How to Help Your Undecided Student Find Direction

This is Part 2 of our 2-part series on undecided students. Part 1 — Why Your Undecided Student May Be Drifting — discussed why your student may be having a difficult time deciding about a major. In this article we share some ways that parents can help their undecided student find direction.

There are many reasons for being undecided about a major. In our last article, we suggested that helping your undecided student find direction begins by helping them understand why they are undecided. You can help guide this process, but the deep work involved is your student’s work to do.

Being unsure about a major as you enter college might be the most appropriate course for many students, but it is important not to allow that uncertainty to become a drifting mentality.  Help your student formulate a plan to proactively investigate and narrow options and ultimately make at least a tentative choice.

A 7-step plan to help your student get started

Making a decision about a major — and possibly making it over again several times — can be so daunting that some undecided students begin to drift. They aimlessly move through each month or semester without making progress toward a choice because it is too difficult to know where to begin.

Help your student create a plan to guide their decision making.

Step #1 — Look at the big picture

Won’t this process of learning about options and choosing a major be part of your student’s college education?

The answer is maybe.

Not every school handles undecided students in the same way. Some institutions actively support these students and institute programs to help them make a choice, some do not directly support undecided students and ask or require them to declare early, and still others seem indifferent and allow students to remain undecided for a time but do not have programs to support these students in making their decision.

Your student can begin to understand how their institution regards undecided students by looking at a few key factors.

  • What term does the institution use to refer to these students — undecided, undeclared, exploratory, pre-major, investigating? Does that reveal anything about the school’s attitude?
  • Does the college communicate with these students as a group?
  • Are they assigned to advisors who are trained to help them explore?
  • What programs or events are available to introduce students to options?

Answers to questions such as these will help your student (and you) understand how much they can count on their college to help and how much work they will need to do on their own.

Step #2 — Counteract impulsive decision-making

Some of the statistics about undecided students and ”major changers” are surprising. According to Virginia Gordon, in her book The Undecided College Student, as many as 50% of students enter college undecided about a major. Perhaps even more surprising is that approximately 75% of students change their major while they are in college, with many students changing their mind three or more times!

Why so many changes?

One reason may be that some students declare a major before they are ready. They may attempt to please their family or choose a major that promises a career with potential for a high income. They make a decision that may be premature, uninformed, or unrealistic just to be done with the decision-making process.

  • Remind your student about the number of undecided students and major-changers. They are not alone.
  • Congratulate your student on their healthy suspension of judgment as they consider their options.
  • Help your student relieve some stress by thinking about ways to respond to the inevitable question from well-meaning family and friends who ask, ”What’s your major?” Help your student find a useful response.  ”I’m currently pre-major” can sound more affirmative than ”I’m undecided.”  Or perhaps they can turn the conversation around, ”I’m not sure yet. Tell me about how you decided on your major.”

Helping your student feel comfortable with their status will help them avoid making an impulsive decision just to have an answer or just to be done.

Step #3 — Do something

Some students become paralyzed by the seeming enormity of this decision. They can’t find a place to start.

Encourage your student to do something — anything — that will move them forward — even if it is only by baby steps. It will mean they are not just crossing their fingers that an answer will appear.

  • Start by taking a class in an area of interest — not with the goal of thinking about the major, but just to learn more about a subject they find intriguing.
  • Connect with your advisor and create a strong educational plan for the first two or three semesters that will put you in a position to be ready to move ahead once you decide on a major.

Step #4 — Take a look inside

As your student thinks about a major and possibly a career, they look all around them. They look to their family, they look to their school counselor and teachers, they look at the professions they see in their life and in the media. The last place that many students begin their search is within themselves.

The task of finding a major begins in self-reflection. This may be the most difficult part of your student’s process. Share some strategies with your student.

