Undecided, Undeclared, Open, Exploring: Your College Student’s Search for a Major

Many students (some say as many as 50%) enter college undecided about their major.

Many students who enter college as undecided experience stress and anxiety about declaring a major and/or finding a career.

Many students who enter college declaring a major are really undecided but have made a choice because they feel pressured.

Many parents of undecided students worry that their student lacks direction and will not find a meaningful career.

Many students, and their parents, are anxious about this seemingly indecisive status.

Who are these undecided students?

At a time when so many students, and their parents, say that the reason to attend college is to get a good job and have a good career, it may seem surprising that so many students are not on a “career track” immediately.

Some students may be unwilling, unable, or unready to make a choice of an area of study at the point when they enter college.  If your student is currently undecided, it is important to recognize that unwilling, unable and unready are significantly different characteristics. Your student may make a decision to wait to commit to a particular major, may be unable to decide between options, or may not yet feel that he is able to make any decision at all.

Perhaps simply changing the mindset from the more negative undecided or undeclared to open or exploring may help relieve some of the anxiety your student feels and may help him embrace, at least for a time, this exploring status.  If he can see this as an opportunity, rather than a problem, your student will keep many doors open as he gathers information during his first year of college

You can help your student as he moves toward making this important decision.  Try to understand why your student is undecided and reassure him that beginning his college career as an undeclared major may be just fine.  If it is the policy of your student’s school that he must declare a major when he enters, then you might remind him that he may change his mind as he learns more about both his intended major and himself.  He will not be alone.

Why is your student undecided?

There are several reasons why your college student may be undecided about a major as he begins college.

  • He may lack information about himself, possible majors, or possible careers.  He may need to spend some time in college learning more about all of these areas.
  • He may not be comfortable yet with the decision making process.  He may not know or understand yet what is involved in choosing an area of study.
  • He may be conflicted.  There may be a conflict between his interests and his ability.  There may be a conflict between his goals and his values.  There may be a conflict between his goals and others’ expectations.
  • He may be afraid to commit.
  • He may feel that there is “no rush” and want to take more time to explore.
  • He may equate a major with a career.  Remind him that one major might lead to many possible careers and one career might be approached through several possible majors.
  • He may be apathetic about the college experience.

Consider which of the following statements sounds as though it could be made by your student.

  • “I have no idea what I want to do.”
  • “I’m interested in everything and I can’t narrow it down.”
  • “I have some idea of what I’m interested in, but I’m not sure.”
  • “I want to do X but everyone expects me to do Y.”

Once you begin to understand some of the reasons behind your college student’s indecision, you can begin to talk to him about his interests, fears, uncertainties and dreams.  Together you can discuss possible ways to begin defining some goals.

Help him to debunk some myths.

  • Myth #1 – “I’ll just figure it out eventually.” – Just waiting and hoping will not necessarily help your student explore. He will need to do some work to find his path.
  • Myth #2 – “I’m the only one who doesn’t have a plan.”  – Your student may feel that he is the only one who has not chosen a major.  The reality is that at many colleges more students enter as undeclared students than anything else.
  • Myth #3 – “Once I’ve chosen a major, I won’t be able to change.” – Some majors are easier to change than others, but no student should continue in a major that he doesn’t feel is the right fit.  If your student feels that a major is not working for him, he should talk to his academic advisor or a trusted professor.  Obviously, the earlier this conversation can happen, the easier it will be.  Sometimes a change may require an extra course or two, a summer class, or even an extra semester, but changes of major are possible, and are often the very best choice for a student.
  • Myth #4 – “When I choose a major I’ll have chosen a career for my entire life.” – This myth is a two-fold concern. Help your student understand that a major is an area of study, a subject that he enjoys, not necessarily a career choice.  That major may lead to a specific career, but it may not.  Remind your student, too, that most people today change jobs and even career paths several times throughout their lives.  He can expect to make changes in direction as he moves through the workplace and discovers new options, new interests, and new skills.

Be there.

  • Encourage your student as he struggles with this decision.  It is an important choice and for many students a difficult decision.  Be the sounding board he may need.
  • Don’t pressure him to make a decision sooner than he needs to.  With the exception of some specialized majors, students often don’t need to declare a major sooner than the end of their first or second year.
  • Try to help your student identify the “real” issue behind his indecision. Is he unwilling, unready, or unable?
  • Help your student develop a plan of action for exploring options.
  • Encourage your student to explore any career information available on campus.  Most colleges have a career office to help students gather information and do some self-exploration.  Colleges often sponsor career fairs or career exploration events.
  • Help your student understand and integrate any information that he gathers.
  • Encourage your student to participate in co-curricular activities on campus.  Joining clubs or organizations will not only help him to gather information, it will allow him to spend time with students with similar interests.
  • Help your student to clarify his values and goals.
  • Suggest that your student conduct some informational interviews with people he knows in various fields. He can ask what they do, why they love what they do, and what they recommend as the path to that career.
  • Reassure your student that he will find a path.  Encourage him to have patience and to trust the process.

Ask questions. 

Don’t ask every question you can think of, and don’t ask questions all at once, but asking a few questions might help your student think about his interests and goals.

  • What majors are you considering?  Why are you considering those?  What do people do with those majors?
  • What are your favorite classes?  Why?
  • What outside activities do you enjoy?
  • If you had a spare hour, what would you like to do?  What would you pick up to read?
  • What do you see as your greatest strengths?  Weaknesses?
  • Where do you picture yourself 5 years from now?  Ten years?  What environment would you see yourself in?
  • What resources are available at school to help you consider your options?
  • What are you doing to work on deciding about a major?
  • How can I help?

This is a big decision for your student.  It may be difficult for you to step back and allow your student to struggle with it.

Reassure him that you understand how difficult this decision may be. Reassure him that with time he will find an answer.  Encourage him to take some action to explore – both himself and the options available. Be honest with him if he asks your opinion, but remind him that this must be his decision.

And then try to enjoy the process of watching him discover his place in the world.

Related articles:

Should Being Undecided About a Major Matter When Choosing a College?

When Should My College Student Choose a Major?

When Your College Student Changes Major

Should My Student Choose a Double Major in College?

Should My College Student Select a Minor?

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