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Why Undecided Is a Great College Major

A professor's perspective on choosing a major.

Key points

  • It is very common for college students not to know what they want to major in and to change their major multiple times.
  • Being undecided and undeclared is a good place to be as it is a source of exploration.
  • The liberal arts often provide fertile ground for establishing successful professional goals and outcomes.

As a college professor for 26 years, I have had countless conversations with students about declaring majors and minors and changing majors and minors. I’ve talked with students who feel an overwhelming amount of pressure from parents about what major to choose. I have also worked with distraught students who claim their parents won’t support them in college, financially and/or emotionally, if they select certain majors and minors. Add to this the fact that it used to be assumed that students who knew their intended major even before entering college would have a greater likelihood of persisting: that is, finishing school.

Somesh Kesarla Suresh/Unsplash
Source: Somesh Kesarla Suresh/Unsplash

Across the country, many students approach their first year seemingly set on a certain plan of study: for example, nursing, business, engineering, education, or hospitality. And there’s some good reason for this.

These are all relatively widely understood fields in the larger culture—people know what they are and can see a clear path to a job. There’s a feeling of security—though that might be a false sense of security. Parents and students have seen nurses, business people, teachers, etc., in action. There’s a bit more of a sense of what can be expected, and that seems functional and practical and especially so in a world where so much feels out of our control. In fact, at some universities, majors like those I listed above are housed in a School of Professional Studies, wrongly giving the impression that other majors don’t lead to that same cherished and hopeful destination of profession.

Sometimes, these professional programs have direct admission, and other times, students begin their freshman year hoping to accomplish whatever is necessary to secure a spot in the desired program. For some students, this laser focus is motivating and helpful. For example, our niece has wanted to be a veterinarian since she could verbalize a career goal, and as she considers where to apply for college, I can understand her interest in pursuing only schools which have some sort of veterinary program. A dear friend’s son who started a business as a young teen had his heart set on very large universities with top business schools, and after being admitted to several, he will matriculate in the fall to pursue this dream. I am fairly certain that in these cases, she will become an amazing and sought-after veterinarian, and he will become a successful entrepreneur.

But what about the larger majority of students? What will they do?

Many students who already think they know what they want to major in wind up with a certain tunnel vision that doesn’t always serve them well in college and beyond. In their race to get their credentials to secure a job, they move through the college experience, checking things off the list. I have had more students like this than, truthfully, I would like. They’re busy checking off classes toward obtaining a prized piece of paper with no real attention paid to anything else about what college can be and what it can offer.

And I see many students who enter college dead-set on one program, thinking that their lives will be over if they don’t, for example, gain entry in our nursing program. The reality is most won’t, and they will need to find alternative plans of study.

Alternatively, there are the ones who came for something like nursing, got admitted, and have an identity crisis of sorts partway through it, realizing that is not what they want after all. And it is those students who feel desperately lost. They tend to regret how hyper-focused they were forced to be with a very pre-set and rigid curriculum, and they wish for greater flexibility in their degree program, longing for something more experimental. In working with numerous students like this, I see the value in coming to college with an undeclared major.

There are benefits to being undecided and undeclared, and they are as follows:

Some subjects are better grasped in college.

This is because they are often not taught at many high schools and require a level of emotional maturity and complex, nuanced, critical thinking skills that make this coursework more fulfilling to pursue in college. This is abundantly true in disciplines like sociology and anthropology and tends to also be the case with many other liberal arts majors.

Students benefit from pursuing the liberal arts as undergraduates and then pursuing a professional degree later.

For example, a student might consider a major in economics, psychology, or communications and then go on for an MBA degree. In fact, with the over-abundance of undergraduate business majors across campuses, this alternate path can be very desirable to employers who want an effective communicator skilled in relationship building who sharpens their business acumen in an even stronger and more reputable MBA program. Students who want to pursue law school, public policy, public administration, and nonprofit management do well with majors and minors like English, history, sociology, political science, communications, and Spanish.

Students do well by combining seemingly disparate fields of study in ways that creatively synthesize their interests and talents.

For example, we know that a great many surgeons play musical instruments, and that there is great overlap in music and medicine. It is reasonable to imagine a student who is undecided and then pursues a double major in biology and music and later goes on to medical school or to earn a masters in public health.

College is one of the most fertile spaces we have for cultivating openness and curiosity.

It’s perfectly normal to be undecided when coming to college. In fact, that is what college is for. It’s an opportunity for students to surprise themselves with what they can do and who they can be. It’s also perfectly normal to change majors and to do so even more than once. That’s another beautiful part of the college experience—the chance to reflect, reassess, reconsider, and reimagine.

College is a journey toward discovery rather than just a station to check in and out of for credentials.

Not every choice of a class has to be so utilitarian as to fulfill the needs for the major or for a general education requirement. Students often benefit from choosing classes that have a longstanding reputation of being fascinating and that are taught by stellar professors. For example, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, most of my friends enrolled in a class, more like an institutional rite of passage there, called The African Storyteller with Harold Scheub, a highly celebrated professor. I very much regret that I did not take that class. Also, by taking classes in disciplines you might not have expected to be interested in, you might be surprised and fulfilled to find new mentors.

College is a smorgasbord.

Who wants to go to an endless buffet with decadent and amazing food and only eat apples? The rich array of course offerings gives students the chance to take new risks, to try, and maybe even to not earn the best grade but to experiment with new ways of knowing. One may not think of themselves as a good artist yet pursuing a ceramics class or a painting class is sure to instill other worthwhile life lessons.

College is more than a job training program.

It’s about forging a pathway for lifelong learning. Students should follow their passions and open the aperture as widely as possible, especially at such a young age and with so much ahead of them.

College is about the questions.

This is why I have this quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke hanging on my office door:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

So, instead of calling it an undecided major which sounds wishy-washy and non-committal, maybe it would be better to refer to it as "still curious" or "under construction."


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