A Degree in Four Years?
Academic advisors share tips on how it’s done
Biochemistry or business? Philosophy or physics? Art history? Zoology? Any of the above? None of the above?
It’s not unusual for students to arrive at UW–Madison answering the question “what’s your major?” with more questions. As a parent, you may understandably be concerned if it’s a priority that your student graduate from college in four years, and if taking the time to explore different areas seems like a luxury you can’t afford.
But actually, UW–Madison academic advisors say, students who try out a variety of subjects in their first few semesters finish on time at a higher rate than those who come in with a specific major in mind. Deciding early, while it may seem intuitively sensible, sometimes backfires.
“I think it’s really important that students explore their options, rather than choosing something early on just to finish in four years, and then not ending up having chosen the thing that’s a good fit for them,” says Wren Singer, undergraduate advising director. “Students who tend to choose very early on may end up taking longer to graduate because two or three years into it, they realize it wasn’t the right thing. Then they have to readjust and start something else, and that takes longer.”
Advisors have been repeating this mantra for years, and experience bears them out. While being undecided as a first- or second-year student is prevalent, the average time to graduate from the UW is 4.06 years — and contrary to a common misconception, it has been trending downward. The majority of students finish in four. In fact, UW–Madison boasts one of the best four-year graduation rates in the nation, according to Timothy Walsh, director of the Cross-College Advising Service.
With nearly 150 majors in eight undergraduate colleges, each with different requirements, how can students get on the right track? Singer and Walsh say that meeting with an advisor at least yearly is key.
“It’s really vitally important that students meet with their advisor to talk about what they’re doing. Even if students aren’t sure what they need to talk about, it’s always a case of students not knowing what they don’t know,” says Walsh, whose office specializes in helping undergraduates who are undecided, who are considering a number of majors across different schools and colleges, or who need to change direction after an intended major didn’t work out.
Being undecided does not mean that a student has no academic path to follow. To make an advising appointment most productive, students can do some preparation on their own before the meeting, narrowing down their list of general interest areas and searching program websites in those areas for prerequisites and course requirements. Then the advisor can use the appointment time in the most useful way — helping students look at the big picture of how it all might fit together in a fouryear plan, while also discussing other important areas, such as internships and possible career paths.
There are a couple of important caveats, though: Some majors, such as pharmacy and education, are not designed to be completed in four years. In highly structured, sequential four-year programs such as music and engineering, students who do not start in their first year may find themselves behind schedule. (Check online for a complete list of majors and entrance requirements, including when students should apply/declare.)
Advisors do see students whose interests don’t require two years of exploring. “For the people who are sure and were right about being sure, we accommodate that, and they just go straight to that department or that major and they know exactly what they have to do,” Singer says.
Why do some students take longer than four years? Rarely is course availability the problem. Neither is studying abroad, which has been shown to not increase time to graduate. The two most common reasons, Walsh says, are students changing their minds after several years down the path of one major, or students not being admitted to a limited-enrollment major (business, nursing, engineering, or teacher certification, for example) and having no back-up plan.
It might be frustrating that there is not a bright line between “explore” and “decide,” but the truth is that it’s an individual decision that varies with each student. “They have to strike a balance,” Singer says, “and at the earlier part of a student’s career, it’s heavier on the exploring. As they move through, it’s got to be more balanced on the deciding. But without the exploring, they can’t make a good decision.”
Students are generally expected to decide on a major by their fourth semester, which leaves time to take a variety of classes to test whether a field is a good potential fit.
How can parents help? For one thing, Walsh and Singer say, resist the urge to tell your students which classes to take based on your knowledge or past experience. Don’t try to substitute your experience for that of an advisor. And realize that not all students need to be put on a career trajectory immediately.
“Within the context of graduating in four years, it’s obviously important that a student make their decision about a major in a timely manner,” Walsh counsels. “However, it’s also important for parents not to put a lot of pressure on an incoming freshman to make up his or her mind right away, because that kind of pressure … often results in a student making a quick and sometimes shallow decision.”
“I think where the parent can be helpful is as a coach and a mentor, and talking to their student, letting the student talk about what he or she is dealing with, and listening and just reinforcing that the parent believes the student can handle it,” Singer adds.
The most important words a parent can say on the subject, she says, are, “Why don’t you talk to your advisor about it?”