Your college major isn’t everything, but it is important. However, there’s no need to panic if you show up to college undecided. Plenty of students start college undecided. There is research to suggest this won’t prevent you from graduating at roughly the same pace as your declared counterparts. However, you may need to take a few extra steps to remain on that pace.
As you apply to, enroll, and attend college, you’ll notice that there’s a big emphasis on your college major. There’s a good reason for this. After all, your college major will determine the degree that you graduate with, which could in turn influence your first job, your opportunities for career advancement, and your future earning potential. Then again, you might simply use some of the valuable skills gained in your major to forge a completely unique career path seemingly unrelated to your degree. Who knows? We can’t predict the future. But we can say with certainty that you’ll be spending a ton of classroom time on the subject of your major.
So your college major isn’t everything, but it is important. But what if you show up to college undecided? Are you behind schedule? Are you already setting back the pace of your education? Are you doomed to wander campus aimlessly, peering sadly into random lecture halls in search of a home?
The short answer is no. Plenty of students start college undecided. There is research to suggest this won’t prevent you from graduating at roughly the same pace as your declared counterparts. However, you may need to take a few extra steps to remain on that pace. In other words, beginning college undeclared is not a setback, but it does create a set of circumstances which you must effectively navigate.
If you are undecided, one of your primary goals during the early course of your education, is to accumulate enough experience, advice and information to eventually make that decision. However, Forbes advises sternly that “an undecided major should not be an open-ended trial.”
You will need to make a choice and get on with your degree program at some point—for many schools this point comes with a fairly specific deadline. In other words, until you do select a major, you are on a fact-finding mission.
If you plan to start school without a declared major, you may be well served by seeking out schools with noted influence in a wide spectrum of disciplines. Get started with a look at the most influential schools in the world.
It’s also important to note that some colleges or universities will actually require you to declare a major before your start date. If this is the case, the advice that follows won’t be of much use to you. You’re actually looking for The Top 10 Myths About Choosing a College Major Debunked.
Otherwise, read on for help with your fact-finding mission as we outline 10 Tips for Success as an Undeclared Student.
We’ll put the first few tips below into the category of Preemptive Strikes–things you can do before you even get to college to improve your odds of success as an undecided student. These are the kinds of moves that can save you time and money in the long run, and help you choose the right major.
While there’s nothing wrong with arriving at college undecided, it does mean that you’ll have to make the most of your time there. Forbes warns that “Going to college as an undeclared major often leads to students having to spend extra semesters or years in college to get the classes that they need for the major that they eventually choose. Often those students take on more debt as a result.” One way to avoid this is to begin your fact-finding mission while still in high school. Forbes suggests auditing interesting college courses—which means attending courses as an observer. In most cases, you’ll receive no credits or grades for auditing. But you will receive first-hand experience in college courses completely free of charge. You can actually begin evaluating your compatibility with different college disciplines before you even graduate. This may reduce the time you spend searching for the right major once you’re actually paying to be in the lecture hall.
Forbes also suggests community college as a smart alternative for undeclared students. Community college typically costs less, and offers a wide range of introductory-level courses to students who are still exploring their options. It’s also not uncommon for community colleges to offer a wide selection of online course and degree options, meaning that you could readily explore a number of subjects without relocating or committing to campus housing. In other words, this is likely the most cost-effective way to dip your toe into a number of different subject areas. Not only that, but most community colleges have relationships with public four-year colleges, which means that you should be able to transfer your credits and your associate’s degree to a state school without much bureaucratic hassle. If you’ve figured out what you want to major in by the time you get there, you may even be able to save more time and money by enrolling in a focused degree-completion program.
If you do have your heart set on going off to a four-year school and engaging the full campus experience, consider going somewhere with a small campus. It may be easier for an undecided student to get lost in a large university. In fact, a wider array of degree options may be overwhelming if you’re undecided. It’s not uncommon for undeclared students at sprawling colleges to bounce from major to major with little support. That’s why you might benefit from a more intimate college experience, one where you have better access to support from an academic advisor, where you may have a better chance to cultivate relationships with influential professors, and where the task of narrowing your focus might be a lot less complicated. Of course, you should choose an environment where you are most likely to thrive socially and academically, but if you’re not sure what you’d like to major in, it could be a lot easier to do both in a small school.
