6 Great Ways to Pick College Classes

In one of my college blog posts last week, I was raving about a new book, The Thinking Student’s Guide to College by Andrew Roberts, who is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.  If you missed the post, here it is:

The Thinking Student’s Guide to College

Today I wanted to share just a few of the tips that Roberts includes in his book about selecting classes. Students often do a poor job of choosing classes and Roberts laid out the dilemma nicely when he made this observation:
Every semester, students confront the dilemma of what classes to take. Many look harried and disappointed during registration week and the first week of classes. The cause of their disappointment is not that all the good courses are filled up – even if students think they are – but that they wear blinders in making their choices.
To avoid this trap, here are some of Roberts’ tips:

1. Visit 5 to 10 classes during the first week of a semester.

Try a different class during every time slot. Sampling classes can provide an early impression about which ones are worthwhile and which would be busts. If a promising class is filled, try again the next semester.

2. Aim for variety.

High school students are not familiar with most subjects that colleges offer. That’s a great reason why underclassmen, in particular, should sample as many different disciplines as possible. By dabbling, they are more likely to discover a discipline that they like.

3. Don’t rush to complete general-ed requirements.

Freshmen and sophomores tend to focus on fulfilling their general-ed requirements early, but Roberts says that’s a bad idea. If you postpone some of the general-ed requirements, you can better determine which subjects that you’d really like to focus on in college.

4. At least once a year, take a class that challenges your beliefs.

Leave your comfort zone and become acquainted with world views that don’t sync with yours. If you’re a conservative, consider taking a class on Marxism or perhaps women’s studies. If you’re an atheist, try a theology course. A liberal could choose a class on conservative political thought. Even if you ultimately hate the course, Roberts suggests that you should learn more than if you had simply chosen a class that confirms your beliefs.

5. Take writing-intensive classes.

Choosing classes that requires copious writing sounds grueling, but Roberts offers pragmatic reasons for volunteering for this torture. Employers want graduates who can write, and you’re not going to get a pass even if you’re majoring in a technical or scientific field. You will also receive more attention from a professor in a writing-intensive class since he/she must review what you write.

6. Read faculty evaluations.

Most universities have students complete faculty evaluations at the end of each semester. If the results are made public—and they often are—pour through them. Students tend to agree with each other on what classes are best, and these also seem to be correlated to performance. Students perform better in classes that they rate highly.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of a new eBook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. She also blogs about college for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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