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Computer science is such a fast-growing, popular major at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus that two-thirds of the freshmen and sophomores who apply don’t get in.

But next spring, students who get a letter of acceptance to the UW will also find out immediately if they’ve been chosen for a coveted spot in one of the university’s hottest majors.

By telling incoming students that they’ve already secured a spot in the major, the UW hopes to relieve the frustration and stress of getting in. It could also help students trying make a decision about whether to go to the UW, or choose a different college.

The change in policy, known in academia as “direct to major,” will affect high-school students who are preparing to apply to the UW this fall for entry as freshmen in fall 2019. The change in policy follows a similar change made last spring for students majoring in engineering, another popular major that also turns away many applicants because there is not enough space in the program.

Currently, most students who want to major in computer science are first admitted to the UW and  begin taking prerequisite courses. A year or two later, they apply for admission to the major.

Under the new policy, UW Seattle aims to enroll about 200 computer-science majors directly as freshmen, said Paul G. Allen School Professor Dan Grossman. That doesn’t mean, however, that the UW will admit just 200 — it will admit more, to take into account that some admitted students will go elsewhere.

The vast majority of those admitted students will be from Washington state, he said.

But students who don’t get in as freshmen will still have a chance to major in the field. About 100 slots will be set aside for students who decide, after they’ve already been admitted and are taking courses as freshmen or sophomores, that they want to major in computer science or computer engineering.

In addition, about 60 to 70 seats will be set aside in the two computer fields for students who transfer in to the UW,  Grossman said. Most transfers come from the state’s community colleges.

The change in policy will not affect the UW’s two branch campuses, in Bothell and Tacoma, which also offer computer science.

The UW’s computer science department became a school last year, and was named after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It is constructing a second building as part of an expansion to house classrooms and offices, and has a goal of graduating 450 undergraduates in computer science and computer engineering each year, twice as many as it graduated a few years ago. Grossman said the university expects to meet that goal by 2021.

There’s a significant overlap between computer science and computer engineering, Grossman said, but computer science is offered through the College of Arts & Sciences and has more flexible degree requirements. Computer engineering is part of the College of Engineering.

Computer science hopefuls applying as freshmen this fall won’t have to do a special application — as long as they indicate computer science as their preferred major, they will automatically be considered for direct admission.

Engineering works a little differently. Students indicate if they want to be admitted to the College of Engineering, and if they’re admitted, can pursue one of the college’s 11 degrees, which includes computer engineering. However, on the application a student can choose only one — either a major in computer science or a spot in the College of Engineering.

According to the Allen School, the best academic preparation for computer science is to take the most rigorous curriculum offered in high school, including advanced classes, especially in English, math and science. The school says it is not necessary to take computer programming in high school to be considered for the major.


Correction: An earlier headline for this story imprecisely stated that the UW would “begin” admitting computer science majors as freshmen. The story correctly states that the school had previously admitted a small number of freshmen in the past.