Why It’s A Mistake To Go To College As An Undeclared Major

If you are about to graduate high school or are planning to pursue higher education, spring can be a very stressful time of year while you wait for those College and University acceptance (and rejection) letters.

Will you be accepted into the school of your choice? With the college major of your choice? How will you decide if you get accepted into multiple schools? Can you even afford to go?

What if you make the wrong choice?

When I was in this situation, I made a wrong choice. And I still regret it, to this day.

I Followed Horrible Advice and Went to School as an Undeclared Major

Back in the early 2000s, when I was a high school student myself, I was unsure about what I wanted to be when I grew up. (And to be honest, I still don’t have clear career goals, even though I am a grown up now.)

I attending a very small high school that had less than 200 students. Course selection was very limited. Everything was based around the core courses like math, science, and English, and there weren’t any “fun” options.

For my last year of high school, however, my family and I had moved across the province. My new high school had more than 2,000 student, which is bigger than the town that I just moved from.

It was a bit of a culture shock. But all of a sudden, I had all these new choices for classes to take. Classes like art, drama, photography, languages, law, business, and creative writing. Things that I had no idea were options for most other high school students. Things that I hadn’t really considered as potential career paths.

As a blogger, I don’t think this will come as a surprise, but I jumped at the chance to take a Creative Writing class. Even though my teacher wasn’t the best, I loved the class. I loved hearing my classmates share their writing, and I loved being able to share mine.

I thrived in English classes throughout high school, but this. This was something new. Something different.

I finally had an idea of what I might want to be when I grew up. And found a university near-by that offered a Creative Writing program.

I applied, and was accepted!

Eagerly, I attended a preview day for new students to check out the campus, and learn more about the program.

Then I made that regrettable, very stupid, very expensive mistake.

On the preview day, we met with academic advisors. And although I was dead-set on attending that university as a Creative Writing major, I foolishly took this advisor’s advice and went to university as an undeclared student.

In other words, instead of accepting the offer to attend university as a Creative Writing major, I went to school without declaring a major at all.

I had been so excited to find and be accepted into the program I wanted! But following this bad advice completely ruined my first year. It made me so miserable, that I almost dropped out of university altogether.

What is an Undeclared Major?

Also referred to as an undecided major, an undeclared major means you attend school without formally selecting a field or program of study to focus on.

In your first (and possibly second) year, undeclared students take general education courses and introductory courses in the programs that interest them.

Students that have declared a major will also complete the required general education courses, but most of their classes will be the specific courses needed to graduate and get the degree or diploma.

Although you can apply and attend college or university as an undeclared major, you cannot graduate as one. At some point you will have to declare a major.

Why It’s a Mistake To Go To College as an Undeclared Major

If you are considering going to College or University as an undeclared major, please really think about the following before you do. There are cons to being an undeclared major.

You Won’t Get into the Program Courses You Need

A lot of post-secondary courses have limited enrollment and are only open to students that are part of that program or major.

And most of the time the courses are offered in sequential order and have prerequisites.  

Meaning Accounting 1 is offered in the fall semester and is a prerequisite for Accounting 2, which is offered in the winter semester. So if you missed out on that Accounting 1 course, you can’t take Accounting 2 and might have to wait a full year before the course is offered again.

This may not be a big issue if you are pursuing a 4 year degree, as you have a little more flexibility. But if the college program you choose is only 2 years, being even one semester behind is a big deal.

Because I went to school undeclared, I was ineligible to register for majority of the English courses offered. In my second semester, I wasn’t eligible for any of them because I had missed out on those prerequisites that I should have taken in my first semester. (Which is a big reason that I almost dropped out.)

Instead, I took random “elective” classes that didn’t interest me in the slightest, because they were the only courses with open enrollment. My whole freshman year, instead of taking the 4 Creative Writing classes that most first year majors did, I was only able to enroll in 1.

It’s Harder to Make Friends

Being a new student, at a new school, moving to a new city, and living on your own for the first time means a lot of big changes that happen all at once. Not being part of a program will probably make the transition harder, especially for us introverts.  

A lot of freshmen orientation activities are focused around your major. So while all the other students are hanging out with their new classmates and meeting their professors and faculty members, you may be left on your own.

While I initially bonded with a few other people who lived on my floor in residence, as the first semester progressed, I felt more and more left out.

Most of my peers had at least 2 classes (if not all 5) with the same people. Naturally, friendships formed for them. But not so much for me. I couldn’t find a single person that I shared more than 1 class with.

Trying to bond with the others that were in my only creative writing class was challenging too. They’d often talk about their other shared courses, which I wasn’t a part of.

Of course, there are other ways to make friends at school outside of the classroom. You could join a club or organization, attend campus events, get a parttime job on campus, meet other students in your neighbourhood or in residence, or meet people online.  

You Will Miss Out Online, Too

Speaking of online, many programs have their own email lists, message boards, group sites, or something similar used to promote student success. Program related information and student services are often shared in these groups, including:

  • important deadlines
  • mandatory meetings
  • networking events
  • lectures and seminars
  • volunteer and part-time job opportunities
  • study abroad opportunities
  • internships
  • tutoring
  • campus resources
  • career services
  • access to school counselors
  • frequently asked questions
  • faculty office hours
  • campus contact information
  • academic policies and procedures
  • course syllabus and coursework information

These resources can be so valuable in helping you succeed. By being an undeclared major, you might miss out on these as well.     

You Won’t Graduate On Time

According to a study done in 2014-15 by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the average undergraduate student actually takes 5 to 6 years to complete the graduation requirements for a 4-year degree. There are multiple factors that contribute to this, including starting school later, taking courses part-time, changing schools, and of course, changing majors.

You probably won’t graduate on time if you start your academic career as an undeclared major. Why? Because you’re going to end up taking classes that you don’t need.

I only needed 1 of the 10 classes that I took as a firstyear undeclared major. Meaning the other 9 courses were essentially just excess credits that were wasted time, wasted effort, and wasted tuition fees. When I did declare a major in my second year, I wasn’t a year ahead of my peers. I was only a single course ahead.

Even though I tried to catch up by taking a couple of 6-class semesters (instead of the regular 5) and numerous summer courses, it took me 5.5 to complete what should have been a 4year degree program.  

It’s Expensive

Tuition is expensive. Not graduating on time makes it more expensive than it needs to be.

Taking an extra semester or an extra year might not sound like it’s a lot, but it is.

If you happen to go to the most expensive college, the tuition fee for one year is $57,208!

The average cost of tuition, however, is $6,838 in Canada and $9,970 in the US per year. That is still a lot to pay simply for being an undecided major.

Personally speaking, my tuition fees for my first year at university came to a total of $9,375. (And this was over 10 years ago.) Essentially, I spent nearly $10,000 to take only 1 course that I wanted and needed, which is absolutely ridiculous. I do NOT recommend it!

You Will Pay More Interest on Your Student Loans

If you take out student loans to pay for your higher education, the more you borrow, the more it’s going to cost you.

For example, a $10,000 loan at 3% interest, paid back over 5 years will cost you an extra $1,500.

If you borrow more than $10,000, have a higher interest rate, and/or take longer than 5 years to pay it off, the cost quickly escalate.

You Will Miss Out On Making Money

By not graduating on time, you’ll also be starting your career late. You could be earning a full-time income instead of being a student for another year or two, working parttime and/or summer jobs for minimum wage, maybe making $10,000 to $20,000 per year.

The average annual starting salary for new grads with a bachelor’s degree is about $54,000 and $45,000 for grads with a college diploma (in Canada). So you could be missing out on making tens of thousands of dollars by graduating even a year late.

You might also miss out on financial aid supports as an undeclared major. There are often program specific scholarships, grants, and professional development opportunities that only college majors are eligible for.

Things Drastically Improved When I Declared a Major

By the end of my freshman year, I had applied to transfer to another university and was ready to write off this school completely after a wasted year.

But I ended up staying. And loving it!

During final exams, I was hanging out with the guy I was seeing and some of his friends. I had met them a few times but didn’t know them well. One person was enthusiastically going on about the practical exam she had just taken. By the time she finished telling us about it, my plans for my future had completely changed.

After a very brief conversation with my RA, I went down to the registrar’s office and finally declared a major.

I ended up pursuing another creative field – theatre, to be specific – with the goal of getting into an Arts Education or Arts Management career path. (And was hired as the Education Department Manager for a performing arts company before I graduated!)

Although I felt a little awkward being a second-year student taking firstyear classes again, I finally felt like I belonged. The remaining 4.5 years I spent in university were some of the best years of my life. I met amazing people, had incredible experiences, and really became “me”.

You Can Declare a Minor

Although I declared a major in another, related program, I didn’t abandon my Create Writing aspirations, altogether. Instead, I minored in English Creative Writing. (And now use this blog as my creative outlet.)

A minor is typically made up of 3-10 specified courses that complements your major program. Some college students will pursue a minor in order to fulfill a personal interest, while others will use it to gain more skills and make themselves more employable. Most students hoping to become teachers will major in the subject they want to teach, and minor in education.

So if you are considering attending post-secondary school as an undeclared major because you can’t decide between 2 possible majors, majoring in one and minoring in the other might be a smart approach.

You Can Change Your Major

Don’t forget – you are also allowed to change your major.

Some schools will give you a time limit to do so, which is usually in the junior year (3rd year) for four year programs. But you can declare a major in Business, for example, and then change your major to Biology if you decide that’s the better career path for you.

If you transfer to another related major, such as switching from Computer Science to Information Technology or Web Design, many of your course credits will carry over, so you won’t be behind or need to start over.

Who Should Consider Going To College “Undeclared”

There are very valid reasons why going to College or University as an undeclared major is a mistake. But I do want to mention that there are some circumstances that it might be the better approach.

