Academic Advising Resources


The following is an excerpt from the NACADA Pocket Guide Academic and Career Advising for Undecided, Exploring, and Major-Changing Students.  Find information regarding how to purchase the complete pocket guide for your use here.

Advising Students who are Changing Majors
By Dorothy Burton Nelson, Robert A. Alexander, Holly E. Martin and Bradford L. Cunningham


Virginia Gordon has identified six categories of students who can be described as major-changers (Steele & McDonald, 2008, p. 167):

  • Drifters:Students who realize their initial choice of major is not a good fit but who have not made selecting another major a priority.
  • Closet Changers:Students who change majors without informing their advisor or faculty in their previous or current major department.
  • Externals:Students who change majors frequently and without systematically exploring options.
  • Up-Tighters:Students who may have been denied entry into a competitive major and who have difficulty acknowledging the need to direct their focus in another direction.
  • Experts:Students who may be performing poorly in a major but persist in it because they think they have adequately explored their options and see the major as the best fit for them.
  • Systematic:Students who understand they need to make a change of major and who systematically seek advice from informed personnel and resources.

Because of the multitude of reasons and experiences that may contribute to a student’s undecided status, an advisor should engage the student in an ongoing dialogue to help both parties ascertain the background leading to the student’s current state and thereby jointly develop strategies for moving forward. To help with this process, advisors should reassure these students that they share much in common with their peers as well as with generations of previous students who have gone on to academic and professional success. An especially effective tool in this regard will be stories from the advisor’s own background, which can help put at ease students who may associate their undecided status with failure (Halasz, Traynor, & Bloom, 2012).

“All students need career advising, even those who enter college already decided on an academic major” (Gordon, 2006, p. 5). To explain further, undecided majors and exploring students need information on appropriate and fitting career options, while declared majors may need information on appropriate and fitting occupational opportunities, but they all need to make meaningful connections between their academic programs and their career and life goals. McCalla-Wriggins (2009) states that integrating career and academic information within advising contexts supports students as they explore the ever-changing world of work. Career advising offers students “the opportunity to learn about themselves, to evaluate academic and career options within the context of self knowledge, to explore multiple options in a safe environment, and to develop important decision making skills. These skills are critical and will be utilized multiple times throughout their lives as graduates seek meaningful employment in a world where change is constant.

Gordon (2006) explains the dynamics of career advising as an interactive and engaging process that “helps students understand how their personal interests, abilities, and values might predict success in the academic and career fields they are considering and how to form their academic and career goals accordingly” (p. 12).

Gordon’s work envelops concepts from several foundational academic advising models, among which are Crookston’s (1994) developmental advising construct, Chickering’s (1969) Seven Vectors of identity development, and O’Banion’s (1994) five dimensions of academic advising. Chickering and O’Banion address the developing student; thus their models fit within the umbrella term “developmental advising.”

Crookston (1994) differentiates prescriptive academic advising (specific program question/specific program answer) from developmental academic advising. He defines developmental advising as “concerned not only with a specific personal or vocational decision but also with facilitating the student’s rational processes, environmental and interpersonal interactions, behavioral awareness, and problem-solving, decision-making, and evaluation skills” (p. 5)


Chickering’s Seven Vectors identify some of the same dynamics as Crookston’s concepts. The vectors envelop the development, identity formation, and overall maturity processes experienced by students as they move through college. They include:

• developing competence,

• managing emotions,

• moving through autonomy toward interdependence,

• developing mature interpersonal relationships,

• establishing identity,

• developing purpose, and

• developing integrity.

As students move away from home for the first time, experience the social and academic aspects of campus life, interact with faculty in meaningful ways, and clarify their roles and goals in college and beyond, they naturally develop and mature. The fifth vector, establishing identity, includes vocational identity. Students who are undecided admit they need help in finding a good fit, while declared majors may think they know, but after certain courses or experiences in a major they may find they need to explore further. Exploring college majors and the associated career and occupational options directly contributes to career maturity and building confidence in a decision.

Dorothy Burton Nelson
Southeastern Louisiana University
Robert A. Alexander
Nicholls State University

Holly E. Martin

University of Notre Dame

Bradford L. Cunningham
Kansas State University


Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A.W. (1994). Empowering lifelong self-development. NACADA Journal, 14 (2), pp. 50-53.

Crookston, B.B. (1994). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. NACADA Journal, 14 (2), 5-9.

Gordon, V.N. (2006). Career Advising: An Academic Advisor’s Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Halasz, H.M., Traynor, D.S., & Bloom, J.L. (2012, February 24). Making change work: empowering students who are changing majors. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from

McCalla-Wriggins, B. (2009). Integrating career and academic advising: Mastering the challenge. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

O’Banion, T. (1994). An academic advising model. NACADA Journal, 14 (2), 10-16.

Cite this using APA style as:

Nelson, D. B., Alexander, R. A., Martin, H. E., and Cunningham, B. L.(2012). Advising students who are changing majors. Retrieved -insert today's date- from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:

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