  • Think about your strengths and weaknesses. What types of activities are you good at and what do you tend to avoid?
  • Think about your interests and extracurricular activities. How do you like spending your time? If you could do anything you wanted, what would you like to do?
  • Keep a journal. Jot down ideas, observations, or activities that you enjoyed or didn’t. What sparked a new interest? What surprised you? Look for patterns or themes in what you have observed.
  • Self-assessments or surveys may provide insight. The school’s career office may have some of these and others are available online. There are assessments that will give your student information about skills, strengths, interests, personality, values, and motivations. Some assessments are better than others, and none will provide definitive answers, but they can provide pieces of information that your student may find useful.
  • Think of five people who know you well. These might be family members, teachers, friends, family friends, church members, scout leaders, or coaches. Ask each of them what they see as your strengths, interests, and qualities. This objective information can give your student a new perspective.
  • Suggest some questions for your student to think about.
    • If money was not part of the equation, what would you do? What would be your dream way to spend your time?
    • What would you like to change about the world if you could do anything?
    • As you picture yourself working in the future, are you working mostly with data, with people, with things, or with ideas?

Step #5 — Narrow the choices

Your student may be ready now to narrow their options.  Having too many choices can be overwhelming, and the reality is that many majors are going to be of no interest to your student. They need to narrow the field.

  • Keep a list of your favorite classes. Include your high school classes and your current college classes. Write down what you loved about the class (besides the fact that your professor told the best jokes!)
  • When it comes time to do homework, what subjects do you always migrate to first? Why?
  • Find a list of the majors at your school. Cross off all of those that you know you aren’t interested in. If there is a major that you aren’t sure about or don’t know anything about, leave it on the list. Learn about it before you decide whether to leave it or remove it.
  • Go through the college catalog and look at individual courses rather than departments or majors. Make a list of the courses that sound interesting to you and that make you think ”I’d love to take that someday.” Don’t worry about what department it is in, just read the description and add it to the list if it sounds like something you’d like. THEN go back and add up the classes in each area. What stands out?
  • Narrow your list to three majors (not careers) that sound interesting. It’s OK if they seem to be random. Find one student and one professor in each of these departments and ask them to tell you what they love about the field.  Remove or add to your list as appropriate.

Step #6 — Gather information

Your student has already gathered a lot of information — about themselves and about some options. Now it is time to get more specific.

  • Find three people in each of your top three areas (professors or people who work in the field) and set up some informational interviews. Ask what they love about what they do. Ask what a typical day is like. Ask them why someone should go into the field (or shouldn’t). Ask about the variety of jobs available in the field.
  • Work with the career office to explore career options in your three areas. Don’t focus in too much on a specific career yet, just learn about options and whether they sound interesting.
  • Look for opportunities to shadow someone working in the field or volunteer somewhere in the field. Get a feel for the real-world applications.

Step #7 — Finally, make a (tentative) choice.

This is a good time to remind your student of three important things.

  • Many students change their major during their college career. Your student is not going to be locked in, but it will be good to move ahead in an area, take some classes, and make connections with faculty members.
  • One major does not necessarily lead to one career. One major may lead to several careers and one career might be reached through several majors. A major is simply an area of study.
  • Many people working today in satisfying, fulfilling careers are working in areas that have nothing to do with what their major was in college. Flexibility and adaptability matter more today than a specific career path.

Encourage your student to trust their instincts.

And finally, encourage your student to get comfortable with uncertainty. They may wonder at times whether they might have gone in another direction, but for many of us, that is true of many of the choices we make in life.

If your student is entering college as an undecided student, they have hard work to do. If your student has a clear vision right now, remember that it may change. Your support and guidance will reassure them and help them find direction.

Related articles:

Why Your Undecided Student May Be Drifting

How Doing One Thing Might Help Your College Student

Informational Interviews: Your Student’s Tool for Career Exploration

Should My Student Choose a Double Major in College?

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


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3 thoughts on “How to Help Your Undecided Student Find Direction”

  1. You state in your article: “As many as 50% of students enter college undecided about a major. Perhaps even more surprising is that approximately 79% of students change their major while they are in college, with many students changing their mind three or more times!” Where did you get those statistics? You should always provide your sources when quoting statistics.

    • Connie – You are correct about citing sources, and I usually do try to do that when I include statistics. This particular statistic came from an important book by Virginia Gordon (a key figure in the world of advising) called The Undecided Student. This particular stat is quoted so often that I failed to cite it. I’ve updated the article to include the information.

      Thanks for your careful reading and your nudge to be more accurate. I hope the article was helpful.


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