Are some majors more competitive than others?
When I worked for UT, I received this question perhaps more than any other; answering it is complex. The official line and what I was required to tell future applicants is that all majors are equally competitive. But it simply isn’t true.
Some majors will always be less competitive: Liberal Arts, Undergraduate Studies, Social Work, and Education. The latter two because they have the least amount of applicants. All admits to these colleges and schools have lower test scores than the typical admit. Some, like Architecture, will always be competitive. Architecture accepts less than 10% of their applicants, and their student profiles look like the typical Ivy League student. Transferring in is almost impossible.
What about the others? Business, Communications, Natural Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, etc.? They are varying degrees of competitive and, frankly; there isn’t an easy way to create a competitiveness hierarchy. Applicant pools for these majors are similar, yet their numbers fluctuate from year to year. Generally speaking, Business and Engineering are more competitive than Communications and Natural Sciences, but this isn’t always the case.
Available spaces remain roughly the same from year to year, but economic trends often correlate with admissions trends. During the 2009 financial crisis and the years following, universities saw fewer applicants to business. On the law school side, there has been a steady decline in law school applicants as jobs are harder to find. Healthcare-minded and budget-conscious students are opting away from medical school and towards two-year degrees like radiology or a Bachelors of Science in Nursing.
Even within engineering, some majors may be more or less competitive depending on the number of applicants. Engineering renders admissions decisions at the major level and not college-wide like Liberal Arts. There are fewer applicants to petroleum engineering as a result of slumping oil prices. I suspect if we go to war soon or make major breakthroughs in commercial space travel, we will see an uptick in aerospace engineering applicants.
When the president announces a push to increase training in STEM fields, we see higher applicant numbers in mathematics and physics. More women apply to engineering. With each new exciting startup, we have budding computer scientists who want to create the Uber or be the next Elon Musk.
The truth is, not even when I worked in admissions, could I predict which majors would receive more or fewer applicants from year to year. I could generalize, but providing specifics would be impossible even if I wanted to.
What does this mean for you as an applicant? Not much. UT wants students who are less likely to switch their major. Attempting to work the system, and this is the assumption underlying this question, usually doesn’t work out in your favor professionally, academically, or personally. Pick the major that you think you want and put forward your best effort.