To Declare Or Not Declare

Today is July 4. Here in America, it’s Independence Day. We celebrate the Declaration of Independence, which set America free from British rule.

It’s a national holiday. Time to have a picnic and watch some fireworks. (Be careful with those things!)

I’d like to address another kind of declaration today, for the information of about-to-be first-year college students (and even current college students): declaring a college major … or not. You do have a choice, you know.

What would one of my blog posts be without yet another trip down Memory Lane? (I know; the answer to that question is: “A lot better!”)

Anyway, thinking back to the summer before I matriculated at my small liberal arts college, I searched my heart for the answer to the question: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” The answer didn’t come easy. You may be in that same boat too these days. If so, take heart.

Right up to college move-in day, I was thoroughly in the dark about the direction my life should head. So, I chose a convenient and boringly uncontroversial default: Business Administration. That seemed to be a “safe” choice because when an aunt or uncle would ask me, “Hey, Dave, what are you majoring in?” I got approving nods when I gave the BA (not to be confused with the degree) answer.

So, that first semester, I went about the business of wading into some distribution requirements: English Comp, Music History Survey, Physical Ed, Math, and … “Principles of Accounting” (I still have the textbook, now in its 13th(!) edition). It didn’t take me more than a couple classes to realize that I hated accounting! I’m not a numbers guy, you see. I’m a word and music guy who loved his English and music classes and despised accounting and math, which are related, by the way.

How I wished that I had known about the “undeclared” option for freshman. Accordingly, do you know about that? Perhaps the larger question should be “Will applying to college as ‘undeclared” hurt your chances for admission?” Let’s take a look at both non-declarism and the urgent need to declare, two sides of the same college coin.

U.S. News provides some food for thought in its article Pros, Cons of Applying to College as an Undecided Major:

The applications for many colleges and universities allow students to specify an intended major, though this is not required – and not all students do so. In most cases, choosing to begin college as an undecided major or electing to declare a major before arriving on campus depends on an individual student’s situation. …

… If you have a competitive concentration in mind, but would like to use the first year of college to build a strong GPA, it likely makes sense to apply as an undeclared major. This is a particularly good idea if your high school GPA is not strong in the major’s related fields.

Engineering is one common major where this strategy may apply. Because engineering offers strong career prospects, making it a popular concentration, universities can be highly selective in which applicants they accept to their engineering schools. If you lack a history of high school success in science and math classes, it may be best to take college-level courses in the so-called STEM fields before you apply to the major.

As long as the required courses for this major are not so numerous that they need to be started during your freshman year, consider this approach. …

This is what I should have done. I could have substituted another distribution requirement, perhaps a science, for the dreaded accounting course that caused me so much grief.

U.S. News also notes:

The second and perhaps most important reason to opt against declaring a major on your application is if you are truly undecided. It’s not worth choosing a concentration before you have fully researched your potential field.

Have you learned enough about multiple majors and compared them so that you can make an informed decision? Do you know what the requirements are for your prospective major? Have you researched the career options that are available to students who are majoring in this field? If you cannot answer “yes” to all of these questions, it is likely best to apply as an undeclared major. …

… even if you are certain about what you wish to study, and even if you have provided carefully researched answers to the questions outlined above, it may be best to wait. Remember that no matter how certain you are now, your mind may change, especially once you arrive at college and are exposed to its seemingly endless array of course offerings. Do not paint yourself into a corner if there is no compelling reason to do so.

In many cases – though not all – your college or university will not require you to declare a major as a high school senior. You may even be encouraged to wait until the end of your sophomore year of college to choose a concentration. …

For you first-year students, what should you do if you feel a panicky need to declare a major, much like I did?  You might find a favorite book of mine on this topic helpful. Panicked Student’s Guide to Choosing a College Major, which is also available on Kindle for you screen-addicted readers.

Dr. Laurence Shatkin gives students the information they need to research their options, make practical choices, and overcome the anxiety associated with the college major decision. Shatkin explains that before choosing a college major, students should first consider the following factors:

– Time and expense required. “Some majors take longer than others to bear fruit as a career,” says Shatkin. “Before you commit to a career goal, you have to be sure you have the determination and ability to go through the long preparatory process. College tuition keeps getting more and more expensive. Also, you need to be confident that you will enjoy the major itself, not just the rewards at the end of the road.”

– Competition. According to Shatkin, “Rewarding careers often attract large numbers of job seekers. The competition can begin in college or, for some careers, even earlier. As part of the decision about a major and a career, you need to get a realistic sense of your chances of entering and succeeding in school.”

– Personality type. “The most widely used personality theory about majors and careers was developed by John L. Holland. The theory rests on the principle that people tend to be happier and more successful in jobs where they feel comfortable with the work tasks and problems, the physical environment, and the kinds of people who are co-workers,” explains Shatkin. “Holland identified six personality types that describe basic aspects of work situations: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional.”

– Skills. “Part of a good career decision, which will shape your decision about your major, is matching your skills with a career’s demands for skills. Your past experiences in school and work can help you understand which skills you are good at and enjoy using,” says Shatkin.

– Favorite high school courses. According to Shatkin, “A good way to predict how well people will like college courses is to ask them how much they liked similar high school courses. In addition, most people earn their highest grades in college courses that are similar to the high school courses in which they did well. Your high school experiences can help you predict your satisfaction and success in various careers.

In thinking about the importance (a.k.a. consequence) of choosing a particular major, allow me to quote myself from a previous post:

“Can the major you select for your undergraduate college experience strongly affect your income or success in life?

“My answer, from the perspective of a professional college counselor, would be, ‘Probably not.’ ”

“So, let the college major chooser beware. It cuts both ways. I love what I’m doing and feel as though my (generally) liberal arts education has enabled me to tackle a number of diverse jobs well. However, I would like to submit for your consideration an old article that may or may not have been written for its potential sensationalism. The title is Worst College Majors for Your Career. Here’s an excerpt:

“The list:

10. English
9. Sociology
8. Drama and Theater Arts
7. Liberal Arts
6. Studio Arts
5. Graphic Design
4. Philosophy and Religious Studies
3. Film and Photography
2. Fine Arts
1. Anthropology

“There’s also a lengthy, spirited discussion about this on College Confidential. Take a look at the opinions there …”

Alluding to Shakespeare, then: To declare or not to declare … that is the question. Does it make a difference when you declare? Probably not. But that’s one of those “It depends” answers.

Thus be informed about who you are and what you want to do. If you’re not sure what your life preferences are and/or which direction you want to head, then maybe waiting is the better choice for you. However, if you’re focused like a laser on a career and the discipline(s) you need to study to get there, then don’t waste any time shopping. Declare early.

Whatever you do, remember this: Few decisions in life are irreversible. Try to remain calm and go with the flow. You’ll be just fine.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.