Starting College on the “Undecided” Track

Published by Wendy Nelson on

QuestionDo you have a student starting college in the fall who has no idea what to major in? If so, don’t fret, it’s perfectly fine! Statistics say that 50 – 80% of college students change their major at least once during their undergraduate program. Most students have not been exposed to that many subjects through the end of high school. There are content areas and occupations they have never thought about or even heard of. Those students who come out of college sure that they want to study a subject, often see that subject through the “rose-colored glasses” of a high school course where they excelled. Take my husband for example. He started college as an Accounting major. He had one accounting class in high school, which he aced, and thought if debits and credits were the basis of accounting, he could do that all day. He ended up hating accounting once he got into a college accounting course, became an Education major, and works as a school administrator today. People laugh when he tells them he started as an Accounting major.

Based on my husband’s story and the statistics about changing majors, I don’t worry about my daughter going into college undecided. In fact, I took it heavily into consideration during the college choice process. I would recommend that anyone facing this scenario do the same.

What Undecided Students Should Look For

1. Exploratory program – Many colleges offer official “exploratory” programs for students who haven’t selected a major. These usually include lots of contact with an advisor, skill/interest testing, and possibly seminars, job shadowing, internships or other opportunities to explore different career paths. One school I saw with an exploratory program offers a Major Fair every year to give students a chance to find out more about different majors and the jobs that they can lead into.
2. Strong advising – A school without an exploratory program can still be a good choice for an undecided student as long as there is a commitment to lots of personal advising to guide your student in exploring the options and ultimately choosing a major. You don’t want a scenario where the undecided student is expected to explore on his or her own and then is suddenly left with a looming deadline to declare a major without any help.
3. Skill/interest testing – Even schools without exploratory programs often have a department dedicated to career counseling that can administer interest and skill tests and help a student figure out what he or she might be good at and might enjoy.
4. Internships/job shadowing –Internships are available through most colleges.  The college matches students with a wide variety of internship opportunities, some paid and some unpaid.  Many colleges also have job shadowing programs to help students research potential careers.  For example, Davidson College offers one-day job shadowing experiences over winter break.  The college coordinates these experiences with alumni and parent volunteers.  Other colleges offer job shadowing during specific dates or throughout the year.  Both internships and job shadowing opportunities are great ways to see the ins and outs of a particular career and understand if something is a good match to be a viable career option.
5. Broad base of “core” classes –Schools that require a broad base of core classes give a student the opportunity to be exposed to more subjects that he or she might not otherwise explore.  Many students have found something new and different that they like while fulfilling a core requirement.

If your student is undecided, check out the options offered by all of his or her potential schools.  Ask questions about what the school does to help students decide on a major.  Find out how many students come in undecided.  The better equipped the schools is to help the student decide, the more likely your student will be to choose a major that will stick.


1 Comment

Dustin Chambers · May 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Great article! As a professor and advisor, I can tell you that it is completely normal for students to have no idea what they really want to do when they start college (in fact, I’m a little worried if they appear too focused and sure of their career path after just starting school).

As students eventually begin to narrow the field of careers that they find interesting, they should start to think about the long-run career prospects of those degrees. I’ve observed far too many young people jump into majors without much thought about employment prospects or earnings after school. While I would never advocate that someone pursue a career for strictly monetary reasons, I would suggest that they narrow their interests to a small number of possible degrees, and THEN choose one that makes long-term economic sense. Fortunately, there are tools out there to help students do that:

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH):

2. Department of Labor’s O*Net database:

Both of these resources are free and full of great information, but quite large and challenging to navigate. If your college-bound student has a limited attention span, it may be a difficult to get them to utilize these resources for any length of time.

Today’s college bound students, for better or worse, are glued to their smartphones, so if you are instead looking for an easy to use app that contains much of the same information as the previously mentioned government websites, I would recommend Majors:

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