My College:

Is It Okay If My Freshman Is Undecided?

Shari Bender

My son came out of the womb destined for a career in hospitality.

Baby Joe was miserable at home. Any sort of excursion, even to the supermarket, filled him with stimulation and joy.

As he grew into toddlerhood, one of his favorite games of pretend was “waiter,” where I found myself the recipient of elaborate imaginary meals. The tip? A kiss on the cheek and a big squeeze.

As soon as Joe got his working papers, he applied for a job at our favorite local Indian restaurant. Joe immersed himself in tandoori and samosa and knew the spice levels of all the dishes. He made every effort to make the customers happy and was rewarded in the real world of monetary tips. In 10th grade he joined DECA (future business leaders) and continued working at different restaurants. He learned to make pizza and to refill condiment stations, and he was fulfilled.

When the Hotel School at Cornell University took him off the waitlist, he was ready to pursue his destiny. Two summers ago at the height of the pandemic, Joe worked as a DoorDash driver, joining the ranks of restaurant deliverers. He also worked as a private waiter, catering to small, socially distanced backyard gatherings (including his parents' 30th anniversary celebration). Most recently, he secured a summer internship at the JW Marriott in beautiful Marco Island. This kid is hospitality to the core.

My daughter, on the other hand, dabbled in arts and science and music and sports all throughout elementary, middle and high school. She chose a college with a strong liberal arts background and tried her hand at magic and computer competitions. After numerous starts and stops and changing likes, dislikes, majors and potential paths, she graduated with a degree in engineering.

She is currently working in data science and getting a master’s degree. Her initial graduate degree path wasn’t to her liking, so she changed to a different program, and she is loving it!

If you're the parent of an undeclared/undecided student, here's what it can help to know.

1. Many kids are unsure about their college path.

During my initial time as a Stanford admissions interviewer, I would ask the candidates, “Do you know what you’d like to study at Stanford?” Those “sure” of their path would tout the engineering school or cite the lauded computer science program. For those unsure, this question often evoked a stressed response.

Soon thereafter I started to ask the applicants, “what topics get you excited?” The answers were never “engineering schools” or “computer programs.” Instead, this question probed students to share what they loved — building 3D models for the local animal shelter or designing a computer program to help senior citizens with their medication schedule.

Asking a teenager what they want to “do” for the rest of their life can be a very heavy question. Kids do better with exploratory questions. Taking different courses during their first and even second year of college can help students find their passion and best-fit major. If your student needs additional guidance, encourage them to make an appointment with their academic advisor — advisors can play an important role in guiding and assisting students to find themselves.

2. You can help them think about what they love.

Addison, a family friend and particularly motivated and bright young lady, entered college determined to be a doctor. It was ingrained in her from a young age, and she felt comfortable and happy on this path. Once at college, however, she realized she didn’t actually love biology, despite a 5 on her AP exam in high school and her enjoyment of a summer bio research program.

When her college advisor asked her what she loved most about the university, Addison cited the beautiful buildings, along with her freshman experience with set design for her dorm play. A more in-depth conversation revealed that Addy had always expressed a passion for architecture, starting when she was a young girl happily organizing the family pantry. When Addison was looking for colleges, she would comment whether or not the buildings had “good brick.”  Yes, studying architecture was her new destiny.

For those young people who have their future in focus from an early age, that’s awesome. But maybe your high school senior or first-year college student doesn’t have to have it all figured out. Your teen may enter college with a plan in mind, only to change their major numerous times and announce a new career path at seemingly every turn, and that's okay. Life is full of moving parts and pieces, with opportunities for change. Even for us grown-ups!

Get more tips for guiding your student in choosing a major or minor in college >

Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of nearly 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.
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