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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Enrolling in College As An Undecided Freshman

“Great news!  Good for you!”  It's a well-earned moment for high school seniors with college on the horizon to glow in these words of congratulations from well-wishing friends, family, teachers as well as the random casual acquaintance.  So gratifying to receive these words of enthusiasm until the next breath brings the inevitable, “And what are you planning to major in?”

While many students will have a ready response to the question, the majority will hem and haw because, well, they don’t really know how to answer.  Let’s be realistic:  How many 17 or 18-year-olds applying to college truly know what they want to focus on for four years, let along pursue on the road to a lifetime of work?

In today's world, the intent driving pursuit of a college education can be very individual and experienced through many dimensions.  Ask any student about why he or she wants to invest in a college experience.   Is it all about learning -- or vocational support -- or a time and place to learn to be independent and grow up?  Maybe it is a stage in life to construct a broader world perspective?  Maybe it’s all of these?

Another Kind of "Early Decision"

Feeling early pressure to “know” what one wants to study in college puts students in a precarious position of having to laser in on an area from the starting gate that may be a wrong fit later down the road.  Most well-meaning adults (and, admittedly, this mostly includes parents) tend to conflate a college major choice with career path.  It's wishful thinking to equate a decision on a major from the get-go as a sure route to success at the conclusion of four years.  

Honestly, you can hardly blame bursar bill-paying grown-ups for this perspective.  After all, the cost of college today is to be taken seriously and quickly takes on the dimensions of an investment that we all hope supports a good “return."  

But consider how much a first year college student typically evolves once exposed to academic areas or other students who may open their eyes to learning they had never been exposed to before.  And consider that the high school curriculum most teenagers pursue is relatively limited and doesn't offer the breadth of coursework they would see in college.  The very experience of college itself is likely to open any student’s eyes wide to a catalog of areas to pursue. 

Typically, colleges report the most popular choice of major at the time of application is “Undecided.”  My personal spin on this is a more positive one:  Still Exploring.   Extending even further, how about: Potentially Interested in Many Things?  In a perfect world, this is the kind of attitude an eager undergraduate should bring along to college! 


Broadly, what is the goal that students hope to achieve at the end of their four years?  For some, it's preparation and solid recommendations for graduate or professional school.  For others, it’s graduating with a bachelors degree debt free.   For many, it may be a job offer or a realistic shot at employment in a field of interest that affords a sustainable lifestyle and independence.

Stepping into freshman and sophomore years of college for many teenagers is about finding direction via exposure to a broad curriculum while testing and then embracing (or eliminating) possible directions based on experiences in introductory courses. Then when the time comes at the end of the second year to formally declare a major, truly invested undergrads may look toward a path to double majoring or majoring/minoring.  As any college grad will realize, there had been so much available to explore in college --  and so little time to absorb it all!   


Filling in between the lines of what students major in and the requirements of the job market in any field goes beyond solely taking classes.  Today, students set themselves apart in the employment or professional school sandbox via experience gained along the way through internships; campus research and jobs; or volunteerism.  While it may come across as a bit of a paradox, it’s worthwhile to remind students at every bend in their educational path to gain experience outside of the classroom. As a result, they can be more hirable later on and later actually have a greater opportunity to apply what they did in fact learn in school.  

Given that students are bound to change their planned major as a result of potential exposure to areas of interest and fit, why constrain a high school senior with demands to determine a major before setting foot in a campus classroom?  For some students, their natural path has been clear for years, but expect most to explore the bricks in the walkway before branching off on the formal road.


Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

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