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“Undecided” is one of the most popular major choices among college freshmen. As a high school counselor, I’ve heard widely varying opinions on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Some people say that every student should go into college undecided so they can explore their interests without pressure. Others say that undecided students should take classes at a community college before enrolling in a 4-year college or university in order to avoid wasting time and money.
I see value in both sides. I suggest that students take the time to reflect and plan while maintaining an open mind, knowing that students’ career interests and college majors will often change as they grow and change as people. Here are five things students should consider if they’re undecided about their college major.
1. It’s OK to have an undecided major
It is normal for teenagers to not have their whole lives figured out. Although finding a college that offers a student’s desired major should be a main consideration throughout the college selection process, it’s possible to choose a college without a major in mind. Students typically have to declare a major by the end of their sophomore year at most colleges.
Students shouldn’t choose a major just to choose one — especially if it’s in a subject area that’s overly challenging. Instead, they should explore alternatives that better match their abilities. For instance, if a student wants to be a doctor but isn’t strong in science, they should re-evaluate their options within healthcare or explore other fields that match their strengths.
Students should also remember that it’s OK to change their minds — about 30% of students change their major at least once, according to 2017 U.S. Department of Education data.
2. A major isn’t a career
Only 27% of college graduates work in a job that directly correlates with their college major, according to 2013 research published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Further, more than 90% of employers believe that critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills are more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major, according to a 2013 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Many careers don’t require a specific undergraduate major. For example, students don’t have to major in biology, chemistry or pre-med in order to go to medical school, or in pre-law or political science in order to go to law school.
However, in some cases, a particular undergraduate major is a pre-requisite for a career. In order to be a nurse or a teacher, for instance, students need to study nursing or education. (Although there are graduate programs for these types of occupations for students who change their mind later in life.)
3. Students who go in undecided may have to transfer later
Although it’s OK to enter college with an undeclared major, students should be aware that doing so could increase their chances of having to transfer schools later if they eventually choose a major that their college doesn’t offer. It’s also possible that a student could get accepted at a college as an undecided major, but then decide to apply to a competitive major program at the school and get rejected. In that case, they’d need to either choose a different major or transfer.
Students who have multiple interests should choose a college that offers several of the majors they’re interested in. This can help avoid the need to transfer, which can add to the amount of time and money it takes to complete a degree.
4. Research and reflection can help students choose a major
Students who are undecided about their college major should take time to reflect on their personality, interests, values and academic strengths, and then talk with trusted adults (parents, teachers, high school counselors, etc.) about how these could relate to a future career.
As part of this reflection, students should think about their favorite high school classes. If they enjoy creative writing, for example, they could consider majoring in journalism or English. Students who excel in band or music could consider majoring in performing arts or audio engineering. Other questions students should ask themselves include:
- What are your favorite activities to do?
- If you had one unplanned hour, what would you do for fun?
- What type of work environment do you see yourself in? (desk job, school, business, outside, working with your hands, etc.)
Some of this reflection can also happen during a student’s freshman year of college. Undecided college freshmen should explore their interests by taking classes that sound interesting, trying a new club, activity or community service project, getting a job or internship in a field they might be interested in, job shadowing, and meeting with advisors at the campus career center.
5. These resources can help students choose a major
For students who are still struggling to choose a college major, these resources can help.
- What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers
- The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success
- O*NET Interest Profiler: This free tool, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, can help students explore how their interests could relate to the world of work.
- BigFuture (CollegeBoard): This website can help students search for colleges by major, and explore different major and career options.
- Naviance: This college and career readiness software, which some high schools subscribe to, offers numerous tools that can help with major and career selection. I recommend the “Do What You Are” assessment, Career Interest Profiler and the Roadtrip Nation video series, which features interviews with leaders from around the country about how they’ve translated their interests into a career.