Being Undecided: Good Idea or Risky Business?

“Undecided is our biggest major.” “You can still graduate in four years.” “We will help you.” These are messages families often hear on college visits. In the college application process, students can feel lots of pressure to choose a major and career before entering. Ugh…one more thing to decide!

The attraction of being undecided (and entering an exploratory program as a college freshman) can feel like a weight is lifted for a child who is struggling with this thinking. Before your child decides to follow that path, be sure to understand all the pros and cons of being undecided.


At The Core’s mission is to help students make the important decisions surrounding their life after high school. Our flagship service, Guided Self Assessment, supports students with the thinking needed to choose a targeted career and college major. So, you may be thinking that we will suggest avoiding the undecided thing. You’d be partially correct. The key is looking at your personal situation from all angles.

We don’t mean to scare you, but…

64% of bachelor’s degree students at 4-year institutions were able to graduate in six years. Yep, we said SIX years. The reality is only 41% graduated with a bachelor’s degree in four years. In other words, for every ten students going off to college, only four of them will graduate in four years.

The average annual cost for tuition, fees, expenses, room and board at a public 4-year, in-state school is just over $26,000. At a private college, the figure is over $55,000. If you are lucky enough to be able to shoulder the extra expense of one or two more years of college, consider the financial implications after graduation. The grad loses one or two years of salary earned (an average of $55,260 per year), and their retirement savings is impacted as well. Even if they only invested a small amount towards retirement, the extra years of compounding lost would have a big impact.

What is an undecided or exploratory studies major?

An exploratory studies program allows a student to take a sampling of classes to help them clarify their career goals with the aim of selecting the major that fits best. A good program does more than that. Students need help fleshing out their interests. They need personalized attention. They also need to connect to other campus resources for career planning.

The exploratory major can look very different from college to college. Families will want to know:

  • Does the college provide interest assessments, job shadowing opportunities, occupational research, etc.?
  • Do exploratory studies students have the opportunity to live together in common housing where they’ll meet other students like them and be exposed to fun events and workshops?
  • What special courses are offered to exploratory majors?
  • Do they get connected to an advisor, and what kind of interaction can they expect from that advisor?

Can a student start as “undecided” and still graduate in four years?

Yes. Some boxes have to be checked to make sure it is doable.

Often the key to success in an undecided major is the quality of the college’s program and the strength of the advisor. The advisor’s purpose is to be the student’s guide and help them identify and develop a degree plan. We’ve heard from parents and students who were totally frustrated by their advisor’s lack of delivery on a school’s promises. Other students find advisors who make a good connection and home in on the right fit through their conversations. Research a college’s program online, meet with the advisors to understand how their program works, and talk to current undecided students.

Keep an eye on the course audit. A student who wanders all over the course catalog and picks a random selection of courses may find it difficult to graduate on time. This wandering can be an easy trap to fall into—like a kid in a candy store. The better college programs have some structure in their course selection to encourage success. (As a reminder, be sure to take at least 15 credits per semester.)

Bring credits into college with you. If possible, take advantage of dual enrollment (College Credit Plus in Ohio) or Advanced Placement (AP) opportunities in high school if these are a good fit. Having some college credits already banked will give you some breathing room in your schedule.

The key to success is the quality of the college’s program and the ability of your student to work towards a goal and stay on track.

If either of those are uncertain, being undecided is a bit risky. Families are pinning a lot on this advisor and their process to work magic. Research and knowledge are the key to overcoming that hurdle. Students can succeed as undecided if they understand what is expected of them and what tasks they’ll need to tackle to get there.

As Purdue says on their website, “Explore your options…Discover your strengths…Decide.” Students need to think about what that will really entail and decide if they are up to it. Always remember that you have to, at some point, declare a major and take and pass all the required classes for that major.

Having said all that, we often ask families this important question…

What magical thing will happen when your child steps onto their college campus to help them make this decision?

If that question makes you nervous, what can you do now?

If you have a younger student, know that the key to transitioning to college with a plan of why you’re going is to engage in a wide variety of experiences during high school. After each experience, evaluate what you learned from it. What did you like? Not like? Learned about yourself?

Students find it easy to just keep their heads down during high school and take the next class, the next quiz, etc. and never really think about the future. As much as we’d love for our child to magically lift their head up toward the end of high school and have some clear answers and a solid direction, that’s not likely.

Guided Self Assessment is the gift of time.

All those key elements to a good exploratory major program (self assessment, career thinking, job shadowing) are part of what we do in Guided Self Assessment. However, in a college exploratory program at the end you are picking a major/career. Ready or not? Like it or not? Bam! Make a choice.

Because most students complete Guided Self Assessment during high school, your family will have the gift of time to further explore what you learned. Through our one-on-one guided discussions, our expert facilitators become your child’s trusted support person. They dig through all those previous experiences to develop a list of career suggestions. Facilitators also help the student dig deeper into career research by learning about how to conduct an informational interview.

Armed with what they now know about themselves, the research instruction they received, and careers suggestions that fit their personal interests, values, skills, characteristics, students can take specific electives in high school, pursue work/job shadowing experiences, take summer career programs, and more. They head off to college with a more refined level of clarity and a clearer picture of what lights them up.

Want to learn more about Guided Self Assessment and whether it is right for your family, click here to schedule your FREE 30-minute family meeting. No obligation–just a sharing of info!

Do you have a child in college who is floundering?

We do also work with college students, but when families of college kids call us, we (gently) redirect them back to the college. The family is paying for college and all of the services that go with it, including career counseling and major advising. We urge every family to exhaust those resources before engaging with us. If a student’s advisor is not responsive or not effective, the student must self-advocate and request a meeting with another advisor. If all else fails on the college side, we will definitely be here for you (as we always are).

Bottom line?

Heading off to college as undecided is neither a cure-all nor the end of the world. An undecided student can be successful with proper research of the program and an understanding of how to make it work.

However, taking more than four years to finish is a distinct risk. College costs have soared so high that it’s essentially irresponsible to go without a clear plan to succeed. Students share with us that they are going to college “to get a better (paying) job.” At some point, your child must identify a major and take/pass all the required classes in that major. Everyone is happier, more motivated, and less stressed when this can happen sooner rather than later.


Updated 3/2024

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