For some college applicants, their passion and future career are no mysteries. They’re blessed with foresight into what they want to study, and therefore, picking a major is simple — their choice is clear.
Most students, however, may have an inclination of what they might want to study in college or what career they may want to pursue, but it’s anything but obvious, and others may have no idea whatsoever.
If you fall into the latter groups, we’re here to tell you it’s perfectly fine to go into college undecided. In fact, according to one study “an estimated 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as ‘undecided’ and an estimated 75 percent of students change their major at least once before graduation.” Rather than something to be feared, being undecided is something to take advantage of.
As Jayson Weingarten, the Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Pennslyavania puts it:
The students who have not made up their minds, but instead allow for a thorough exploration of many subjects, are those who seem to have the greatest college experiences.
As Jayson makes clear, being undecided is different than being apathetic: it’s an active process. By exploring different academic subjects, many of which you’re learning for the first time, you’re exposed to new perspectives and ways of thinking. The process of exploring potential majors helps you see and understand the world in new ways and uncovers interests you may have never discovered otherwise. That’s partly why so many college students switch their majors.
Even if you’re already set on your major, you can still benefit from exploring disciplines outside of your concentration. For example, a pre-med student who takes a class in religion can learn a lot about the belief systems of other people, a valuable insight that can help her understand the medical decisions her patients make during her future career as a doctor. Sometimes classes outside your chosen discipline can inspire a new direction within your discipline, for example if the religion class influenced the pre-med student to investigate neurological basis of belief.
The secret to choosing your major is a simple process we’ve already hinted at above. It goes as follows: explore, reflect, repeat. Explore by taking classes that interest you. These classes could reflect high school interests, be a possible career path, or just have a really intriguing name. Especially during your freshman year, the key is not to get hung up on picking the “right” classes but rather to gain exposure to a lot of different subjects that may interest you.
During your classes and after they end, reflect on your experience. What did you like and dislike? Did you find them stimulating or intolerable? Do you want to continue learning about this or similar subjects? With the answers to such questions, you’ll be ready to make informed decisions on what to continue exploring or try next.
As you repeat this process, you’ll be building your way towards a major you truly enjoy and find engaging. This process is called wayfinding. It’s a technique designers like architects and product designers use to find the ideal design when many options exist. By the time you’re an upperclassman, you’ll face more restrictions in class selection as you work toward fulfilling graduation and major requirements, so start wayfinding as an underclassman.
Repeat after us: what you major in college does not equal what you’ll do for a career. Often you’ll hear conversations that go like this: “So you’re majoring in philosophy. What are you going to do with that degree?” But ask college alumni young or old if their career matches what they studied in college and you’ll find that the overwhelming answer is “no.”
Your major does not dictate your career. Studying philosophy doesn’t relegate you to becoming an absent-minded professor. In fact, the critical thinking and writing skills can be applied just as well to a job in marketing or consulting as it can to an academic career. A philosophy degree may actually serve you better than a business degree if you wish to enter the business world.
Besides as Jayson Weingarten points out, “even if you do know exactly what you want to do in your life, and even if you pursue a career in that field, you will probably wear many different hats.” Exploring different subjects helps you see problems from multiple angles and communicate and reason efficiently — skills that are much harder to teach and much more valuable than knowing how to use Excel or write a memo. Save those lessons for your internship.