Exploring Your Options

If you’re really REALLY not sure about choosing a major, attending post-secondary as an undeclared major will give you the opportunity to explore your options. You can take first-year courses in various subjects, and hopefully find one that excites you.

However, as I’ve mentioned, this can be super expensive. And in my case, I still wasn’t able to register for the courses I was interested in, anyway. So you might also want to consider the alternatives to college, too.

Although, there are schools that have more of a general firstyear course timetable than others. (This is more common in the USA than it is in Canada.) So the specific college or university you’re applying to does matter.

In these schools, you take mostly general education (also known as core curriculum) courses in your first year that essentially sets the foundation for your undergraduate degree requirements. These typically include introductory and prerequisite English, Math, Sciences, Humanities, and Social Sciences courses, and might include a First-Year Experience course that covers topics like career development, career exploration, study skills, and time management.

If the school you’re interested follows this standard, attending as an undeclared major is probably a safe option.

You could also look into taking classes at a community college, which are usually more affordable, or try auditing a course or two on a subject you’re interested in.

Improving Your GPA

Another instance where attending college or university as an undeclared major might be the better option is if you’re interested in a competitive program and your grades aren’t quite as strong as they need to be. In this case, you could potentially use your first year to build a stronger grade point average (GPA).  

This may, however, become an issue if there are a lot of required courses for your program that need to be started in your first year. This approach might not make it possible to graduate on time.

It could also be an issue if you aren’t able to get the grades needed to raise your GPA.

If you are in this situation, a better suggestion would be to see what academic upgrading options are available to you first. Many colleges and adult education centes offer upgrading classes, and they are typically FREE.

You Need a Plan!

Your education is an investment into your future.

I doubt you would invest $30,000 (or more) into a company without doing your homework first. Your education should be no different.

Regardless of if you’ve declared a major or not, it’s important to have a plan and to have supports in place to help you get there.

Most campuses will have an academic advising center or a student support center, where you can schedule an appointment with an academic support counselor or faculty advisor who are there to help you navigate your first and subsequent years at school. They can help you plan out your potential future semesters in a structured way to make sure you meet all the requirements and hopefully avoid taking unnecessary classes.

Although the very first academic advisor I met with guided me in the completely wrong direction, ever advisor I’ve spoken with since has been incredibly helpful. (I even worked as an academic advisor myself.) Their job is to help you, so be sure to take full advantage of them.

Choosing to go to college or university is a big decision. So is choosing the perfect major. Make sure you do what’s best for you.

YOUR TURN: What did you major in, if you went to College or University? Did you declare a major right away? Or change majors? Please leave a comment below letting us know!

Amanda Kay, the founder of My Life, I Guess, provides valuable career advice and support for anyone striving to make a living and, more importantly, make a life. Whether it's navigating job searches, learning new skills, overcoming unemployment, or dealing with debt, My Life, I Guess has been a go-to resource for career guidance and financial stability since 2013. Amanda's expertise and relatable approach have been featured in trusted publications such as MSN, Credit.com, Yahoo! Finance, the Ladders and Fairygodboss.

3 thoughts on “Why It’s A Mistake To Go To College As An Undeclared Major”

  1. I majored in political science, but I guess my university was different than yours. You didn’t have to be a declared major to get into most classes, you just needed to fulfill any prerequisites. And a fair number of classes were offered every quarter rather than just once a year. Then again, my school (University of Washington) was pretty big so maybe that explains it? So I spent the first two years undeclared, exploring different options. I finally settled on political science… Which I use not at all. So another piece of advice: Get a useful degree. I suppose if I were able to work full-time outside the house (health problems), I could have gotten a job in my field, but it’s a tough field to get and keep jobs in. So who knows?

  2. I think that college itself is a very expensive luxury for anyone who doesn’t have the self awareness to know what they want to do in life. After 13 years of public or private education, available standard personality profiles and aptitude tests and at least a couple of part time jobs an 18 year old should have enough life experience to have a reasonable plan for a career. Sure they can change that later if it turns out they are wrong but it is time to begin adulting, and part of that is to make strategic plans for your life. If someone isn’t ready then perhaps they should take entry level jobs for a year or two while they “find themselves”. It is part of the parents job to have high school grads ready for the next step in their life, which hopefully is not majoring in Italian poetry. My three kids finished the four year degrees they started in four years and then paid their own way through grad/med school. Nobody switched majors or picked undecided because they had put a lot of thought into the future.

  3. Great post for all of the new high school graduates out there! Massive respect to you for putting this together and sharing your own experience.

    I wish I had seen this post years ago! I decided to get an Associates of Arts at a community college because I was undeclared. One of the things I didn’t expect was how hard it would be to make friends (like you said). Those were lonely and lost times! Also, even though I went to community college (so I was able to save some money), I didn’t fully understand how 25 of my 64 credits WOULD NOT TRANSFER into the program I finally did decide on! They don’t warn you about these things when you go in undeclared (or the warning is very brief and said as an afterthought)!!!!


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