How To Choose Classes

Choosing your classes for the next semester is one of the biggest stresses and headaches you’ll have as a post-secondary student. Everyone has an opinion on what to take, your friends want to take classes with you, your advisor is telling you to take a whole other bunch of classes, and you’re torn between the “if I plan all 8am classes then I’ll HAVE to become a morning person” and “woo hoo, no classes until at least 1pm!”.

Now, I volunteered for the Academic Advising Office while I was in university. The advisers who were paid to be there (you know, the professionals) handled all of the truly hard things. They were the ones who talked to students who were worried they were going to flunk out of their program, or who wanted to change majors completely, or who were hoping to graduate soon and wanted to make sure they had all of the classes they needed all taken care of. We volunteers took care of the rest. Need to look at electives? Not sure which courses count as a Social Science and which ones are Arts? Just want someone to explain how to read your degree audit (or whatever your school calls the giant list of what classes you need to take to graduate)? That’s what we were there for.

I’m no expert when it comes to choosing classes (if I was,then I’d be one of the ones being paid to do that). But I did learn quite a few things back then that I can pass along to you now.

Figure Out What Your Required Courses Are

I know, this sounds stupid. I mean, everyone knows what classes are required, right? Well, no they don’t. The degree audit (or list) that everyone has to look over can be unbelievably confusing sometimes! For example, there are what seems like a billion rules you need to follow if you’re going to choose classes from my Alma Matter to count towards your Psychology degree. You can take 100-level (first year, mostly intro or elective courses) classes, which are usually pre-requisites for other courses (I’ll get into those next), but you can take 14. Now, that may seem like a lot. But if you need 2 Intro Psych, 2 Into Sociology, a few science courses, some arts courses, a language class or two….. these start to add up. I’ve known a lot of people who run out of 100-levels that can count towards their degree, but still have to take a few and do a little course-grade shuffling with their advisers, especially those doing double majors with one or more minor.

Then there’s the “you must take these three very specific classes”, which is easy enough to work with. There’s the “you must take four out of these nine specific classes”, which can get a little confusing. And then there’s the dreaded “you must take X number of classes from this topic, but NOT these four very specific classes”, which are always the most fun four classes on the topic. You need to know that what you are taking not only counts towards your degree, but it won’t mess up your other choices.

Look at the Requirements for your Classes

Those pre-requisite things I talked about earlier are pretty damn important. Basically, there are classes that you cannot take until you take a certain class or group of classes below it. For example, you can’t take a second year Abnormal Psychology class until you take pre-requisite classes, which would most likely be the first year Introduction to Psychology classes, and maybe another Psychology class. I had a few classes that you were not allowed to take until you were in a certain year of your program, with the total number of semesters you’ve studied being the pre-requisite.  For most classes after the first year introduction classes, there will be pre-requisites, which will most likely be the first year introduction classes. In some cases, there is even a grade pre-requisite, meaning you can’t take a certain class if you didn’t get at least a B- in a certain other class before it.

Now, there are also anti-requisites out there. If a course has anti-requisites, that means that you can only take that case OR the anti-requisite. So if there are two classes to choose from, and one of them is the pre-requisite for another class, and the two are anti-requisites….. well, that’s something you really need to look out for!

Electives and “Bird Courses”

Your electives are the classes you get to have the most choice with. In my studies, I had to take a certain number of Language classes, a certain number of Science or Computer Science classes, a certain certain number of classes from anything BUT psychology. So that gave me a whole tonne of choices…… and I wasted them. My non-psychology class requirements were filled with classes from my first degree in Criminology, but I didn’t really take advantage of my choices in that first degree. My language classes came from a then-required set of English writing classes. But my sciences were completely wasted on what my friends recommended to me, because they were “easy”. And now I totally regret that.

