Embrace The Unknown: It is OK NOT to Know Your University/College Major from Day 1

Updated: April 3, 2020

What To Do If You Do Not Know How To Choose Your University or College Major As a First year Student

It is perfectly acceptable to not know what your future career will be.

Now you try it. Say it out loud: It is perfectly acceptable to not know what my future career will be!

Every year, the majority of freshmen in college will start college with a major. And just as the sun rises, around three quarters will change that major. The lucky ones may do this just once. Others change programs more than 5 times, even though doing so risks adding time, cost, stress, and paperwork to college completion. Additionally, the percentage of college grads working in their major is pretty small. According to a recent U.S. Census, just over a quarter of grads have a job that matches their degree’s major, causing us to further question the meaning of someone claiming a major. It is, in a word, ludicrous.

In talking with high school seniors, I’ve found that they know that they’re likely to change their major, but they pick one nonetheless. So why do they even pick one in the first place? Sure, it is one of, if not THE, most common questions asked of entering freshmen. And yes, universities tend to encourage major selection because of the myth that picking a major will decrease attrition or delaying of a degree. Still, though, most schools allow “undecided” as an option. There’s something else at work, and it starts with this:

Nobody wants to say, “I don’t know.”

People hate uttering that three word phrase. The question being answered barely matters. It could be about RNA synthesis or a favorite movie. Nobody likes to not know, and to be fair, it makes sense. At its heart, it’s an admission of ignorance. That ignorance could be about the external world and our knowledge of it. When I miss every single daily double in Jeopardy, it’s this type of ignorance about which I feel shame. In the case of being asked about college majors, though, what we don’t know is entirely different. Instead of not knowing about the outside world, we don’t know about ourselves. And here’s the thing: it makes perfect sense that you don’t know.

When it comes to career and major exploration, the following formula is generally accepted:

Knowledge of self + knowledge of world of work = ability to pick a career. Knowledge of self includes recognizing your abilities, interests, values, and motivators. Knowledge of the world of work includes understanding different industries, the jobs within, and those jobs’ environments, duties, training requirements, and compensations. The more you know about yourself and the 800+ occupations out there, the better suited you will be to compare those two things and find a good fit.

This all seems easy enough. What do I like? What jobs do that? Boom. Done. Right? The number of major changes indicates otherwise. As I said earlier: it makes perfect sense that you don’t know.

Let’s challenge the status quo that unfairly expects 18 year olds to declare a major from the time they express interest in a college. It’s completely unreasonable for anyone to demand you to command knowledge of work and knowledge of jobs. For one, the working world is difficult to truly understand at any point because the number of occupations is mind-blowing. In healthcare alone, the U.S. Department of Labor recognizes 47 different types of jobs. Physician is just one of those, encompassing everything from neurosurgeons to pathologists. After meeting thousands of high school seniors and college freshmen, I can tell you that none of them have truly experienced what it’s like to work in any of those positions. These students have never experienced a good day or bad day in a job, never earned the paycheck that comes with it, or gone through the training or benefits associated with one of these positions, let alone multiple.

Equally absurd is the suggestion that the high school version of you is the perfect person to determine the major and career for the college version of you, before you’ve even enjoyed the many parts of the experience. The things you’ll do at university are incredible – study abroad, student activities, research, classes, mentors, part-time jobs, etc. – and any one of them may reveal an interest, ability, or value that could impact your pursuit of a major or a career.

For now, be comfortable saying, “I don’t know”

My message is simple. For now, be comfortable saying, “I don’t know” when asked what you’re going to major in. At the very least, add some wiggle room with, “I’m not sure yet.” No more telling people what they want to hear because it sounds good to get them off of your case. No more feeling an obligation to just pick something simply because you were asked.

Proudly saying “I don’t know” embraces the unknown optimistically. Entering college isn’t the time to box yourself in but, instead, to revel in the fact that there’s a TON you have yet to encounter. Even within a year or two, you’ll do and see so much that you won’t be able to help but feel much more confident and enthusiastic about the direction you choose after getting those experiences. Be kind to yourself and let the university experience help you explore and develop in a healthy way. There’s no shame in admitting that you don’t know. In fact, it’s the best place to start when you want to learn.

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To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting