High school students often stress over not knowing what they want to major in during college—and many parents want to know how and when their undecided teen should be selecting their future course of study and/or career. The short answer: There isn’t one set time to make this decision. Fortunately, there are numerous colleges and universities that don't admit by major program, allowing students to explore and declare a major by the end of their sophomore year. In fact, the most popular college major choice among entering freshmen is "undecided," which highlights this common uncertainty.
However, some institutions do require students to declare a major upon entering, and it isn't always easy to transfer to another. Students who want to attend these colleges often feel tremendous pressure to choose a major, and they sometimes end up unhappy and stressed trying to navigate an academic path they’re not invested in. Here’s some general advice you can use to help your teen find an academic path and ease the stress of deciding on a major too soon.
Major changes are common
For most students, picking a college major is complicated. It can be difficult because high school teens are all exposed to the same subjects: English, math, science, history or social science, and a foreign language. They may have enrolled in a few interesting electives, but they don't often dive deep into other subjects. Plus, few high schools offer robust courses on career planning. Consequently, many colleges report that the majority of students graduate with a major that differs from what they originally indicated on their college application. They enter college, try classes in unfamiliar subjects (e.g., actuarial science, business, civil engineering, data analytics, etc.), and ultimately discover a new interest. In fact, many students change their major multiple times throughout their college years.
A major starting point
If your teen is interested in a college where they can’t attend undecided, it doesn’t mean it has to be off the table. Recently, we spoke to an admission officer from the University of Southern California, where students can’t apply undecided. He explained their thought process on this and stated that while students need to declare a major, it’s really more of a starting point. They don't have to follow through with their path, as many USC students change their mind once they’re enrolled—USC just wants to know where they plan to begin, and that's the program they will be admitted to. For students who are truly undecided, it's best to avoid colleges like this that lock them into a major and offer limited options to switch to something else. In that case, they should research and apply to schools that are flexible to their academic needs.
Exploring academic and career options
The concept of planning where to begin aligns with what we tell our students and families at One-Stop College Counseling. They absolutely don't need to "know" what they’ll major in and what their future career will be, but we want them to identify their interests and have a plan upon entering college. For the majority of students, it's fine to change course once enrolled, but they should start with an idea of what they hope to explore. We’ll often point our students to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to educate themselves on various options. In addition, there are numerous college websites that do a fantastic job helping students explore majors—like the University of Texas at Austin’s Explore UT Austin Undergrad Degrees page, which walks students through all their undergraduate options and what to expect from each program.
Utilizing volunteer and internship opportunities
Students should further research the careers that interest them online and also by volunteering, job shadowing, or interning in related fields. Of course, even if a student selects a future career—perhaps as a physician—that doesn't have to dictate their college major. A Pre-med student can major in French, Music, Anthropology, Biomedical Engineering—basically anything—as long as they enroll and excel in their required Pre-med courses.
Selecting classes that excite them
College is a time of learning and discovery, so students should be selecting classes that excite them without solely focusing on their future career. This is their time to explore! Regardless of what they major in, they’re in college to get a well-rounded education that’ll serve them well going forward. Students should take advantage of their college’s career planning center and academic advisors; they’re ready to help and offer their expertise. They can guide students to help them take on a minor or double major, or even create an alternate plan that uniquely serves the student’s interests.
Students are going to be working for the bulk of their life. They shouldn’t choose a major (or a career) based on someone else's priorities. It’s common for parents to push for a particular career like medicine, law, engineering, and other difficult disciplines. But this is your student's life to live, and they should choose a major and career path they'll be happy with. Let them take the reins while offering guidance and support in their academic exploration. If they find they’re not happy as time goes on, they can always pivot and try something new!
Check out more great advice on how to step into a supportive role for your student’s academic goals in our Parents section.