There is nothing wrong with picking an elective because it seems like an easy class, especially if you have a particularly difficult semester. And there’s nothing wrong with picking easy classes that seem really interesting to you. I had friends take things like Astronomy and Earth Sciences while we were in school, and they loved them. I feel like I wasted my time taking a few computer science courses that were meant for people not already enrolled in computer science, meaning they were extremely easy and basic classes. In one class, I learned what a mouse is, and how to insert a USB stick. And the worst part is, because the class was so damn easy, I barely tried in it, and got a grade that was a passing grade, but not a great grade. Basically, the “Bird Course” that was supposed to help bump up my average actually brought it down.

What do I wish I had taken? I wish I had take something that taught me how to make a website. I wish I had taken a hard science, like biology, so I could’ve taken another Forensic Science class after I took the Intro class. When I had the chance to take any class that was NOT Criminology (or later Psychology) I took a few fun classes, but I feel like I wasted a lot of classes too. I got talked into taking Philosophy classes with friends that I had no interest in. I took classes I had no interest in, just to take classes with friends, or because everyone said they were easy. There is so much more I could have done with those 10 classes, but I didn’t.

So just because all of your friends are taking a class, or they swear that a class is easy don’t sign up for it unless you really want to take it. And remember, just because your friend thinks a class is easy doesn’t mean that you will. My class in Deviant Behaviours was a breeze for me, because I’ve studied things like that for years, so I recommended it to friends as an easy Sociology/Criminology class. Turns out they didn’t find it too easy, just like I didn’t find the  Comparative Politics class they recommended to be very easy. It all depends on your interests and your previous knowledge.

Make a Few Different Schedules

Chances are, the most popular and most needed classes will fill up fast. There is always a chance that the classes you want to take won’t be available when you get the chance to register. You need a backup plan for this.

Also, making up a few different schedules lets you see which classes work best together, time-wise. The kick-ass schedule you made in the beginning may not seem so awesome once you see how much better it could be if you mix a little of schedule two and a bit of schedule three in there.

Look at Your Workload

Classes can be broken down in different ways. At my old school, some are just one long 3-hour lecture, once a week. Others are 90 minutes, twice a week. Some have a lab component that meets once a week. Figure out which ones of those work best for you, and try to take as many of them as you can.

Look at the workload too, if possible. Some classes had multiple research papers, but no final exam, which made for a very busy semester, but less stress come exam time. Others had weekly labs due. Some were a combination of both. And others were nothing more than a midterm or two, and a final exam. If you know you can crank out papers like crazy, by all means take the classes with a lot of papers and no exams. If you prefer to take tests and are best studying under pressure, then stick with the exam-only classes. I always tried to take a combination of the two, so I’d be able to put my full focus into only two or three finals instead of five (once my papers were written).

Check Your Timings

One year in the fall semester, I somehow created the Monday from hell. Three hour lecture from 11:30 – 1:30, volunteer with the advising centre from 2:30-5pm, lecture from 5:30-7pm, and then a three hour lecture from 7-10pm. It was a long-ass day, and I rarely (if ever) made it through the whole day. I got grades in the A-range for the first two classes, because I was always there for them. But that 7-10pm class……. a solid C+. I went maybe half the time. In the whole day I got a one hour break after my first class (which I usually took in the campus cafe with a friend), and another half hour between volunteer and second class. I just couldn’t manage a schedule like that every week. The rest of the week was great though (my second class also ran on Wednesdays, and I had an awesome statistics class on Thursday evenings, plus a bunch of volunteer work), and I did great on everything that was not that 7pm class.  If you know you can’t handle a long day like that, then try your best not to plan one.

Another thing to look at it the amount of time you have between classes. Not only should you have enough time to get between your classes, but you should be able to do so without breaking out into an all-out sprint. My campus was relatively small, so a 10 minute break between two classes was usually good, if I planned well. I couldn’t do a full day with only 10 minutes between each class, though. Remember to factor in your travel time, time to use the bathroom and/or grab a snack, time to talk to your professors if you need to, and time for a damn break. You can’t go full-on for 12 hours a day, every day, without burning out.

