Is economics a competitive degree in the US?

Hi! I’m an international student planning on applying to US colleges later this year. I am thinking of doing economics at undergrad (undecided when it comes to which form of econ) and then possibly attending a business school to specialise further. How competitive is economics in the US, especially in the ivies? Thanks!

You don’t apply as an Economics student at most US universities- at most you don’t even have to say definitely what your subject (major) is until sometime in your 2nd year of university. There is no admissions advantage or disadvantage in saying up front that you plan to study Econ.

Your biggest challenge in getting offers from the most selective unis (including but not limited to “the Ivies”) is that you are an international student. A university that accepts less than 10% of it’s applicants will typically have 8-15% international students- do the math to get an idea as to your odds.

These analyses will help you identify U.S. colleges to research further:

Econ is one of the most popular majors, if not the most popular major, at the colleges you’re targeting. Many of them choose it either because they want to work in finance or because they’re really undecided and econ gives them some flexibility. It’s a relatively “easy” major so it isn’t “competitve” in that sense, but it certainly wouldn’t help your chance of admission by selecting it as your intended major in your application.

Hi there, thanks for your reply. I would have thought the low percentage of international students, 8-15% as you stated, is simply due to there being a much smaller international population applying than domestic. Or are there more lower acceptance rates for international applicants?

Thank you for you reply.

You may find a few colleges that provide detailed information on the acceptance rate for international students. Below, for example, you will see that a top school for economics, Colgate, recently admitted 8.5% of its international applicants:

By itself, this shouldn’t deter your interest, however. You can establish reasonable chances of admission by making sure you submit well-crafted applications to schools for which you would be fully qualified by objective criteria.

As an example recently at MIT (which is need blind for both domestic and international students and promises to meet full need) 71% of applicants were domestic students and 29% were international. The acceptance rates were 8.4% and 2.9% respectively

There are many reasons for lower acceptance rates for international students, including:

  • most US colleges & unis are US focused (tbf, most unis in most countries focus on their own citizens)
  • most US unis are need-aware for intl students, so international students who need financial aid are at a disadvantage
  • many intl students only apply to famous name universities, which have lower acceptance rates to start with

Compared to 27% overall acceptance rate. You should assume that the acceptance rate for internationsl applicants to top schools will be half (or lower) of the overall rate.

Also, while universities will generally not call it a quota, there is a hard or soft cap on the international percentage. If internationals were 12% of the Class of 2023 and 2024, expect that they will be 12% of 2025.


This is a question that is nearly impossible to answer in a general sense, because this is going to vary so much from school to school. Economics is also an interesting major because it, too, can vary much from school to school. Economics is actually a social science and can be heavily quantitative depending on how the economist chooses to approach their work; so depending on the orientation of the school, some lean hard into the quantitative approach (requiring or strongly encouraging calculus, statistics, and perhaps linear algebra) and some don’t. Some have business economics majors that are generally perceived as “lighter” versions of economics.

The competitive of the department probably has more to do with how competitive the school is overall (although that, too, can vary). Ivies can have more competitive atmospheres than other universities, simply because they tend to have very accomplished, achievement-oriented, Type A students overrepresented in their student body. I went to a small LAC for undergrad and an Ivy for graduate school and the atmosphere was completely different; the undergraduates were VERY competitive. They were, though, also very collaborative. This is the place where I learned it is somehow possible to be both.

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