ABSTRACT: We show that gender gaps in college major choices are not solely determined by unconstrained preferences but that they can be magnified by students’ strategies when selecting college major slots. In our setting, university applicants take a college entrance exam for admission to the largest public university in Colombia, which allocates a limited number of college major slots to top performers in the college entrance exam. Using a regression discontinuity design and rich administrative data on applicants’ scores, rankings of majors and enrollments, we study how male and female applicants react when they just miss the cutoff to enroll in their most preferred major. Despite no initial gender differences in stated preference rankings of majors, women who just miss the cutoff for their preferred major are more likely to (1) diversify their options, by submitting a longer list of less preferred majors, and (2) enroll in a less preferred major in the first admission cycle in our data relative to men just below the cutoff, who are more likely to retake the exam. These differential strategies by gender have potentially long-lasting impacts for the labor market. Based on the college majors that applicants just below the cutoff will enroll in, females ultimately have a 7% earnings potential disadvantage compared to males. Our back of the envelope calculation suggests that the gendered reaction to just missing the cutoff for their most preferred major could explain about half of the gender-earnings gap among college-educated workers in Colombia.

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