In this guest blogpost, Work/Life welcomes Jamie Pack, College Planning Consultant with Advantage College Planning, to help parents and students sort through the issue of declaring a major…or not…during the college application process.
Is there any value in applying to college without a declared major? Yes!
In a time where many college students change their major at least once, there are plenty of good reasons to enter college still in the exploratory phase. Here are several scenarios in which applying undeclared may or may not benefit your student:
The Truly Undecided Student
It’s not uncommon for a student to have no idea what they want to major in. I see this scenario most often in seniors who didn’t start college planning early. They may not have thought about potential majors until they reach that question on the Common Application. It’s not too late for these students, but it is a good reminder to younger students to start thinking about major and career exploration early.
For the Truly Undecided student, applying undeclared may give them a better support system when they arrive on campus. Some colleges assign academic advisors based on major, so a student who selects a random major because they think it makes their application look better might get paired with someone who can’t support them through the major discernment process.
When I worked at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, I was an academic advisor to incoming undeclared students and even students who changed their major to undeclared while they were exploring new possible majors. Part of my role was to help students choose their exploratory classes and meet with them periodically to discuss potential majors until they were ready to declare. Academic advisors for undeclared students have a broader knowledge of the different programs at a college whereas a subject-specific advisor may not know how to support a student looking at another academic area.
Pro-Tip: What does the Truly Undecided student do when faced with a “Why this major?” or “Why this college?” supplemental essay? Research how the college supports undeclared students or students who want to change their major. Do they have an advising office or a student success department? The Truly Undecided student can explain how they will take advantage of these support systems.
The Multi-Potentialist Student
Most of my students are what I would call “multi-potentialists.” They have a few different areas of interest, and they’ll be amazing regardless of their ultimate major. The Multi-Potentialist might have an interdisciplinary interest - like a student interested in environmental law trying to decide between political science and environmental engineering. Or they might be exploring potential careers that aren’t directly connected - like social work and physical therapy. The Multi-Potentialist is different from the Truly Undecided in that they do have some possible major choices ahead of them, but they aren’t committed to one just yet.
There are some scenarios in which I’d recommend the Multi-Potentialist go ahead and pick a major (and I’ll discuss those next), but this student is just as often a great candidate to apply undeclared. This is especially the case at schools like liberal arts colleges that encourage subject exploration and often don’t require a student to declare a major until the end of their second year.
Just like the Truly Undecided, this student can benefit from extra support and specialized academic advising that will help them explore all options before declaring a major.
Pro-Tip: It’s generally a good idea for a student to have more than one possible major in mind when they are planning for college. Remember that many students end up changing majors at least once in their college careers. Having a Plan B or even a Plan C in mind can give a student direction. And if they end up loving their major, they are in great shape to consider adding a minor in another academic area!
The College that Admits by Major
While many colleges encourage and support academic exploration, things can get a little tricky for colleges that consider a student’s intended major as part of the admissions process. At colleges that admit by major, some majors will be more selective than others. Students might be tempted to try and “game the system” by applying undeclared or to a less selective major with the hopes of switching majors once they enroll, but that plan can backfire pretty quickly.
If a student is looking at a school that admits by major, they should make sure to learn about that college’s major change process. At some colleges, it’s difficult to transfer into a selective major and there may only be space for students who meet certain prerequisites or if someone else has transferred out. It varies from school to school and from major to major. It might be hard to switch into the business department at one college but simple to switch from business to a less selective major. If that’s the case, a student might be better served to apply to the more selective major rather than applying undeclared or with a less selective major.
Pro-Tip: It’s not always “all or nothing” when applying to a selective major. Many colleges ask for a second choice major on their application that they may consider students for if they aren’t the right fit for their first choice.
The Major that Takes Time
There is nothing wrong with changing majors, but there is one potential drawback. Sometimes, it’s difficult - maybe even impossible - to change majors and still graduate on time. Depending on when a student changes their major or what they change it to, they can be looking at adding more time and more cost.
Some students change majors late in the game. Some majors simply take longer to finish. They are designed to take all four years either because students start taking major courses in their first year or because students must complete out-of-the-classroom placement in the junior or senior years. And sometimes majors take longer to finish because students are required to meet licensure standards.
If a student is torn between a few majors and is thinking about applying undeclared, it can be helpful to look into how much time each major takes.
Pro-Tip: Hop on the department website for clues about the time commitment of certain majors. See if they have any example four-year plans. Does their website talk about how easy it is for students to add a minor or double major, or do they discourage it?
About our guest blogger: Before joining Advantage College Planning, Jamie Pack worked in academic advising, major and career development, and community engagement at public and private universities in Tennessee where she frequently saw her students struggling with the idea of “fit” years into their college careers. Jamie guides students and families through the college planning process with the intention that her students will graduate from high school having made an informed decision about “what’s next” that comes from thoughtfully understanding who they are and who they hope to become.