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Undecided/Open Students
Patrick T. Slowinski and W. Kerry Hammock

When considering students, who have not made concrete decisions regarding majors and career paths, even the words used to describe them may impact the advisor's work. Rather than focusing on a negative state of indecision (undecided) it may be valuable to focus on the students' openness to options (Open or Exploring students).

Exploring or Open students comprise a sizable part of most college and university student populations. Gordon (1995) defines this group as 'unwilling, unable or unready to make educational or vocational decisions,' (p. X). Open students come from various age groups, backgrounds, and educational experience. As a result, there is no one proven advisement panacea that works best with every open student (Steele & McDonald, 2000). Moreover, students enter higher education at various levels of undecidedness. In fact, these students may be in a cyclical process; they will make a decision and then return to undecidedness due to doubt, lack of information, peer influence, fear, parental pressure, etc. All students in the exploring phase must be assessed as individuals, which is a process, and probably not something that can be done in one 30-minute or less appointment with an advisor the student has just met. Advisors might consider these issues in helping students through decision-making processes:

  • Students may use a variety of strategies as they explore personal attributes, as well as major and career information. Gordon (1992) lists four elements to classify these strategies:
  • Self-Knowledge: assessing personal interests, abilities and values. Goal-setting is also critical in this area.
  • Educational Knowledge: Information about educational program, majors, academic skills development and curricula.
  • Occupational Knowledge: Job seeking and job exploration program, majors, academic skills development and curricula.
  • Decision-Making Knowledge-Integrating self-knowledge with educational and occupational information. Various decision-making styles and how to apply goal-setting strategies is important as well.
  • Advisors must become competent in using multiple strategies to help students in these processes.
  • Advisors should be careful not to think of the process as decision, then development. Students should be encouraged to develop skills and have intentional experiences as part of the exploration process (Mitchell, Levin, and Krumboltz, 1999).
  • Even with the best advisement effort, some students will not be able to make concrete decisions regarding their future. Although time and experience may be enough for some students, there are certain students who will need to seek professional counseling to be able to make these important decisions. Advisors (when possible) should be active partners with therapists in progressing students.

Perhaps, the single area in which advisors have the most difficulty in working with exploring students is in the development of successful exploration strategies. Ryan's (1999) retrospective study of career counseling interventions gives advisors a strong sense of the effectiveness of general strategies. Advisors could develop the following major intervention components:

  • Written Exercises-opportunities to reflect upon their interests, hopes, goals, and life expectations were extremely valuable in helping students clarify their decisions. Writing may also help students understand where they are in the process of deciding. Such clarification and definition may be starting points in helping the advisor determine a continued methodology of exploration.
  • Individualized Interpretation of formal Assessment-advisors must become competent in interpreting information in assessment instruments (SII, CISS, Discover, SIGI, MBTI,) and help students make meaning rests on the shoulders of the advisor. Advisors must receive the appropriate training and development necessary to administer and interpret such instruments.
  • World of Work Information-Advisors must be aware of current resources regarding job and career information. Students need accurate, up-to-date, and detailed information on a wide-range of career options. Familiarity with various methods of categorizing jobs, interests and self-reported skills will be helpful (e.g. Holland Codes). 
  • Modeling Opportunities-Opportunities to job shadow and do information interviews are vital experiences for students in the exploration of possible careers. Helping students prepare and plan for these experiences is a crucial component of the advising process. Many students need help in the logistics of setting up these experiences.
  • Building Support for Choices in Ones Social Network-Encouraging students to talk about their choices with family and friends is critical to helping them solidify and feel good about their choices.

In addition to Ryan's components, advisors cannot afford to ignore the fact that the decision-making process belongs to the students.  The temptation to revert to prescriptive strategies too quickly may be high for advisors when a student proposes a decision that does not seem reality-based.   An advisor needs to be aware of an individual student's values or value-base and incorporate these values into the exploration process.  Advisors may find the need to help the student ground decisions in a context of reality.

Students need to operate in a planned organized manner as they approach their exploration.  Initial meetings with a student who is in the exploration process could include developing a written plan of action.  Students who know where they are going and what they will be doing as they explore are more likely to continue in the process. Written plans can be adjusted and changed as students progress in development.

Finally, the urgency with which exploring students often approach the decision-making process can be alarming.  Reiterating the term process may do more than initially put students at ease.  Follow-up appointments with an advisor could involve setting and following up on goals, reviewing research that the student has done on particular majors and/or careers, and the utilization of intervention components. Clearly, and advisor must show that the decision-making process takes different amounts of time for different students. If advisors can be seen as empathetic, knowledgeable, and competent resources, the decision-making process may become less agonizing for their students and themselves

Patrick T. Slowinski and W. Kerry Hammock
Brigham Young University


Bertram, R.M. (1996). The irrational nature of choice: A new model for advising undecided students? NACADA Journal, 16 (2), 19-24.


Gordon, V.N. (1984). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge. Springfield, Ill: Thomas.


Gordon, V.N. &   Steele, G.E. (1992).  Advising major changers: Students in transition. NACADA Journal, 12( 1).


Gordon, V.N.   (1995) The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (2 nd Ed.). Springfield, Ill: Thomas.


Korschgen, A.J., & Hageseth, J.A. (1997).  Undecided students: How one college developed a collaborative approach to help student choose majors and careers. Journal of Career Planning & Employment, 57 (3), 49-51.


Lewallen, W.C. (1993). The impact of being 'undecided' on college student persistence. Journal of College Student Development, 34, 103-112.

Lewallen, W.C. (1995). Students decided and undecided about career choice: A comparison of college achievement and student involvement. NACADA Journal, 15 (1), 22-29.
Mitchell, K.E., Levin, A.S., & Krumboltz, J.D.  (1999).  Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counseling and Development, 77, 115-124.
Ryan, N.E. (1999). Career counseling and career choice goal attainment: A meta-analytically derived model for career counseling practice.   Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago.
Schein, H.K., & Laff, N.S. (1997).   Working with undecided students: A hands-on strategy. NACADA Journal, 17 (1), 42-48.

Steele, G.E., & McDonald, M.L. (2000).   Advising students in transition.   In V.N. Gordon & W.R.Habley (Eds.), Academic advisement: A comprehensive handbook (pp.   144-161). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Titley, W., & Titley, B.   (1980). The major-changers: Are only the 'undecided' undecided? Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 293-298.

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Cite this resource using APA style as:

Slowinski, Patrick T., and Hammock, W. Kerry (2003) Undecided/open students.Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

Frequently Asked Questions

I'm looking for some general feedback about alternative names for undecided students. Does anyone have any stats on that, or know where I could find them? Does anyone know what is the second most frequently used term for that group of students?
The Commission on Undecided/Exploratory Students ( CUES ) conducted a study a few years back and the first and second most used terms were 'Undecided' and 'Undeclared.' The third most often mentioned term was 'Exploratory' Other options are:
  • Academic Exploration Program
  • Career Discovery Program (CDP)
  • Deciding
  • General Education Student Program
  • General Studies
  • General Curriculum
  • No Preference Students
  • Open Enrolled
  • Open Major
  • Open Option
  • Undergraduate Studies Program (USO)
  • University Curriculum Students
  • University Division
  • Career Exploration (CARE)
  • Pre-Majors
  • Liberal Arts
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