Navigating college academics: identifying and choosing your dream courses

Updated: Jun 10

The average college student will take around 30 to 35 classes over four years. While this may sound like a lot, the figure actually pales in comparison to the hundreds (sometimes even thousands) of courses offered by every school each semester. These encompass everything from organic chemistry and English to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse and Tree Climbing. With this plethora of options, how exactly does one go about choosing which courses to take?

Well, the easiest way to narrow down your choices is to choose a major, which typically consists of 10 to 15 preset courses you must complete to graduate. For instance, the economics major at my alma mater, Duke, requires students to take a series of three calculus classes, micro- and macro-economics, economics principles, statistics, and econometrics.

However, even with these required classes, that would still leave you with more than 20 classes left to fill your entire schedule. Therefore, with that in mind, let’s explore together how to choose your “electives” or optional courses of study.

When building your course plan, you’ll first want to make a balanced list of potential classes, consisting of lectures, seminars, and independent study/research.

Lectures are most likely what commonly come to mind when you think of the college classroom. These are large courses, often with fifty or more students enrolled, and are taught by a single professor. Lectures are generally used for introductory, standard, and major required classes; for instance, Biochemistry, Introduction to Philosophy, and Psychology 101. Typically, they require little discussion, and participation is not counted as a significant part of your grade, instead you’ll primarily be assessed on your performance on midterms, finals, and exams. You’ll definitely want to join a lecture if it’s your first time exploring a subject or if you’re considering pursuing a major in the field.

On the other hand, seminars tend to be much smaller than lectures, usually containing fewer than 20 students. Moreover, they are also far more interactive. While a professor may talk for part of the class, most seminars involve heavy reading, discussion, writing, and student presentation. Class sizes are small, so there is nowhere to hide if you’re not keen on speaking! One benefit of seminars is that you’ll have a lot of one-on-one time, both with your professors and peers.

Finally, there is also independent study/research, in which you’ll be able to work on researching a focused topic on an area of interest. You’ll work closely with an instructor to plan out your goals and make progress on a project. If you’ve wanted to delve into a niche subject and already have a strong background in the related field, this is a great option. Ultimately however, none of the types of classes are the best; they each have their strengths and weaknesses, and you should balance between them, based on your goals and interests!

Once you have made a well-rounded, preliminary list, the next thing you should do is read through the syllabi, reviews, and professor backgrounds for each of your classes. A syllabus is a formal document that outlines the content and expectations of a course, describing how you will be graded, what topics you will be covering, and what assignments you will have. Here is an example. When reviewing the syllabus, ask yourself: Does this class sound interesting or exciting to me? Would I learn any useful skills or knowledge? Does the workload seem manageable? Do I have the necessary prerequisites? If the answer to all of these are “yes,” you’ve found a good fit!

However, before you commit, make sure to read up on your professor’s background and reviews, such as by going to your professor’s website, your university’s course evaluation website, or Rate My Professors. Reading through these beforehand will give you a better sense if the professor’s teaching style is well-suited to you and whether the professor has conducted research that you’d be interested in working on or discussing with him/her in the future.

Following all of these steps, you should have designed an amazing course schedule lined up for your college career! All that’s left to do is to enroll into your chosen courses (which is easier said than done). You’ll have to wake up early for course registration! Many schools open course registration in the wee hours of the morning (6:00am to 8:00am), so make sure to set an alarm and enroll into your dream classes the minute they’re available.

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