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 2019 newsletter for a complete, campus-by-campus explanation ($25; must click “Return to Merchant” button on the payment confirmation page to access download).

Case A

Andy wants to major in Biology and he is interested in becoming a doctor. Andy is in a magnet program for art and is an active member in several art-related 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 graduates 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 really knows what he wants to do or why he is going to college (or if he really wants to go to college).


If I am working with Andy, I would take a look at his grades and test scores … if he does exceptionally well there, then he can probably make his way into at least a few UCs without a clearly expressed interest (through his activities) in medicine. If the grades and test scores are not top-notch, then I may suggest that he talks about his talents in art in his Personal Insight Question response, bypassing his interest in medicine altogether.


For UCs that have biological sciences majors in the College of Letters & Science, Andy may choose undeclared in the College of Letters & Science because he will have the option to change his major later (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 four years by the time she graduates 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 graduates 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 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 Question response.


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 graduates high school. She also took the one-year 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 done everything she can to get there.


If I am working with Charlene, I would suggest that she emphasize 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 Question response.


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 graduates high school, he would have completed AP Gov, Honors Pre-Calc (last math course he takes), 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), and achieved high test scores in SAT Subject Tests in Math Level 2 and a science (related to the engineering major). Applying to engineering unnecessarily puts Daniel 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 Question response, his athletic achievements would be front and center.


NO to engineering! Pick something else where an expressed interest exists!

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