And for crying out loud, watch those early morning classes. Yes, morning classes are unavoidable sometimes. But I don’t know how many people I’ve known over the years who tried to take a bunch of morning classes to try and get used to an 8-5 schedule. I’ve even heard some advisers tell students that this is a great idea. Well I went from a 9-5 job into my career as a university student, and this crap doesn’t work. As a career woman, I was up early everyday, showered and ready for work, sitting at my desk with my cup of coffee at 8am from Monday to Friday. I was already on that schedule. School is NOT like that. I couldn’t handle 8am classes if my life depended on it. Because of the unique schedules and lifestyles of students, I’ve always found this advice to be crap. Don’t go signing up for all 8am classes, unless you absolutely have to.

Of course there will always be other things that influence your class choices too. Maybe you need to work around your work schedule. Maybe you want to take classes with a particular professor that you love, or avoid one particular professor that you hate. Maybe you want to take classes with certain classmates, or specialize in a certain aspect of your major, or have no interest in other aspects of your major. There are a bunch of things that can and will influence your choices. All I’m doing here is trying to give you a little help. Good luck with class selection, sunshine!

Scheduling and your Syllabi

Your syllabus is probably the most important document you’ll receive in a class. It’s your schedule, your contact info, your lifeline for the next semester. How many of you know how to actually use it to your advantage though?

I’ll admit, my first year in University, I didn’t pay much attention to the damn things. I’d write down in my day planner when my exams were and when papers were due. Then, I’d stick my pile of syllabi in a folder and throw my day planner in my backpack. I didn’t check it regularly, and the “F” on my transcript is my proof of that (damn you History and Politics of Asian Religions!!!!).

I wised up a bit my second year. I’d check my planner once or twice a week, keep my syllabi with my class notebooks, and thought this was good enough. Actually, this is what most students do. And this is why so many students try to write 15 page research papers in two days, pull all-nighters cramming for exams last-minute, and spend more on coffee and Monster than tuition.

This method lulls you into a false sense of scheduling security. Yes, you have everything you need written down in front of you somewhere. And yes, you actually check what needs to be done the beginning of the week. But what do you have next week? Or a month from now? Can you open your day planner to a random page from this semester and easily figure out which classes will take up the most of your time and resources at a glance?

In my third year, I came up with a system. The first week of classes, I got all of my syllabi in class or on the class websites. Then, I took a whole afternoon to go over them and start scheduling. (Come on, it’s the first week of classes. You can spare a few hours to make the next few months a little easier!) All I needed were some coloured pens, sticky notes, and a day planner.

First, each class was assigned a colour. In the day planner, go through class by class and fill in WHEN each class is. I know you think you’ll remember that you have that Post-Modern Comic Theory class every single Thursday at 1pm. In a month or two, when you’re running on no sleep and ALL the caffeine, though, you may not even remember you’re enrolled in that class, let alone when it is. This also puts it right in front of you, in writing, when you are committed to be there.

Then, for each class, make note of your exams, papers, assignments, labs, and anything else that is a part of your grade. Write down when these things are, and a detail or two about each (like exam rooms and times, paper lengths, etc). This gives you your deadlines.

Now, for each major grade event that you need extra time for (like paper writing or studying for exams), give yourself at least one weeks notice. Flip back one week in your day planner, and make a section for this. Some planners come with a Notes area each week you can use. If you don’t typically have much planned for weekends, you could always use your Sunday space for this. Or, you could use the sticky notes I said to grab. (You can never have enough sticky notes in your life). Write down the day, time, subject, and how much of your grade this is worth. This ensures you have extra notice, so things don’t creep up on you at the last minute.

And now, VERY CAREFULLY read through each syllabus. Each syllabus is your professor’s notes to you on how to get as high a grade as possible. Take a page in your planner and write down each professor’s contact information, office hours, the course you are taking with them, and the course time and place. Then, read their instructions. Some professors will throw in exactly what they expect for assignments, or a grading rubric to help you plan our papers. They also give details about your exams, like if the final exam is cumulative, or only covers materials you learned since the mid-term.  Some will break down exactly what chapters to read each week, what online material to look up, and what they expect to cover in their lectures each week. Make note of ALL of this! You need to know what you’ll have to do before each class, or else you can’t actually do it.

