Why Your Undecided Student May be Drifting

Most traditional college students enter college when they are between 18-20 years old. Scientists tell us that at that age, young people’s brains are not yet fully formed – especially in the area of executive functioning.

Is it any wonder, then, that many students (some suggest close to 50% of them) are undecided about a major when they enter college? Or that approximately 79% of college students change their major at least once during their years in college, with the average student changing their mind three times?

It may not make sense to expect our college students to know at the outset what they want to do with their lives, but we do.

If your student is one of those many students who say they are undecided about a major, you may worry.  Your student worries, too. Will they ever find direction? Will they find it too late and not be able to complete college in a timely way? What if they never find the right career?  That’s a lot of anxiety.

Being unsure about a major as you enter college is OK – it might even be the most appropriate response.

What is not OK is to allow that uncertainty to become a drifting mentality.

How did we get here? Why do we (and students) worry about being “undecided”?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

We ask our young children that question, and we get those cute responses. “I want to be a ballet dancing doctor!” “I want to be a gypsy!” “I want to be an astronaut and a policeman!” At that age, it’s all about possibilities.

Writer Emilie Wapnick, author of How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who Still Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up, reminds us that as we continue asking the question throughout our children’s lives, it begins to create pressure as they get older. It becomes less about the possibilities, and more about closing doors until you find just the right one to enter.

We expect our students to make this decision before they enter college, or soon after.

There is a negative connotation to the term “undecided.” When asked, students who respond that they are undecided often do so apologetically, revealing their concern that it isn’t a good thing to be. Even the term itself, “undecided” suggests that the student may just be an indecisive person.

Clearly our current educational culture has not created a very positive view of the undecided student. Is it any wonder that both students and parents worry about the status?

Why are so many students undecided about choosing a major?

There are as many reasons for being undecided as there are undecided students.

Here are five factors that may be affecting your student’s ability to make a choice. Think about which one, or which combination, might be at play for your student.

Conflict – Your student may be experiencing internal or external conflict as they think about what to study

One internal conflict may be between their interests and their abilities. They may be interested in medicine, for instance, but know that they do not do well in classes that involve memorization or detailed analysis. They may love music, but feel they have no talent.

Your student may experience a conflict between their interests and their values. Perhaps they want to pursue something artistic such as painting, dancing, or music, but feel that goal conflicts with the value they place on being able to financially support a family.

One of the common conflicts that many students experience is between their own goals and their family’s expectations. That student whose passion involves a life in the arts or non-profit social services, may find a conflict with their family’s expectation that they will go into business and move into the corporate world.

A student who is experiencing any of these conflicts will need work at resolving or eliminating them before moving on.

Choice overwhelm – Although it may seem counterintuitive, making decisions becomes especially difficult when there are many choices available. It would seem as though having many options (some schools have as many as 300 majors to choose from) would make it easier to find the one that is right.

The work of several psychologists suggests that having more choices makes decisions more difficult. In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz explains that having many choices increases anxiety and can be paralyzing and exhausting. Students who are overwhelmed by choices may set unrealistic expectations for themselves and blame themselves for potentially making the wrong decision. It becomes more difficult to know what is best.

A student who is overwhelmed by the number of options (majors) will need to work to eliminate options to narrow down the field.

Decision making style – We all go about making decisions in different ways. Dr. Schwartz identifies two different types of decision makers. Each makes decisions differently.

Maximizers – These decision makers spend a lot of time and effort working to find the very best choice. They examine every option and worry that something else might be out there that is better. They may also revise their choice many times.  They may always be unsure that they have made the correct decision.

Satisficers (a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice.”) – These decision makers are willing to accept a “good enough” option and stop looking for additional choices once they have found that option. They are less concerned with pursuing whether there may be better options.

Many of us can probably recognize ourselves as one of these two types of decision makers. It may be helpful for your student to try to identify their decision making style.

MultipotentialityThis is a term coined by Emily Wapnick in her book and in her TED Talk Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling. Wapnick suggests that some people are simply interested in many things and their interests don’t fit neatly in one box (or major).

“Multipotentialites” are the opposite of “specialists” because they excel in two or more fields rather than being strong in just one.  According to Wapnick, multipotentialites are important in today’s society, bringing the qualities of adaptability and flexibility and the ability to synthesize and to learn new things rapidly.

Being a multipotentialite may be a wonderful thing in the long-run and will serve your student well, but it can make choosing a single major difficult. Your student might opt for a double major or combine a major with one or more minors to broaden interests or even explore options for interdisciplinary or self-designed majors.

Lack of readiness – The final reason why your student may be unable to choose a major may be that they are simply not ready. Perhaps they are apathetic about being in college. Perhaps they need more time to mature and would benefit from a gap year or time away. Perhaps college is not the path for them – at least not right now.

If your student seems unready to pursue their studies, have a conversation about their interest in college and whether some time away might give them the experience and perspective to be more ready to make decisions about their direction.

What can parents do?

It can be difficult to watch your student’s anxiety over the process of deciding on a field of study. You want to help. However, this is your student’s work to do. It is difficult work, but it is good work, and the struggle will build mental and emotional muscle.

Reassure your student that they are not alone in being undecided. Let them know how many students change their major in college and remind them that once they make a decision, they may change their mind. Remind them that a major is a field of study but does not necessarily tie them to a career. Life is more fluid than many students realize.

Be a sounding board for your student, share your own stories of finding your path. Help them formulate a plan to proactively explore, investigate and narrow options, and ultimately make at least a tentative choice. Keeping your student moving forward will help prevent them from drifting.

In our next article, we’ll share some specific ways you can help your student create their plan for moving forward.

Related articles:

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

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

Why College?

When Should My College Student Choose a Major?

Should My Student Choose a Double Major in College?


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