I have no idea.
That is not an uncommon answer when we ask students what they want to study in college—often with some panic in their voices. We know what they are thinking:
Is it a problem if I don’t know what to study?
Will applying undecided hurt my chances of getting into a college?
Should I just pick a major that will help me get in?
The answer to all three of these questions is a resounding, “No!” It is great to be undecided. Admissions officers are just people—and most people know that the majority of 16, 17, and 18 year olds are still exploring their visions for their futures.
Here, we untangle some of the myths behind applying undecided.
What does applying undecided mean?
On most college applications, whether the Common App, Coalition, or an individual university’s application, students can mark a first, second, and sometimes even third choice major. Among a buffet of academic options ranging from French to finance to physics, students can almost always also choose “Undecided.” This simply means that they have not yet made up their minds about what they want to major in as they enter college.
Should I just pick a major?
In a word, no. Students should not choose a major simply to avoid applying undecided. One of the elements of a college application that admissions officers value the most is authenticity. A major that is not backed up by your activities list, courses, personal statement, or why college essay will ultimately ring false.
That being said, students should remember that these choices are not binding. If your student enjoyed AP U.S. History or volunteering for a Get Out the Vote campaign, then they can list political science as a potential major and change their mind later on as a freshman or sophomore. No one is going to fault a teenager for not having figured out exactly what they want to do with their life. And in most cases, students will not formally declare a major until the end of their sophomore year of college.
When should I avoid applying undecided?
If a student has a genuine interest in a major, especially one that the university may struggle to fill, then it may benefit them to say so on their application—certain scholarships, programs, or schools dedicated to specific majors may even expect this. For instance, Tulane offers architecture portfolio and musicianship scholarships, but students must indicate either architecture or a music concentration as their first or second choice. An application for Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business would raise eyebrows if the student were to mark undecided rather than business or finance as their first choice.
However, as we mentioned, authenticity is key. Your student should only indicate majors that genuinely intrigue them.
Will applying undecided hurt my chances?
When done right, applying undecided should not be a problem. Again, admissions officers understand that your student is a teenager. They do not expect them to have their entire career path planned out. Indeed, 20%–50% of students enter college undecided, and an estimated 75% change majors at least once, so applying undecided may give students enough time to make an informed decision. Applying undecided may even indicate that the student is a good fit for colleges that pride themselves on flexible or interdisciplinary curriculums, like Brown, Cornell, or UMass Amherst.
So, what does “when done right” look like?
We counsel students to be “actively undecided.” This means that while your student does not need to have the next decade of their life mapped out, they should have interests, curiosities, and passions that they can communicate clearly within their college applications.
Our philosophy has always been that better people make better applicants. A student who has thoughtfully explored and pursued their passions throughout their high school experience will already be actively undecided, by nature. Maybe they have problems they want to solve or questions they want to answer that are drawing them in different academic directions. Maybe they have multiple interests they hope to combine through their college studies. There is a big difference between applying undecided and applying indifferent.
Not sure how to be actively undecided? Reach out to us.