Applying to College “Undecided” or “Undeclared,” Part 1

These words send so many parents into a panic—but maybe they shouldn’t. 

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

I will say upfront that I had been a strong proponent of kids choosing a specific major on their application, preferably one they can use to guide them into a profession. Please don’t stop reading if you disagree.

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A couple of experiences have changed my way of thinking
First, when my daughter applied to a competitive major at her two reach schools and wasn’t accepted, while “undeclared” kids with similar profiles were, I began to question my philosophy.

Second, and more importantly, at the Accepted Students Day at the college my daughter ultimately chose, an assistant dean announced that the smartest kid in the room was the one who applied “undecided.” As parents caught their collective breaths, she explained that this student found so many subjects interesting that he was open to broader career possibilities. She followed her pronouncement with a memorable Power Point presentation discussing 20 or so seemingly unrelated careers students could pursue with each of several degrees. Her theory gained my respect.

There are a few ways to approach your child’s choice.
Find out why Does your teen want to go undeclared because his interests are broad or because nothing really excites him yet? Is he afraid of going to college and using his indecision as a way to avoid the situation? You need to discuss the issue because his answer can help determine if college is the best choice for your student right now.

Talk about your teen’s interests Go into this with an open mind. Don’t discount answers like video games, music or sports. Instead, explore potential careers your student might not have considered in these areas: video game design or product marketing, studio production or music promotion, sports management or athletic training. Many kids are undecided because they can’t connect their interests to something they can study in college and turn into a career path. Check out this website for finding related careers or my post on 10 majors and the 100 jobs you can get with them.

If you or someone you know has a friend who’s working in the field your teen’s talked about, ask that person about sitting down with your student to discuss his work and what he does and doesn’t like about it. Maybe he can share advice on good majors to prepare you for this field and offer some college suggestions. Remember, people take interesting paths to their careers.

Meet with a career counselor Start with a professor during a college visit or stop in at the college’s career services office (see my next post) before making an appointment with one of these professionals who will charge you for their work. Find a counselor through the National Career Development Association. Or check with your local library, which may have its own career-counseling program.

Consider a gap year Popular in Europe, a gap year involves taking time off between high school and college. Your teen can still apply to college and defer his acceptance for a year at schools that have such a policy, like Harvard. College is too expensive to throw an unmotivated kid onto an expensive university campus and hope he’ll figure it out.

If a gap year seems like a real possibility, help your teen plan what to do during that time. Some kids get a job or an internship in a field that interests them to learn more about it, or to make money to pay for college. Others travel, or volunteer here or abroad. Hopefully in that year your teen will mature, have a more focused direction and be better prepared for college. It’s not 12 months to sit around doing nothing, living off of Mom and Dad.

To understand the gap year a little better, check out this article by Danielle Wood on Today.com.

If your teen definitely wants to go in undecided or undeclared, read my next post on how to make the most of this choice.

Share your advice and experiences on applying undeclared to college.

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