Fighting the odds


For some UW students, declaring a major simply means notifying an adviser, but for others, it means application forms and transcript assessments. For UW junior Ben Ross, it means waiting to apply to his intended major a second time.

Ross is currently an electrical engineering major who applied for admittance to the Computer Science and Engineering program last year - one of the most competitive majors within the highly selective engineering department at the UW, admitting about 30 to 40 percent of applicants with an average cumulative GPA of 3.2 to 4.0.

"I don't really care much for [electrical engineering], but it's my backup," Ross said.

Ross was informed he was one of a few students on the cusp of admittance to the CSE major, so he is working on achieving a high grade in a computer science class to increase his chance of acceptance for the second time.

"Computer science is what I want to do, so if I don't get in this time, I'd probably go to a different school," he said.

Ross has a positive outlook on his odds, but hundreds of other UW students are rejected from their desired major each year.

There are many qualified students who don't get into any program in the College of Engineering, said Scott Winter, the College of Engineering associate director of advising and diversity.

"Students should be careful when focusing on one department," he said.

There are 10 different programs within the engineering department that each have individual admission processes.

"All of our programs have demand, with which we could expand if we had the funding to do that," Winter said.

However, the lack of funding means fewer students receive the opportunity to pursue an engineering career.

"The state of Washington as a whole graduates a very low percentage of technology-based degrees as compared to the job market," Winter said. "There's no doubt that we could grow here. If you go back 30 years, we were graduating roughly the same number of engineering and computer science students, although the population has grown drastically in that time."

For some students, the lack of space in the department leads to a career-path reassessment.

Like Ross, junior Ankar Sawir had also intended on majoring in CSE. Sawir is now an informatics major, which has a less selective competitive-admission policy. Although Sawir admitted he was originally deterred by the selectivity and difficult prerequisite requirements of the CSE major, he is ultimately satisfied with his decision due to a shift in career focus.

"I looked into it, and, after taking a few CSE classes, I learned that staring at a computer screen for hours and hours wasn't for me. I was more interested in management, and then when I found out how competitive [CSE] was, that solidified my decision," Sawir said.

This kind of reevaluation of interest is what Carolyn Chow, director of admissions and multicultural student affairs for the School of Nursing, considers a benefit of competitive-major admissions.

"We're looking for commitment," Chow said. "We don't just want anybody saying, 'Oh, I'm going to apply for nursing.' The application process is about knowing that nursing is the best fit [for the student] and that they stay interested in it."

The nursing major has about a 25 percent acceptance rate, reserving approximately 96 spaces for an annual 400 applicants.

The grade range of accepted students ranges from about 2.4 to 4.0, Chow said, but admission is reliant on more than GPA.

"I've never seen anybody with a 4.0 get in, because typically these people don't have the time management, experience, and balance that we're looking for," she said. "We're usually very upfront about admissions criteria because we want to set people up for success."

If a student is applying because he or she "likes seeing what nurses do on Grey's Anatomy," Chow said, they must first realize those are not accurate depictions.

That is why volunteer experience is required for admittance, and the application essay is highly stressed by reviewers.

"[A lot of students think], 'I really want to be a nurse and save the world; I really care about people; I want to make a difference,'" Chow said. "The problem with that is that I also really care about people, but I would be a terrible nurse."

However, that is not to say that those who are rejected are not qualified.

"Eighty percent of the people who apply are qualified for the program [and] would probably do OK in the program," Chow said. "But it doesn't make sense to admit people who are halfway there and drop out or decide it's not for them. If they fail academically, then we've failed them by admitting them in the first place."

For former UW student Kelsey Hirsch, the UW nursing school rejection letter she received sophomore year impacted both her finances and her future but did not deter her from pursuing nursing.

Hirsch is now in her first year at the nursing program at Seattle University, but she attended the UW for three years before transferring.

After her initial rejection from the program, she decided to stay another year and try again.

Despite her extensive volunteer experience in hospitals, including a month-long trip to India with the UW nursing program, Hirsch was told that "if anything, [she] just needed to improve [her] grades."

"My grades weren't bad; I had maybe a 3.45," she said. She cites the high GPA standard as a "hugely unfair part of the system," because the school is "losing out on a lot of really great students."

Although its program is also competitive, Hirsch believes schools like Seattle University value the person a little more.

"UW is such a number school ... that you miss out on the person," Hirsch said.

In high school, Hirsch received a four-year scholarship from Washington Scholars to her college of choice in the state.

"If I knew that it wouldn't have gone toward my career, I wouldn't have chosen UW," she said. "I would have put it toward a school that would have put me on track for my major right away."

She said being on track would have allowed her to graduate in four years instead of five, ultimately saving her time and money.

Unlike Seattle University, Hirsch said the UW doesn't have any kind of support for students who know right away that they want to go into the program, meaning passionate students "don't get a step up above anyone else."

"I got lucky. I'm very lucky that I got into Seattle U, but if I didn't do that then I would have had to graduate with psych, which is not what I wanted to do," Hirsch said. "We pay a ton of money for us to declare a major only to [potentially have to] drop out of school, transfer, or change your major to something you don't care about."

Competitive majors at the UW exist in part due to funding limitations, and in part because of the popularity of some majors. There are 149 different majors offered at the UW, 45 with minimum requirements and 79 with competitive admission.

The competitive nature of a major's admission process doesn't always indicate the difficulty of the courses in the major. Competitive majors are needed due to the popularity of some majors relative to the amount of students the department can accommodate.

Difficult or not, the fairness and efficiency of competitive admissions is often questioned.

"From an adviser's perspective, as someone who cares about students, I wish we could let in every student who wants to do business," said Vikki Day, assistant dean of the Foster School of Business Undergraduate Program. "But some colleges that do that really run into problems where they have huge classes and televised learning."

About 50 percent of applicants are accepted to the business major through a holistic review process on the basis of the applicant's GPA, personal statement, and writing-skills assessment.

"I don't know that competitiveness is necessarily a good thing, but I think [the Foster School of Business is] right-sized for the number of students," Day said. "I would love to increase capacity so we weren't turning away as many students, but I don't know if we would benefit from accepting everyone."

Although admissions directors strive to admit the most qualified students, the process isn't perfect, Day said.

"If I had a crystal ball that would tell me what students would be amazing in class, and the faculty would love, and the students would go out and be successful, then I think it would be the perfect interview process," Day said. "But it's a really intensive process, and we're proud of it."

As for the students who aren't accepted to their major, options still remain. When students are denied from the Foster School of Business, Day said advisers meet with them to discuss how the decision works, what their plans might be, and whether a second application is a good idea.

Sometimes, a second application is not in the best interest of the student. In that case, the advisers refer many students to the career school.

"You don't have to major in business to have a career in business," Day said. "[If] they really want a degree in accounting, then we talk to them about other schools."

Others discover that they are not as passionate about the major as they originally thought.

"Some people pick a major because they've heard about it," Day said, but she advises students to instead look at where their great grades are and consider what they are passionate about.

"The question is: What are your life goals, your career goals, what you like to do and how you would best meet that goal?" Day said.

Still, contrary to this advice, Hirsch was not able to satisfy her career goals at the UW.

"UW should look out for the people that choose to come here," Hirsch said. "Too many students are left in the dust."

Reach reporter Alysa Hullett at

CORRECTION: The article originally stated that the computer science and engineering department had an admission rate of approximately 50 percent. The department's admittance is about 30 to 40 percent in general, but each of the three pathways in the major vary in rates.

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