Do last name initials affect college major choices?

If your childhood surname started with a letter late in the alphabet, you may remember long wait times when teachers organized classroom activities and school events by alphabet order. If this only happened occasionally or class sizes were small, you may have hardly noticed it. Otherwise, always having to wait for your turn may have caused some frustration—as it did for AAE professor Guanming Shi, who grew up in China.

“Many classroom activities were based on the number of Chinese character strokes in my last name, and I didn’t like that I was always called up late in elementary school,” says Shi. “I became aware of this in middle school when I was suddenly fourth because the call order was now based on entrance exam scores. I was able to relax sooner and felt much happier.”

That experience was profound enough that Shi decided to help her own children avoid it. Several years after moving to the United States for graduate school, she used the Hongkong spelling of her husband’s last name—Chang instead of Zhang—on her son’s and daughter’s birth certificates.

It took another 20 years until Shi put on her economist hat to test whether last name initials may impact personality development. Her hypothesis: Those with early initials experience greater classroom visibility and are more likely to develop an open personality. They tend to seek out activities that require teamwork and social interactions rather than tasks focused on individual effort.

Since an ideal dataset for testing that hypothesis was not readily available, Shi teamed up with American and Chinese colleagues to test a modified hypothesis: Are those with early initials more likely to select a liberal arts college major?

“Choosing a major is the first big decision that young adults make after their K-12 education, typically during the first two years of college,” says Shi. “Since personality plays a role in this decision, we used the chosen major as a proxy for personality to generate preliminary results for our main hypothesis.”

The researchers analyzed registrar data from one U.S. and one Chinese university. The U.S. dataset included 75,000 undergraduates enrolled at a large public research university between 2013 and 2022, of whom 67,000 had declared their major. In addition to last name initials, high school GPA, ACT/SAT scores, degree awarded, gender, birth year and nationality were also available.

The Chinese dataset was smaller—3,200 freshmen enrolled at one of China’s top 10 universities in 2024—but included the “Big Five” personality traits based on a student survey. A standard scoring system applied to 10 survey questions assigned each student a score on a five-point scale for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism/emotional stability.

The analysis of the U.S. data showed that domestic students with an earlier initial were significantly more likely to choose a Bachelor of Arts than a Bachelor of Science major, supporting Shi’s hypothesis. In contrast, last name initial and college major were unrelated for international students from China and South Korea at the U.S. university and for students at the Chinese university.

Choosing a college major is the first big decision for many high school graduates, and personality traits play an important role in it. Credit: Adonis1969|

The explanation, according to the researchers, is that there is no uniform last-name-ordering practice in the Chinese K-12 system. Urban schools use both Roman alphabet- and stroke count-based ordering systems, and most rural areas don’t employ any ordering method. Any last-name-ordering practices in South Korea are lost by converting Korean last names to the Roman alphabet.

The researchers also found that students who had higher scores for openness were more likely to choose a liberal arts major at the Chinese university than those with lower scores. This confirmed previous reports of high openness scores for U.S. and European students majoring in psychology, political science or arts/humanities.

For Shi, this analysis was only the beginning of a larger project. She is seeking grant funding to collect the “missing link” for U.S. students: Big Five personality traits measured at least once during the course of a student’s K-12 education in order to correlate last name initials and openness scores, which may explain the association with college major choices. She would also like to analyze more specific majors and compare the strength of the last name effect at U.S. public universities of different ranks.

Shi’s research has traditionally focused on the economics of industrial organization in the U.S. and China. Her new interest in “alphabetical discrimination” was piqued not only by her personal experience but also other studies of last name effects. For example, adults with late childhood surname initials made faster purchasing decisions for consumer goods; high school students with late initials were less likely to attend college or receive academic recognition at their 1957 graduation; and later initials were even associated with worse grades in a recent analysis of 30 million records from a large U.S. public university.

“Many people think economists only care about money, but these examples show that we care about issues that affect everyone’s lives,” says Shi. “Economists study human decision-making and the efficient and equitable use of limited resources. In this case, social equity means making sure all students receive similar levels of teacher attention and can participate in classroom activities based on their personal interests and aptitudes, regardless of their surname initials.”