Choosing Classes Like a Pro

College Classes

By Jessica Dye

Picking high school classes usually gave you little more leeway than deciding whether to spend 8th period playing with ceramics or snoozing in study hall.  But when the first college course guide lands on your doorstep with the kind of thud normally associated with unabridged dictionaries, the choices can seem overwhelming.   

Mistakes, bad professors, and 8 a.m. Friday classes will probably befall you, despite the best-laid plans.  The good news is that there is no right answer when it comes to picking classes.  In the immortal words of a band your parents probably like, “You can’t always get what you want.”  But if you look hard and get your priorities in order, you can cobble together a kick-ass schedule that’ll get you closer to graduation, get you into law school, or just get you excited about class again.  In other words, just what you need.

What You Need

Don’t duck your requirements: It might seem like a good solution to let Future You deal with your college-mandated calculus course.  But Present You, fresh from high-school math courses, actually might be better equipped than the Future You who’s spent the last three years majoring in Banjo Performance.  The more general requirements you can knock out early on, the fewer will still be around to haunt your senior year.

Look ahead: Figure out up front how the required classes will affect your entire four-year career—not just whether it makes you get up early on a Wednesday.  For instance, if you’re planning on going abroad, or if your school requires you to take a time-intensive lab class or two, keep those things in the back of your mind early on.  

Don’t overdo it: You’re a smarty, but that doesn’t always mean you’re ready to tackle a full load of grad seminars right off the bat.  Mix a few challenging courses with lower-level classes that are easy-aces.  That leaves extra time for mastering Space Physics. 

Do your homework:  You’re not the first person intent on piecing together an awesome semester. Take advantage of your advisors, whether they be RAs, faculty members, or older kids down the dorm hall.  They’ve got the been-there, done-that wisdom you need.  Some schools now encourage students to swap reviews of classes and professors, whether through a school network or an outside site, like  It’ll fill you in on all the information they couldn’t cram into the 50-word course catalog write-up.   

Half the battle is showing up: Don’t forget the logistics of actually being in class.  If your schedule doesn’t allow for things like travel time, or for the fact that you get cranky without an afternoon nap, you’ll add undue suffering to your semester. 

Make some major decisions:  Unless you go to one of those crazy colleges that doesn’t believe in things like grades and classes, you’re going to have to declare a major at some point.  Almost all departments ask you to take at least a few mandatory classes, supplemented with the electives of your course.  Taking those as a freshman or sophomore (if you’re allowed) could give you a valuable picture of what being in the department is really like.  Plus, if you decide to sign on, you’ll have more time later for the fun stuff.

See related: Take classes that pique your interests, even if they’re not in the department you dream of.  If you’re into politics, try  statistics or political literature class. If you like math, maybe you’re a secret sociology rock star.  Even if the little diversions don’t lead anywhere, at least you’ll have learned something new.

Get in line: Getting into school was hard enough.  But at some schools, getting into Sociology 101 can be just as tough.  Class registration runs differently at every school, but if it’s your first time, some things to keep in mind: Get to registration early (or at least on time); have a back-up plan in case your first choice falls through; and, if you really want it, don’t give up too soon.  It’s normal for a few enrolled students to drop a class as the weeks wear on, so if you can say you’ve been at every lecture, you’ll make a great case for being added to roll call.

Credit where (AP) credit is due: If you stacked your high school resume with AP credits or swept the SAT IIs, some schools offer credit or higher placement options.  But wield those credits wisely: Sometimes the intro-level classes you place out of are laying the groundwork for higher-level department courses, and fast-forwarding through them can leave you in the lurch later.  If you’re planning on cashing in credits, run your plan past an academic advisor or professor first. 

Explore your options:  If you’re feeling wary about a class, don’t automatically give it a pass.  Many schools offer a pass/fail or audit options, which allow you to sample a course you might not feel confident about without potentially wrecking your GPA.  Figure out your school’s policy and finally take that class on Martian physics that’s always intrigued you.