I know this seems like a lot to do all at once. This is the simplified version of what I did for three years, though, and what a lot of friends and colleagues have said have worked best for them. When my schedule got really tight (4-5 classes, two jobs, 6 volunteer positions, fraternity events, family obligations, sleeping, eating…..), I used a day planner, a one-month wall calendar, a 4 month wall planner, a system of 4 separate To-Do lists, and email reminders to keep everything straight. Compared to all of that, this is a walk in the park.

This also helps make your semester run a little more smoothly. Imagine, never checking your schedule on Monday to find out you have a paper due Wednesday that you forgot about; never again forgetting about your Monday midterm until Saturday night; never missing a party because you have to pull an all-nighter to finish an assignment you forgot. Sure, this will take a few hours to get done in one day. But think of all the money you’ll save on energy drinks, caffeine pills, coffee, and everything else you’ve been using to keep you up for those last-minute all-nighters.

Most of all, think of all the stress you can save yourself by giving up one afternoon to write stuff down with pretty coloured pens. You can plan things out like those real grown-ups you see in the movies, with their leather-bound planners and appointment books, snootily telling people “sorry, I need at least 3 weeks notice. I’m already all booked. Are you free in May? I may have an opening in May sometime.” This one afternoon with your day planner could be all it takes to put you on the path to becoming Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.……. or it could at least free up enough time for you to remember you love that movie, and actually watch it again.

Follow Through With Your Plans

So you have a plan. That’s fantastic! You know pretty much what you want to do after graduation, what your chosen career path is, and/or what you want to do with the rest of your life.

So how to you follow through with all this?

For a lot of careers,getting a degree just isn’t good enough. You need a totally kick-ass CV and/or resume, with loads of entries on it showing why you would be the most obvious choice for a job in this field. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. Yeah, it’s kinda not.

You see, need to create epic aura of awesomeness that not only makes you perfect for this specific job, but also doesn’t make you perfect for ONLY this specific job. You need to make yourself seem like some secret super soldier created specifically for this job, but also for other jobs in that field that you may want to apply for. Basically, you need to show that you are perfect across the board.

No pressure, right?

Calm down. There are a few universal things that you can do, no matter what your career goal is:

  1. Leadership! Show that you’re not only great at taking directions, but that you can give directions to others. Join a club that interests you, and get yourself into a position of leadership. Anything from President of the Psychology Association to the Event Planning Chair of the Local Hippie Coalition works for this. Anything that gives you the power to give orders to others is good.
  2. Financial Responsibility! Chances are, at some point in your career, you will have to work with a budget. You may have to create a budget, keep track of petty cash, delegate funds for other projects, or oversee a large project on a budget. Do something specific that shows that you know how to do this already. Join a club (or just use your position in the last point), and plan an event. Make sure you work with a budget, and can track everything. And hey, now you also have experience in event planning! That’s TWO skills in one point! Bonus!
  3. Computer Skills! Obviously, someone in a Computer Science program will already have plenty of experience with computers. I mean, it’s right there in the program name. Criminology? Math? Political Science? Nothing there screams “I’m not a technological failure”. You need to up your skills, and make sure they are marketable. First off, know your Microsoft Office programs. It never hurts to get certification in programs like Word or Excel. Next, work on programs that are needed in your specific field. Things like statistical analysis have a few programs used by pretty much everyone in the field. If your field has programs like this, then you damn well better them!

Now that you have these few things taken care of, lets take a look at your actual course work. Do you know exactly what you need to get into your chosen career?  Some jobs require grad school, a doctorate, special certification, or co-op/internship experience. Does yours?

It’s best to do research into your field early. Ideally, as soon as you know what it is you want, you would start your research. If you require a graduate or doctorate degree, then you need to also start researching how to apply for these programs. You also need to know what the admission requirements are. Some schools require tests like GRE or LSATs, a large number of letters of recommendation, or admission essays. Know what is required.

