General Education

A Guide to Picking College Courses

A Guide to Picking College Courses
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Orly Michaeli August 13, 2014

Follow these six steps to fill your semester with stellar classes.

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Your college classes can make or break your semester.

When you’re trudging through a lecture with a professor who is difficult to understand, or don’t feel challenged by your seminar, the semester can seem to drag on. On the other hand, it’s the semesters full of classes you look forward to that stick out in your mind.

Create a strategy that will allow you to enjoy the best classes your school can offer, all while ensuring those courses count towards your requirements, of course! Follow these six easy steps to course-choosing success:

1. List out your required courses.

Depending on your school and major, there are courses you’ll need to take to graduate. Make a list of these prerequisite classes and distribute them on a tentative map of your upcoming college semesters. Planning so far in advance can seem scary and may seem a bit overboard, but this will leave you time and space to fulfill your requirements so you can craft a killer schedule. You won’t have to later pay for the potential consequences of extending your graduation date (and paying more money for school).

When you are doing this, remember that not all requirements are created equal. Some requirements offer multiple sections, with certain ones taught by professors that are friendlier than others. Some requirements may call for a specific course, while others give you the freedom to pick a course within a list or subject.

For requirements with more flexibility, you don’t need to plan out exactly how you will fulfill the rule, just set aside time for when you want to do so.

2. Make a wish list of classes.

Now that you roughly know what kind of classes and requirements you need to take this semester, you can start the fun part.

Look through a directory of courses offered at your school and copy-paste any class that sounds interesting to you into a document. This isn’t the time to be picky. Start by collecting all the possible winners and later you will whittle it down.

It is also worthwhile to look up the academic departments that might offer classes you’d want to take. If you’re really curious to learn more about the Civil War after you binge watched Ken Burns’s documentaries, check out the American History department. If you’re in the mood for reading some plays, look into the English or Theater departments. The department websites will usually offer descriptions of the upcoming semester’s courses.

You can also gather the thoughts of friends or older students who took the classes you’re interested in, and see what they suggest. hey can give you a lot of detailed information about what the class is like. Who knows, they may even be willing to tutor you if the going gets rough!

3. Look up your professors.

Now, it’s time to start narrowing down. Start by looking up professors that teach each course on websites like Rate My Professor, or ask students about what they thought about the course.

However, remember to take these comments with a grain of salt. If someone hated a class because the professor was a tough grader, but you feel up to the challenge, then that may not be a problem for you. If someone disliked a professor because she assigned exams instead of papers, and you actually prefer taking tests, then this works in your favor. Use your best judgment.

4. Take them for a trial run.

Many schools have a couple of weeks at the beginning of the semester known as “Shopping Periods" or “Add/Drop Periods." This means that during this time, you’re allowed to try out as many classes as you want, and chisel away to create your ideal schedule.

Start off the days with a strategy. After narrowing down your wish list to classes that have good recommendations, make a tentative schedule. Don’t worry if there are more classes than you intend to take on. This is the moment to try them all out and use your in-class experience to narrow it down. Make sure you are fueled on plenty of sleep and nutritious meals to take on your overabundant schedule.

There is a certain etiquette to trying out classes. If you think you might want to leave a course early to try out a different one, try sitting near a door so you can leave without disturbing the professor. If you aren’t officially signed up for a course but are eager to try it anyway, email the professor in advance and ask for her permission. Always be polite because you never know if you’ll end up taking the course this or next semester.

5. Drop it like it’s hot.

Now that you’ve tested the waters and have a good idea of what to expect from each class, it’s time to weed some out of your schedule. Here are some considerations that can help:

  • Readings and homework: Are the readings and assignments for this class enjoyable? Try doing the first homework assignment and think about whether you are willing to do this kind of work for the rest of the semester.

  • Timing: Timing will often be an outside factor that will narrow your choices for you. If there are two classes you like that have intersecting schedules, pick the one you like best and leave the other for a different semester. Is your schedule lopsided, with three classes on Monday and only one class on a different day? You might want to redistribute. Did you sign up for more morning classes than you realistically see yourself waking up for?

  • Future semesters: Many classes are offered on a cyclical basis. If you are on the fence about a class, or one of the courses you liked doesn’t fit into your schedule well, find out when it’ll be offered again. If it fits into the tentative schedule you made for future semesters, you can decide to take it later.

  • Trust your gut: If you are sitting in on a class during that first week and can barely stay focused, or you feel inexplicably annoyed at your classmates or professor, than this just might not be the class for you.

6. Ask professors when in doubt.

If you are having a difficult time deciding between two classes, or don’t feel that first lecture was a good example of what you can expect, get in touch with the professor. You can attend office hours or send an email with questions that are on your mind, like what’s the format of the lecture, or do you need a specific prerequisite for this course level? Professors appreciate initiative, and even if you don’t take the class, you never know when your paths will cross with this professor again.