In the United States, there is a tendency among some high school students to think that they must focus on committing to a major before they apply to a college.
For most undergraduates, forcing the choice of a major that is connected to a chosen career path, before they even have a chance to actually understand or have an aptitude for that particular career, is unproductive.
Sadly, some students believe that steadfastly pursuing an “imaginary” career is an essential strategy to gain admission to a great college. In the end, this approach will likely not result in acceptance to selective colleges.
Because this view of the college application process is contrary to two overlooked realities: 1) the education system in the U.S. and 2) the typical high school aged student’s personal development.
The Factors at Odds with Committing to a Major too Early
1. The Education System in the United States
The secondary education system of the U.S. is not set up in a way to truly help high school students explore careers deeply. You may consider this to be a failing of our secondary education system, but I do not.
For better or for worse, most students are better served by waiting until they get to the college of their choice—one that fits them and helps them to grow into young adulthood—before exploring what they want to do and deciding on a major. I believe that colleges and universities are better equipped than high schools to help young people explore potential careers and majors.
Somehow, many students are led to believe that there is something wrong with them when they fail to pick a major before applying to college. Students get the idea they are wasting their time if they do not already know what they want to do. Lamentably, some people (often family members) even question the student’s readiness for college if the student has not figured out exactly what they plan to do for a career.
In fact, the reality of the matter is that students all too often start off with a specific major in mind, but then change direction once they get to college, sometimes more than once.
For example, business is one of the most popular majors in the U.S. today. However, despite it being a compelling career choice, many students drop this major after a short time in college. Maybe it is because they find this major is not that interesting to them or the advanced math is too hard. Alternatively, they see that there are a lot of other fascinating possibilities that might suit them better.
2. The Student’s Personal Development
The adolescent years are a time of significant changes. Students are in the midst of defining who they are. They are developing their personality, honing their skills, and moving into adulthood. There is much exploring and learning to do.
Some driven students already decide in high school what they want to do in college. They focus most of their extracurricular activities towards those that are directly connected to their chosen major/career. What they fail to do, though, is give themselves the freedom to explore other interests. Interests that are not connected to their potential future career, but are nonetheless fulfilling and interesting, and that expand their horizons.
After expending significant effort toward a limited number of activities, the reality is that most students will change their major in their first year or two of college. In fact, they often make a 180 degree turn away from their previously chosen career/major to do something completely different.
Of course, it is not wrong to have interests and define those interests in high school. However, it is also not wrong for a student to say no to the pressure to lock in a career path or choose a major before starting college.
I think that applying as an undecided major is a good idea. In fact, it would probably benefit most students to apply undecided. Why?
Why Undecided Is Good
My experience in the field of education has taught me that, for the most part, parents desperately want the world to be simple for their children. They want them to pick a sensible major which will guarantee them a lucrative job. The problem is that the world of work does not operate like this anymore.
The world of work is continually changing, and it will continue to evolve. There are jobs for which people go to college that will not exist anymore by the time they graduate. Moreover, there are jobs for which people go to college that have not even been invented yet.
The amount of time young people will be engaged in the workforce these days is extraordinarily long. That means during the years after graduating from college, they will continue to see a remarkable and unpredictable number of changes in the work world.
Therefore, it is challenging for a high school student to pick that one major that will prepare them for all the job opportunities that will come up in the future. Their odds are much better if they enter college with an open mind, without forcing a specialization on one major right away. This will allow them to focus on getting the best out of their college education.
The fact is that the world needs critical thinkers. It needs people who can communicate verbally and in writing, who are culturally competent and can work with those different from themselves (backgrounds, languages, beliefs, etc.) in a teamwork setting. It does not need people who are only focused on one field that they had in their crosshairs since high school.
When a student enters college undecided and allows themselves the freedom to explore, they can learn the things that are not captured by one particular major. And those lessons are the most valuable things to learn.
But is ‘not choosing a major’ a bad strategy? Does it not suggest that a student lacks substance?
Some may be concerned that colleges think the undecided student lacks focus, is lazy, or immature.
However, in 99 percent of the cases, unless a student applies to a very specialized school, colleges are happy to see applications from undecided majors. To them, it is not a contradiction. Instead, it is healthy and normal. In fact, they often see it as an expression of the student’s interest in exploring a range of subjects and opportunities. And that may be a compelling idea to share with the office of admission.
It is true that some colleges may like seeing interests, leanings, and specific curiosities. However, it is quite all right to say, “I have not chosen a specific career path yet.”
If you would like to know more on this subject, please contact me. I am an Independent Education Consultant that specializes in helping high school students explore the possibilities of a college education and finding the right school for them.