Applying as a CS Major: Part 2


Here is the second part of our applying as a Computer Science Major series! In this post, I'll be discussing specific tips you should keep in mind when you apply to CS schools. If you would like more advice about what exactly is computer science or how to stand out amongst the thousands of CS applicants, check out our first part of this series!



1) Know what you're getting yourself into!

One thing to keep in mind if you choose to apply for computer science or computer engineering is that it is often a lot more competitive than other majors, and the classes are harder so you will have to work harder in college. A study conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement found that engineering students spend an average of 19 hours per week studying outside of class, while the average college student only spends 17 hours. If you want to see the breakdown for all majors, go to https://www.mymajors.com/blog/college-majors-study/. In addition, CS and CE are two of the most competitive majors at many colleges. Only a few colleges actually release their acceptance rates for each major, but the trend is similar at the majority of universities. For example, UCLA’s acceptance rate last year for CE was 6% and for CS was 8%, while the overall acceptance rate was 12%. And it’s no surprise that these majors are so competitive, since the average starting salary of software engineers in the Silicon Valley exceeds $100,000 per year.



2) Your major matters

Due to the competition, some students choose to apply for an easier major, then switch into CS after being admitted. If you choose to go this route, it is essential that you figure out the college’s policies regarding switching majors. In general, it is easier to switch majors at private schools than doing the same at public schools. Most universities have distinct “colleges” within their university, with each “college” specializing in a different field. The College of Arts and Sciences (sometimes called Letters and Sciences) focuses on liberal arts and pure sciences, while the College of Engineering contains all of the engineering majors. Most universities accept you into a specific college, but you are not locked into a major initially. Thus, at both public and private schools, it’s usually possible to switch majors within the same college. However, switching between Arts and Sciences and Engineering is usually quite difficult at public schools, but often easier at private schools. However, there are exceptions to these general rules, so be sure to research the specific university’s policies. Also, it is imperative that the major you do apply for is one that you are at least somewhat interested in. There is no guarantee that you will be able to switch majors, and the last thing you want is to be stuck studying a subject you’re not satisfied with all throughout college.



3) BA vs BS

Some universities, such as UC Berkeley and Cornell, offer CS in both the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences. No matter which college you choose, the CS courses you take will stay the same. However, students in the College of Arts and Sciences receive a Bachelor of Arts, while students in the College of Engineering receive a Bachelor of Science. In addition, each student is subject to the course requirements for their college, so Arts and Sciences students will likely take more liberal arts courses while engineering students will take more engineering courses. Many students choose to pursue a minor or a second major, but if you do so it is often beneficial if you get both degrees from the same school within your university (like the College of Arts and Sciences, for example). In addition to the programming courses you will take as a CS major, many universities require that CS majors take one or two years of science, usually chemistry or physics. You will also need to take a lot of math, up to linear algebra and sometimes discrete math. If science and math aren’t your thing, it may be in your best interest to consider if you really want to major in CS, since a large part of programming requires a strong mathematical foundation.



4) Interdisciplinary study

Furthermore, students who study both CS and another subject are often able to get jobs that students who solely study CS cannot. For example, you might choose to study CS and chemistry and work for a pharmaceutical company, or CS and economics could land you a job at an investment bank. The bottom line is that there is a strong demand for people who know programming in almost every field, so feel free to go ahead and pursue other subjects as well!



5) Rankings can be misleading!

One last thing to consider when choosing which colleges to apply to is that rankings for CS programs are quite misleading. Since measuring the quality of education at each university is extremely difficult, most websites will rank by the number of research papers a school publishes or the amount of funding they get or other similar metrics. Clearly, these rankings will favor larger universities with larger CS programs, yet these metrics rarely even apply to undergraduate students! Everything research related mostly just applies to graduate students, making ranking undergraduate CS programs a nearly impossible job. In fact, US News doesn’t even provide rankings for undergraduate CS programs. In my opinion, private colleges provide a stronger education, since classes are smaller on average, it is easier to get assistance, and research opportunities are often more accessible. Public universities often have huge classes with hundreds of students, which makes it hard to keep up in the class, and professors are often more focused on their own research rather than teaching (although this can apply to private schools too!).


It is important to look past the rankings and name of a university and figure out what you are really looking for, since not every university is a good fit for everyone. I would say that most students who succeed in public universities are extremely driven and motivated, so students who are more laid back and less competitive, or those who wish to interact with professors and classmates more, may prefer private universities. On the other hand, attending a public university known to have a strong CS program, such as UC Berkeley or University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, can help when you are looking for a job. High-tech companies often go to college campuses to recruit students for internships and jobs, and being at one of these colleges will give you easy access to career opportunities. Thus, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of each university carefully before making your final decision.



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