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Applying for STEM at UT Austin

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STEM careers are an increasingly popular choice for college-bound seniors, with many students seeing them as a guaranteed path to future success. UT Austin’s various programs, including natural sciences, engineering, and computer science are rightly seen as a great starting point for a career in STEM.

In this article, we’ll explore how to approach a STEM application at UT Austin, and how to use that information when applying elsewhere. We’ll cover not only the mechanics of applying, but what specifically admissions is looking for in applicants, and common pitfalls that students can get caught in. Let’s get started!

STEM Admissions Chances

The first thing to know about STEM admissions at UT Austin specifically is that even if you have guaranteed admissions due to your class rank, you are not guaranteed to get your first choice of major, especially the more competitive ones. The only place where you are guaranteed a spot is the College of Liberal Arts. This means your application is incredibly important when applying to the most competitive majors.

Overall, the increased popularity of the STEM fields has drastically increased the difficulty of admissions, both at UT Austin and nationwide. Of course, this difficulty is not evenly distributed; it is far more difficult to gain admission as an engineering major than as a math major, due to the relative popularity of both. 

For universities which admit by major or school, like UT Austin, admissions rates to STEM programs are generally lower than the overall admissions rate, oftentimes noticeably so. At UT Austin specifically, the overall admissions rate is around 36%, while admissions rates for most engineering majors is under 20% (though this varies by both specific major and year, since the Cockrell School admits by major, and popularity fluctuates greatly by year). 

While UT Austin does not release admissions data by school, we do have some information about the relative competitiveness of their colleges and majors. Here is the relative difficulty of gaining admissions to various schools (or majors) at UT Austin, ranked from easiest to most difficult: 

  • College of Education
  • Moody College of Communications
  • College of Liberal Arts
  • Economics within Liberal Arts
  • Civil and Petroleum Engineering within Cockrell
  • College of Natural Sciences
  • College of Fine Arts
  • Jackson School of Geosciences
  • McCombs School of Business
  • Mechanical, Environmental, Chemical, and Aerospace Engineering within Cockrell
  • School of Nursing
  • School of Architecture
  • Electrical and Biomedical Engineering within Cockrell
  • Computer Science within Natural Sciences

This list is specifically for UT Austin, but similar trends can be seen in most universities, though the exact rankings of admissions differ. Overall, it is harder to get into STEM programs than non-STEM programs across the board.

This does not mean admissions to top STEM programs is impossible; indeed, hundreds of students are admitted every year. Instead, it means you need to consider your options carefully, and approach applications well prepared for what colleges want to see. 

What UT Austin Wants to See

What UT Austin, and all other STEM programs want by extension, is twofold. First, they want to see academic excellence. A GPA as close to a 4.0 as you can manage, high standardized test scores, and evidence you have taken the most challenging courses possible are all required when applying to STEM programs. 

Of course, high grades alone are not enough. All serious applicants to top STEM programs have high grades, stellar test scores, and have taken challenging coursework. While this used to be sufficient on its own, it now merely serves as the baseline level of competence expected of students. Thus comes the second thing STEM programs look at: your resume.

Your activities, accomplishments, and extracurriculars are what differentiate you from your peers. When every student has top academics (and at top programs, every serious applicant has top academics) it is the activities which differentiate those who have a shot from those who do not.

For engineering specifically, which admits by major, knowing your preferred major in advance and having activities related to it is the best approach. While this can be difficult, most professional engineering societies have openings for students to get involved; you can find a list of these in our guide to engineering.

For computer science, we recommend having numerous activities related to the major, along with a way to differentiate yourself. Our other articles on extracurriculars give an idea why: you are trying to both demonstrate your passion for the field of computer science, and set yourself apart from other applicants. 

Of course, the easiest way to do this is winning a major national competition, but there are a limited number of those. We recommend using your extracurriculars to tell a story about who you are, and how your interests have shaped you. You should also not do this cynically; admissions officers are looking for genuine passion, rather than students who stuff their resumes to gain an admissions edge.

How Admissions Works

At UT Austin, schools either admit by school or by major, though the process is rather opaque. We know that engineering specifically admits by major, but we believe that some of the most popular majors within other schools are also separated out from the general pool of applicants to that school, and evaluated relative to each other.

This is almost definitely the case for computer science students, and other popular majors such as neuroscience, psychology, and economics are also likely impacted. While UT Austin may or may not have hard quotas on the number of students admitted to a specific major, the number of slots is limited.

The UT Accelerated Transfer Program (ATP)

UT Austin has a new pilot program which can fast track internal transfers to the CS program for some admitted students. This has not been widely publicized by the school, with most information coming from Reddit. Here’s what we know about the program:

Students who are Texas residents in the top 6% of their class who apply to but are not accepted to the CS major are offered a chance to take three CS intro classes. If they perform well in these classes, they are automatically granted acceptance to the CS major.

It is currently uncertain why certain students are invited to be part of this program and not others. Our best guess is that this functions like an advanced version of a waitlist; qualified candidates who the department likes but is uncertain about or doesn’t have room for are given an additional chance to prove themselves and gain admission.

This program will likely make other students attempting to internally transfer into CS have a much more difficult time, especially if UT Austin is not increasing the overall number of slots in the program. This is not currently a program you can apply to or appeal for; you are either awarded it or not.

Alternative Paths

Many students wonder if there are parallel majors which can award them the same skills as these more competitive ones, but which are easier to get into. This varies by school, but at UT Austin specifically, not easily.

Some engineering majors are less popular than others, and some will teach similar skills. Getting an undergraduate degree in one engineering specialty, and then earning a master’s in another is possible, though without specialized higher level coursework can be difficult.

For computer science, there is one “easy” alternative: math (especially applied math). Math is a far less popular major at most schools, and the skills you learn are often broadly applicable to CS. The challenge comes from majoring in math itself, which is notoriously difficult. Of course, so is CS, so this can be an option for some students.

Final Thoughts

Applying to STEM programs is hard, be it at UT Austin or elsewhere. We hope that this has given you a proper sense of the challenge that faces you, and armed you with knowledge enough to make it surmountable. The sad truth is that admissions has become harder for students all around, and there aren’t any signs yet of a change for the better.

We know admissions are hard, and we work hard to help students on their journey, by providing resources like this, along with offering expert counseling. To learn more about how we can help you along your journey, sign up for a complimentary consultation today. We have a depth of experience and are always happy to hear from you.

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