It can be difficult to know what you want to do with the rest of your life — before you’ve even applied to college.

Still, entering college without a declared major can make you feel like you’re behind the curve, with everyone around you seemingly on a set path. But not committing a major before freshman year isn’t a sign of weakness — quite the opposite, in fact.

Undecided Doesn’t Mean Lost

“It’s important to know that being undecided does not necessarily mean being adrift,” says Jessica Bane Robert, an adviser and assistant director at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Robert teaches a popular Mindful Choices seminar that specifically helps undeclared students navigate the college experience. “A symptom of our distracted, media-driven times,” she says, “is that we spend fewer moments recognizing who we are, what we’re doing and where we want to go.” So not being sure about what you want to study could simply mean that you need to take some time to explore your interests.

“It’s important to know that being undecided does not necessarily mean being adrift.”

Jessica Bane Robert, Clark University

Open to the Right Path

Taking a breath — and a breadth of classes — can help students reach a better understanding of what they want to do, while also shaping them into well-rounded individuals and stronger job applicants down the road. Many teens enter college thinking they know what they want to do but, whether or not they’ve declared a major, end up shifting their focus once they’ve been exposed to the wide scope of subjects available.

This was certainly true for Stephanie Drahan, a Skidmore College alumna from Connecticut. She went into her freshman year undeclared but leaning toward psychology. Psych 101 was great, but so were her introductory classes in government, religion, culture and sociology. By exploring the vast array of subjects the school had to offer, Drahan was exposed to new ideas and disciplines that had not even occurred to her. 

After taking a range of courses, she discovered women’s studies, which she says “was not even on my radar coming into college.” She signed up for her first class in that department in part to fulfill a requirement, and, looking back, she says, “I would not be who I am without that course — it really did change my life.” She declared her major in women’s studies as a sophomore and is now an online account executive at an integrated direct marketing firm with a feminist slant.

“Going into college with an open mind indicates a person who is mature . . . and [not] afraid of walking into a whole new world with a few unknowns.”

Dr. Michele Ramsey, Penn State Berks

Sign of Maturity

Taking the time to choose your major can seem daunting if most of your classmates appear already to be on a predetermined course, but it can instead be a sign of maturity, says Dr. Michele Ramsey, associate professor of communications and women’s studies at Penn State Berks. Having advised students for 25 years, she says, “I’d argue that going into college with an open mind indicates a person who is mature, aware of the variety of options they may need to learn about and who isn’t afraid of walking into a whole new world with a few unknowns.”

What’s more, starting out undeclared can help, not hinder, your job prospects. Ramsey notes, “Employers need workers who are flexible and broad thinkers. They need workers who will make the best decisions, not the easiest ones.”

Jill Hanson, a middle school English department chair in Los Angeles, agrees. She initially thought she wanted to be a classics major, then declared as an English major and ultimately chose a double major in English and classics after studying abroad in Greece. She explored a number of disciplines along the way, a path that has meaningfully enriched her career. “I never would have taken neuroscience if I had focused only on fulfilling my English major requirements,” she says. “Now I use a lot of what I learned about the brain in my teaching.”

So think twice before listening to naysayers who insist that starting college without a major is detrimental. The experts agree — “undeclared” is just another way of saying “open-minded.” And in today’s ever-evolving job marketplace, flexibility, curiosity and a breadth of knowledge are assets that can help you stand out.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2017.