Do you need to have a prospective major, or is it okay to be undecided?

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Our counselors answered:

Do you need to have a prospective major, or is it okay to be undecided?

Seth Allen
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Grinnell College

Do you need to have a prospective major, or is it okay to be undecided?

Here is my video response to the question.

Clark Daggett
Head of School Crossroads College Preparatory Academy

Curiosity and passion trump intended major

A very high percentage of college students change their majors, so there is not a high expectation that all applicants will know what they want to major in. What is more important is conveying your curiosity and enthusiasm for one or more of the academic programs available at the schools to which you are applying. Evidence of thoughtful curiosity and real enthusiasm for learning will lead to a clear academic focus during college, so those attributes are more important than a clear direction. If you know what you want to do, that's great, but if you don't, but have curiosity and enthusiasm for one or more academic subjects, just be sure to convey those attributes in your interview, essays, etc.

Marilyn Emerson
President Emerson Educational Consulting

Don’t panic, you don’t need to pick a major yet!

Applying undecided will not hurt your chances for admission. College is different than high school. There are many more areas to explore. So, if you don’t know what you want to study, don’t panic. I am reminded of a young woman who wasn't sure what she wanted to major in. As a freshman she opted for an economics course, a subject she knew little about, because she was tired of hearing her father say “take something useful!” She graduated majoring in economics. My advice – don’t rule anything out and don’t rush into a decision. Enjoy the journey!

James Nondorf
Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid University of Chicago

Use experience to find your passion

Not knowing what you want to major in cannot hurt your application. In fact, at UChicago, we want our first-year students to arrive with a healthy intellectual curiosity, and to explore a wide variety of academic fields in our Core curriculum. Students usually declare a major towards the end of their second year or the beginning of their third. And, of course, many students change their major (sometimes more than once), and some students double major, add a minor, etc. The breadth, focus, and direction of your academic career are really in your hands. At UChicago, we believe in the value of a broad, rigorous liberal arts education, and we teach the fundamental skills: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and persuasive writing. These are skills that will serve you well in any career. Certainly there are some majors that lend well to certain careers, but we’ve had philosophy majors go on to work in finance, English majors become doctors, and math majors find careers in the arts.

Nina Berler
Founder unCommon Apps

Undecided Majors

The question remaining undecided about a major sometimes comes up with my students. I know when I interview for Brown and the information says the student is undecided, I do my best to get to know that student and find out what his or her preferences are. So few students at the age of 17 or 18 really know their future direction, and so many students change their minds during college. Admissions officers realize this, and they assess candidates on many factors other than prospective major. Sometimes, students answer the major question without the utmost of sincerity; for example, they think it "looks better" to have a particular major. That's why colleges look at the entire candidate package.

Helen H. Choi
Owner Admissions Mavens

More Than Okay

Not many high school students know what they'll major in at college -- especially since they haven't been to college yet! You don't need to worry if you haven't settled on a major yet -- most colleges do not require that you pick a major until the end of your sophomore year or the beginning of your junior year. That gives at least 4 semesters of exploring your interests and by that time -- you can make an educated and informed decision. Also - during your time at college, be sure to take advantage of student advisory, counseling and career services so that you can choose a wide but smart range of courses. Many college students -- over 50% -- come in as undeclared and once students decide their majors -- many change them two or even three times! So while flip-flopping majors aren't uncommon -- you don't want that to be you -- especially when time and money are at a premium at college.

Nancy Milne
Owner Milne Collegiate Consulting

Undecided Major

Honestly, even if you declare a major, the chances of you changing your degree interest before you graduate is good. So if you want to begin undecided, that's just fine. The advantage to being open minded about a major is the opportunity to explore areas you might otherwise not make time for. In addition, you may discover a subject that you'd never heard about and fall in love with. Keep in mind that certain majors will require you to apply directly to their program from day one because there is the matter of course sequencing. Other programs will have limits on the number of students they can enroll, so take that under consideration as well.

Tam Warner Minton
Consultant College Adventures

Undecided

Applying undecided is perfectly fine. Actually the majority of students change their major at least once, so it may even be the smart thing to do. There are some programs (nursing, business, physical therapy) that are very competitive, and if you really don't know yet what you want to do, going in undecided is probably the right thing to do.

Karen Ekman-Baur
Director of College Counseling Leysin American School

Is It Okay to be Undecided about a Major?

If a student is relatively certain about what he/she wants to study, then it can make sense to indicate a prospective major when applying to college. Many students, however, are not at all decided about what they want to study, and many who thought they were decided change their minds once they get to college - sometimes more than once. If an applicant doesn't have a strong idea of a prospective major, it's perfectly all right to indicate "Undecided". A fairly large percentage of students apply in that category each year, and schools are quite used to seeing that designation. There are many directions of study and careers that a student may never have considered or even heard of before, so a whole new world of possibilities will open up. Most schools in the U.S., Canada, and Scotland recognize this initial uncertainty and don't require students to declare a major until the end of their second (Sophomore) year. How this is handled and when the major must be declared depends, of course, on the institution. In many schools, there is no requirement to register into a specific department, and the student has considerable leeway in ultimately choosing a major or changing from one major to another. In other institutions, a student is required to register into a specific department - Humanities, Mathematics, Sciences, etc. The student can later, without much difficulty, change from one major to another within that department, but it might be a bit more difficult to change to a major in another department. The ease of the process depends wholly on institutional policies. By way of contrast, a majority of the universities in the U.K require that students register directly into a course of study (major), and if a student discovers that the course which was chosen is not the right one for him/her, the student must drop out and go through the entire application process again into another course of study. This can be a source of considerable annoyance if students discover that they have made a mistake and want to change courses. On the other hand, by entering directly into a course of study without spending the first year or two on general studies, students can often finish university in three years rather than four. Bottom line: In most cases, it's perfectly all right to be "Undecided", but do your homework in researching the institutions in which you're interested and have a clear understanding of their individual expectations and requirements in this regard before you apply.

Bill Pruden
Head of Upper School, College Counselor Ravenscroft School

Do you need to have a prospective major, or is it okay to be undecided?

It is OK to be undecided. Indeed, years of experience have taught college educators that a student’s interests can change greatly once they have the opportunity to explore new areas, or even get into a previously expressed interest at a higher level. College is a time of growth and greater self-awareness and inevitably that leads to some changes in one’s intended direction. Of course, it does matter if you are applying to a specific school within a university, like the engineering or education, where you will be getting specific training that is different, but otherwise it does not really matter, and the fact that the school is asking is aimed more at getting another sense of you and your interests as well as a sense of what areas may be drawing student to their school. In the end, if you do know, fine, but if not don’t sweat, most of the admissions people probably changed too.