaud her enthusiasm and commitment to try different things.


If I am working with Bethany, I would suggest that she talks about how she spent her high school years exploring different opportunities available to her and to highlight all of her achievements. Not having a clear goal has not deterred her from being a star in multiple subjects/fields/areas and that is something she should emphasize in her Personal Insight Questions.


Apply undeclared in the College of Letters & Science.

Case C

Charlene wants to major in biochemistry and eventually become a pharmacist. She got a job at a neighborhood pharmacy around the corner from her house the moment her work permit came through (middle of sophomore year) and has worked there ever since. In junior year she applied to a summer research internships with a chemistry professor at a 4-year college in her town and she spent twelve weeks modeling changes in the molecular structure of a new chemical compound. She is a peer-tutor at her high school for AP Biology and AP Chemistry. She co-founded the Science Club in her junior year and is serving as president in her senior year. Charlene will have completed Honors Pre-Calc, AP Calc AB, AP Calc BC, Honors Physics, and AP Biology by the time she graduated high school. She also took the one-year science-track chemistry course sequence at the 4-year college in her town.


Charlene is my favorite kind of overachiever: motivated, driven, and with laser-sharp focus. She knows what she wants and she’s fully committed to get there.


If I am working with Charlene, I would suggest that she emphasizes her goal of becoming a pharmacist and everything that she has done to get there (job at the pharmacy, internship, college-level chemistry courses), as well as her broader interest in science (Science Club and peer-tutoring), in her Personal Insight Questions.


Apply to Biochemistry, usually in the College of Letters & Science; I will also discuss with Charlene some specialized pre-pharmacy majors each UC offers.

Case D

Daniel thinks engineering sounds pretty cool and wants to major in mechanical engineering. He was the football captain of his high school team in sophomore and junior year and brought his team to the state championship both years (but he is not interested in playing in college, besides, the coach doesn’t think he plays well enough to be recruited). He also plays lacrosse and baseball, but not at the varsity level. Sports take up all of his time so he hasn’t participated in many other extracurricular activities. But Daniel remembers going with his teammates to beach clean-ups a few times in the summer, in between long, grueling pre-season football practice sessions. By the time Daniel graduated high school, he would have completed AP Gov, Honors Math Analysis (highest level math course he completes), Honors Biology, AP Human Geography, and Honors Spanish 4.


UC engineering admission evaluation emphasizes math and science preparation, favoring students who have completed advanced (AP, IB, or college-level) coursework in physics, calculus or above, and other relevant sciences (related to the engineering major). Since Daniel’s coursework has not adequately prepared him for the rigor of the UC engineering programs, applying to engineering will unnecessarily put him at a significant disadvantage when he may be competitive for admission to other majors.


If I am working with Daniel, I would suggest that he considers applying to another major or select undeclared in the College of Letters & Science. My guess is that Daniel probably doesn’t know much about engineering and is not actually all that incredibly interested (especially given the fact that he is not adequately prepared for it). Given his football record, I would also ask him to reconsider athletic recruitment as an option. For his Personal Insight Questions, his athletic achievements would be front and center.


NOT engineering! Pick something else where an expressed interest exists or choose undeclared in the College of Letters & Science.

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