SIP 9.9 Advising Undeclared Students

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?


Students collaborating in classroomAs faculty, we tend to know our academic departments inside and out. Ask us a question about our curriculum, the progression of courses in the major or important milestones along the way to the degree, and we are immediately ready with the answer. The students who ask us these questions are typically those who have declared our major and who are already working with us in our classes. But what if we encounter a student who has not declared any major but wants — and needs — advising?

Take a SIP of this: Advising Undeclared Students

It is a long-held belief that students who declare a major within the first year persist and graduate at higher rates. Recent studies indicate that even students who declare as late as the fifth semester or who change majors at least once still graduate on time. The key, though, is that the major a student declares must be meaningful — in other words, they can’t be simply checking a box on a form but instead should choose a major that will be intellectually fulfilling and prepare them for their future career.

At Metropolitan State University of Denver, we ask students to declare a major when they apply. However, one of the choices is “undeclared,” and a significant number of students pick this option — about 13.5 percent on average. At our on-campus SOAR orientation sessions, special direction is given to students who are undeclared so they can begin to think about possible majors and also choose a schedule for their first semester that will allow them to eventually transition into their major degree plan.

Despite these best-laid plans, many students change their major over the course of the first year; some do it multiple times. To help students avoid the accumulation of credits that don’t apply to their ultimate degree plan, it is important to learn to talk to students about how to choose a meaningful major. Here are some tips:

  • Recognize that some students — particularly first-generation students or students from underserved high schools — might not be fully aware of what a major is, how to choose it or what that decision means. Don’t hesitate to ask questions that will reveal a student’s level of understanding around this choice.
  • Understand that some students feel obligated to choose a particular major, even if it is not interesting to them. This can be the result of family or peer pressure or simply a lack of understanding about where that major might lead them professionally. A good conversation starter in any advising discussion is, “Why are you choosing this major?”
  • Contextualize conversations about major declaration with broad-scale information about the college degree. It is surprising, for example, how many students do not know that they must complete 120 credits for a degree, or that some of these credits come from a major, some from a minor and some from elective credit! By making sure that this context is clear, we can help students better understand the ramifications of choosing one major and degree plan over another.
  • Ask students two simple questions: “What do you like to do?” and “What are you good at?” By focusing exploratory conversations on students’ perceived strengths and interests, choosing a major becomes more exciting and less daunting.
  • Encourage students to explore “clusters” of major options. For example, a student may start an advising conversation saying they want to be a nurse but they are concerned about the math. Suggest alternatives in the “helping professions” such as social work or teacher education that might fulfill the student’s professional goals while keeping other academic considerations in mind.
  • Encourage your students, especially first-year and/or undeclared students, to visit the Career Center (now part of the new Classroom-to-Career Hub) to begin to identify their skills and affinities and to explore possible career fields and options. Many students wait until the semester they are graduating to visit the Career Center. This is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing, however. This will help them get on the right path to meaningful major declaration.
  • Encourage students to intentionally plan as many high-impact experiences as possible. The AAC&U list of High Impact Practices is a good place to start. If a student engages in service learning, study abroad, undergraduate research or internships, these experiences might solidify a student’s choice of major and also enhance their ability to connect academics to career.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: advising undeclared students

  • Roadways Advising is here to help students who are looking to declare or change a major. The talented Roadways advisors are also willing to meet with faculty to provide insight into how to talk to students about their major choices.
  • Academic advisors in the schools and colleges are specialists in their disciplinary areas but are also extremely well-trained to guide students toward asking the right questions that will land them at a meaningful academic experience and eventual career.
  • NACADA is the premier advising professional organization in the country. Check out their great resources!
  • If you are a faculty member who is interested in thinking more about how curriculum can be revised to facilitate degree progress, check out the MSU Denver general-studies revamp effort taking place on campus — get some info and put in your two cents!

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