UC Freshman Admission – Choosing a Major


Since the UCs stopped looking at standardized test scores, I noticed a much stronger preference for students who can clearly articulate demonstrated interest toward their chosen major (not just doing things, like taking classes or participating in activities, that imply demonstrated interest, BUT clearly articulating that interest using words in the Personal Insight Questions). In the past, UCs had expected certain types of applicants to clearly articulate demonstrated interest toward their chosen major, such as engineering, nursing, business administration, and some art programs that require auditions or submission of portfolios. Now, that expectation appears to have extended to all applicants.

Choice of major is more than a freestanding option on the UC Application. It is (or should be) an integral part of how you package yourself in the UC Application. I will illustrate this by going through a few fictional case studies. For each case study, I will provide an analysis and some recommendations to exemplify the role major will potentially play in your UC Application and how you should answer the Personal Insight Questions.

If you need more detailed information on how major choice may affect your chance of admission, purchase a back issue of my July 2024 newsletter for a complete, campus-by-campus explanation ($25; remain on the payment page after you pay and you will be redirected to the PDF – please note, purchase of a digital product is NONREFUNDABLE).

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 a different major or undeclared (most students would have to declare a major as a junior, so Andy is not disadvantaged in any way). For UCs that have biological sciences majors in a separate college (such as Davis or Irvine), Andy needs to weigh his interest in the campus against his interest in declaring 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, AP Biology, and AP Physics C 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, research 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 Physics, 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 calculus or beyond, calculus-based physics, 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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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

August 18, 2023 at 8:17 pm

Thank you so much for sharing these great examples! What would be your recommendations for an online high school student with dual enrollment and Entrepreneurialship focus who is planning to apply for Business Administrations at UC Berkeley and would have the following accomplishments:

He will graduate high school one year early, he will have taken 8 Honors course out of which 5 are UC Honors, no AP courses whatsoever, instead he will have taken 12-16 college course at a CA community college towards Breadth and Business Administration.

In addition he will have been part of the high school Debate club for 3 years, YES (Young Entrepreneurs Society) for 3 years, taken 1-2 business internships and started a website and TikTok channel to teach personal finance literacy for children, and also tutors peers. In his free time he he plays guitar and scuba dives.

Ms. Sunreply
August 19, 2023 at 1:15 am
– In reply to: Elena

At some point Haas had said they actually don’t like freshman applicants who took most business major prep courses at community college (they prefer that they take the major prep courses at Berkeley). In that case, I would recommend finishing all of the major prep requirements for Haas and the general transfer requirements, and apply as a transfer applicant (the student will need to enroll in one regular term at community college AFTER high school graduation to qualify for that status).

Questions or Comments?