Choosing a major can be major stress for students

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Maddi Dayton
Rachel Meiling visits the University Advisement Center. (Maddi Dayton)

Sophomore Rachel Meiling came to BYU in 2014 knowing she wanted to study in the health and medical field. However, she didn’t have an answer to the oft-asked question: “What are you majoring in?”

“People would ask me what I wanted to do, and I didn’t really know,” Meiling, a native of Encinitas, California, said. “I felt like that’s not the answer they wanted. They wanted someone to be certain.” 

It’s “attractive” when people have solid plans for the future according to Meiling. She said it’s difficult for students who are undecided about their majors and future careers to be confident in their college experience.

University Advisement Center advisers meet with students like Meiling year-round to help them work through decisions about majors and careers. Adviser Kerry Hammock said the center has more students seeking help when registration season rolls around.

“Those two things go hand in hand,” Hammock said. “They’re ready to register for classes, they don’t have a major, so they get anxious about not knowing what to take.” 

Many undecided students are officially registered as “open majors.” Open majors, or undeclared students, make up around a quarter of the incoming class, said University Advisement Center Coordinator Karen Evans.

“Sometimes it feels like the whole world is declared but them,” Evans said. “But it is normal and OK to be undeclared for a while and to work through the progress.”

Evans said students who are undeclared can still progress toward a successful future. They can take classes, such as Career Exploration (STDEV 117) or Life Plan and Decision Making (STDEV 140), or begin introductory courses in potential fields. They can also work on acquiring career skills through jobs, internships and courses.

“There are many things they can be doing to make themselves employable from their first step on the campus,” Hammock said.

Another demographic of undecided students is those students who are declared but not actively pursing a major.

“Whether you are declared or not declared isn’t the question,” Evans said. “The question is, how decided are you and how actively are you pursuing your degree?”

Meiling declared herself a pre-dietetics major when she first came to BYU but has since considered a variety of majors by taking introductory courses in dietetics, nursing and anatomy, in addition to a career exploration course. She then narrowed the choice down to either nursing or athletic training.

“I knew if I explored those classes and kind of dove into it, I could see if I liked it or not and see how committed I’d be,” Meiling said.

A third demographic of undecided students is made up of those who were denied entrance to limited-enrollment programs. These are the students Hammock encourages to make an appointment with an adviser to process what happened and devise a personalized plan for what’s next.

You put all your energy, all your eggs in one basket, and you didn’t get it,” Hammock said. “That can be devastating to a student in terms of emotions and the drive to keep going.”

The advisers further noted the high levels of stress many students face when it comes to deciding majors and defined anxiety as a generational trend.

“This generation is the most stressed out ever when it comes to college decision-making,” adviser Alberto Puertas said. “What to choose? When to choose? Why to choose? Everything counts as concern, with good reasons, but that’s how life is for this generation.”

Meiling continued to work through the anxiety and pressure before selecting athletic training as her major.

She said she still hasn’t officially changed her major but plans to take a basic athletic program in the Spring 2016 term and apply for the program soon. Meiling said she now realizes students don’t need a perfect major plan when they start college.

“It’s part of college,” Meiling said. “Developing interests and talents and seeing what you’ll be good at and what you’ll enjoy.”

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