Preparing for College

"Undecided" Major for Undecided Applicant?

Question: My son is the epitome of the "undecided" kid and is looking forward to taking a wide variety of courses at college. If you were to press him for favorite subjects, he would say languages (Spanish and Latin) and the sciences. I've heard that putting "Undecided" on his applications is not a wise idea, but that he should write some subject down for potential course of study. What do you think?

Spanish and Latin are both excellent, somewhat atypical choices, assuming that admission folks won't scratch their heads and wonder where those options came from (i.e., not a hot idea if your son got a "C-" in his one year of 8th-grade Spanish and hasn't tried Latin at all!). Biology is a very common selection; physics, chem, biology, geology, astronomy (i.e., most other sciences) somewhat less so.

I am not a big fan of the "Undecided" response. In the good old days, when most applications were hand-written, I would suggest that my "Undecided" advisees should write something along the lines of, "I love languages and might end up majoring in Spanish or Latin. Perhaps I'll start a new language (Chinese?) or fall in love with a field I've yet to discover." This way, the applicant is showing that he or she does have academic passions but is also broad-minded enough to consider new subjects.

Today's electronic apps often make such lengthy responses impossible. When given several spaces to fill in (e.g., the Common App allows three choices from a pull-down menu), my recommendation is that your son should put down two options in the first couple slots (Spanish? Latin? his favorite science?) and then "Undecided" in the third one. This sends the message that he is not fully committed and still looking but does have interests he hopes to pursue and that he isn't just going to college for the frat parties or on-campus Pizza Hut (or is he?) ;)

Obviously, the stakes are different when applying to universities where choices of major are binding. Sure, kids can usually switch once matriculated, but it's trickier than it is at schools where students won't officially choose till the end of sophomore year, when the selection on the application is probably long forgotten. So, if any of these colleges are on your son's list, be sure that he knows which ones they are and that he treads more carefully when making a major selection.