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High School

5 Things to Consider if Your Student is Undecided about Their Major

Guest Contributor


“Undecided” is one of the most popular major choices among college freshmen. In my experience as a high school counselor, I’ve heard widely varying opinions on this. Some say every student should go into college undecided so they can explore their interests without pressure. Others say that, to avoid wasting time and money, undecided students should first attend community college before enrolling in a four-year college or university.

There is value in both approaches. I suggest that students take the time to reflect and plan while maintaining an open mind, knowing that their career interests — and college majors — are likely to change as they grow and evolve.

If your student is undecided about their college major, here are five talking points to share.

1. It's Okay to Be Undecided

It’s normal for teenagers not have their whole lives figured out. Although finding a college that offers the desired major should be a main consideration throughout the selection process when possible, it’s also possible to choose a college without that knowledge. At most colleges, students typically must declare a major by the end of their sophomore year, so there’s time.

Students shouldn’t choose a major just to choose one — especially if it’s a subject area that’s overly challenging. Instead, encourage your student to explore alternatives that better match their abilities. For instance, if they want to be a doctor but aren't strong in science, suggest they evaluate other options within healthcare or explore other fields that match their strengths.

It’s also okay for students to change their mind. About 30% of students change their majors at least once, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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 research published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Furthermore, a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that more than 90% of the employers believe that critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills are more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major.

Many careers don’t require a specific undergraduate major. For example, students don’t need to major in biology, chemistry or pre-med in order to go to medical school, or pre-law or political science in order to go to law school.

However, in some cases, a particular undergraduate major is a prerequisite for a career. In order to be a nurse or teacher, for instance, students need to study nursing or education respectively. (Although there are graduate programs for these occupations if your student changes their mind later in life.)

3. Students Who Enroll as Undecided May Need to Transfer

Although it’s acceptable to enter college with an undeclared major, students should know that doing so increases their chances of needing to transfer schools later.

For instance, your student could eventually choose a major that their college doesn’t offer. It’s also possible that they could get accepted to a college as undecided, but then choose to apply to a competitive major program and receive a rejection or find that the program doesn't have room for them.

If your student has multiple interests, encourage them to choose a school offering several related majors. This can help avoid the need to transfer, which can add to the time and expense 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 to talk to trusted adults (parents, teachers, counselors, etc.) about how these could relate to a future career.

As part of this reflection, ask your student to identify their favorite high school classes. If they enjoy creative writing, for example, they might consider majoring in journalism or English. If they enjoy band or music, they could consider majoring in performing arts or audio engineering.

Other questions students should ask themselves include:

  • What are my favorite activities?
  • When I have an unplanned hour, what do I do for fun?
  • What type of work environment do I see myself in: desk job, school, business, research lab, outdoors, working with my hands, etc.?

Some of this reflection may also happen during a student’s first year year of college. Students who are undecided as freshmen should use their first year on campus to:

  • Take classes that sound interesting
  • Try a new club, activity or community service project
  • Get a job or internship in a field they're interested in, or job shadow someone working in that field
  • Meet with advisors at the campus career center

5. Take Advantage of Helpful Resources

There are a number of resources available to help your student choose a major, or at least narrow things down. These include reading materials and assessment tests that will help reveal your student’s strengths and interests, specifically:

Books

  • What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard Nelson Bolles
  • The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success by Nicholas Lore

Websites

In addition, your student can benefit from simply talking to a range of people, including:

  • High school guidance counselor
  • High school college/career counselor
  • Parents and other family members
  • Older friends who are in college or graduated recently
  • Clergy or pastor

In addition, encourage your student to reach out to college admission representatives and professionals who work in fields that may be of interest.

In summary, if your student is undecided about their upcoming major, that’s perfectly normal. You can help them understand the implications of enrolling as undecided — and engage in a process of learning more about themselves and where they want to be.

Paige Buttels serves as career consultant, writer and workshop speaker with My College Planning Team, a full-service consortium for college-bound students and their parents. She also works as a high school college/career counselor for students grade 9–12 and teaches students focused on college preparation, career planning, research and exploration. My College Planning Team is currently offering free conferences to college parents on how they can reduce college costs at their student’s best-fit college — click here to schedule a call.
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