While undeclared students may have to take some extra steps to lock in on a major, you’re actually in a great position to succeed. So says a study from the Education Advisory Board (EAB), which actually found that while “graduation rates hovered around 83 percent for students who finalized their major during their second semester or later, students who declared a major during their first semester in college and stuck with it were four percentage points less likely to graduate.” Bear this in mind as you begin your college education. Keep your eyes open, know what to look for, and you should be in a great position to succeed.
This sounds obvious, but far too often, the first place a student looks for a major is in the course catalogue. In actuality, the first stop on your search should be within. Not to get all metaphysical with you, but it’s true. Before you can select a major, you need to consider your interests and passions, as well as your strengths and talents. Before you start weighing job prospects and salary potential, you should be thinking about how you can maximize your personal engagement in the subject matter. After all, you’ll be spending a lot of class time on the subject. And if everything goes according to plan, you may spend your career in this subject area. That’s a long time to do something you don’t like. As you consider your options, use personal interest as your compass.
One of the best ways to figure out what you enjoy is to actually experience it first-hand. Now that you’re in college, it’s even easier to audit classes. You have full access to your school’s offerings. Use your first few semesters to sample these offerings. Now that you’re enrolled, you’ll have a chance to evaluate both the subject matter and the professors who teach it. This is as clear a window as you’ll ever have into a prospective major without actually paying for the credits. As a bonus, you can approach professors, introduce yourself, and begin building meaningful relationships right away.
Professors aren’t the only people you’ll meet when you audit courses. You’ll also meet students who are pursuing the major you might be considering. Make friends and ask questions. An actual student is a great source for honest and relatable insight on what to expect from a major. Find out what a major is really like from the student perspective. This could shed valuable light onto the challenges, opportunities, and experiences that lay ahead.
As long as you’re making friends, find out what kinds of activities they pursue outside of class. Whatever major you’re considering, there is almost certainly a club or student society for it on your college campus. These groups give students a chance to meet, collaborate, and socialize with others who share their academic interests and career goals. The great news is, just like auditing a class, this is a way to learn a whole lot about a subject area without paying for the credits. Unlike class auditing, refreshments may be served!
You’re not alone, and for proof, you may be able to attend any number of events with countless other undeclared students just like you. Many colleges and universities will host events such as majors fairs, where you can speak with faculty, ask questions, and read literature associated with a wide selection of popular majors. This is a good way to make some preliminary determinations about what you can expect from a given major, and which majors match up with your educational and professional goals.
While fellow students and events are great sources for advice on choosing a major, there is no more direct route than consulting closely with your academic advisor. Of course, all students have a few mandatory meetings with an advisor over the course of their college experience. But for students who are undecided, we suggest doing far more than the bare minimum when it comes to making contact with an advisor. Make sure that you appeal to your advisor as a resource when you have questions or if you’re uncertain about how to make the most of your time as an undeclared student. An advisor can help you lay out a road map for all the courses you’ll need to take as part of your general education, identify the prerequisites that will apply to the widest range of major options, and highlight additional factors that you must consider as you make your decision.
As long as you’re talking to an advisor, ask about a career assessment. This is a common diagnostic quiz used to help determine the fields where your skills, interests, and aptitudes might best be put to use. Your academic advisor should be able to administer this assessment, or point you in the direction of a reliable assessment tool. If you’re searching on your own, job site monster.com offers a list of different assessment instruments. Feel free to experiment. Your findings may not necessarily tell you exactly what you should do for a living, but they may help you narrow down your options.***
With all of that said, remember that showing up to college undeclared doesn’t have to be a liability. It could be an opportunity to explore your options with an open mind. As the report by the Education Advisory Board reveals, it’s not necessarily the first major that you choose which matters most, it’s the final major that you choose. You may experience any number of shifts in focus between these two steps.
This means that the most important thing is to find a school where you can be happy, where you can succeed, and where you have access to high quality education in any discipline. Start your search with a look at the most influential schools in the world!
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