Certification requires knowing where and when to test, what knowledge is needed, and where to get study material. Sometimes, it’s only a matter of sitting through a workshop. Other times, you need to take a series of tests. For my Advanced Certificate in Microsoft Excel, I took three workshops (basic, intermediate, and advanced levels), with a series of small assignments during them. To get actual Microsoft Certification from Microsoft, there are special certification tests that have to be administered at very specific locations, by specially trained administrators. Make sure you are actually getting what you need when you sign up for these.

And finally, take a look at the courses you’re taking. Even within your program, you can show specialization or expand your knowledge. In my Criminology program, I chose to take a very broad range of topics that could all apply to my chosen area of research. I took courses in Youth in Criminal Justice, Victimology, Penology, Social Deviation, and Policing and Security. I also took a series of Psychological Development courses, Social Justice, Morality, and both Quantitative and Qualitative Research. All of this is to aide in my research into school shootings and trends in violence and blame. At the same time, I also did courses in Business, Philosophy, Computer Concepts, and Political Science. These gave me a broader range of knowledge, more marketable skills, and gave me a chance to broaden my network. It’s best to also try to do a combination of both of these (specific, and broad).

So, to sum up quickly, you need to make yourself as marketable as possible in your chosen field. Make sure you have all the education and skills you need for your career, and make sure you know what you actually need for that career.

ALWAYS know the rules!

Playing this crazy game called like is a little like…… playing the Game of Life. There are certain rules that need to be followed. If you don’t follow then, you risk failure.

This is especially true when you’re looking at your course load for school. Not every school has the same rules regarding grades, required courses, and how their Degree Audits work. Just because you think you know what you’re doing when planning out your degree, doesn’t mean you actually do. You ALWAYS need to check these things out!

Case in point: I know of someone who was working on a second degree. At one point, she was told that she needed three more courses before she could graduate. Since she was committed to a full year of part-time studies due to her job, she split the three classes between two semesters, and filled in some of the gaps with courses she had already taken.

THIS is where things get a little hairy.

You see, she decided that, since she had already passed these courses, she didn’t need to pass them again. At some schools, when taking the same course multiple times, the school will take the best mark you get and put it on your transcripts.

Not this school.

Here, if you retake a course, your make the second time around is the mark you’re left with. It doesn’t matter if that mark is better than the first time, or worse: that mark is the one you get.

When this person took her courses the second time, she didn’t bother actually taking them. She focused all of her time on her last three courses, and her job. She didn’t even write the exams for her other courses. So, she failed.

Fast forward a few months, and she checked to see why she didn’t get a letter about graduation yet. Low and behold, she was three courses short! It took months of negotiation with the University to straighten things out.

She was lucky. The University forgave those three failed courses. Don’t count on that happening for you.

If you want to retake a course, check with someone to see how this will effect you overall in the event of failure.

Your Degree DOES NOT Equal Your Career

There are very few degrees out there where, once you graduate, you can call yourself The Thing. Medical school, law school, engineering school……. that’s most (if not all) of them.  And those are mainly very advanced degrees with years and years of extra schooling on top of the 3-5 most people in University do.

For the rest of us, we are not automatically sociologists, psychologists, accountants, or artists. We have to navigate the world after graduation and prove to others that we are capable and ready to put what we’ve learned to good use.  Just putting “BA(H) Criminology” on a resume doesn’t tell a prospective employer doesn’t tell them anything about what you can do for them.  What did you learn while getting that degree? What skills do you have that would be useful to them? How the hell is a person who studied crimes going to function in an office?

Look through what you did in your educational career. For many people in the social sciences, you can highlight skills such as critical thinking, statistical analysis, and research. Telling an employer “I did research under Prof. Z on internet reactions to series finale episodes” tells them what it is you did, shows you have a strong enough work ethic to commit to (and finish) a project, and may be a good starting off point for you to highlight some of your biggest strengths.

For some jobs, even highlighting certain courses you took that directly relate to the job (such as emphasizing a Philosophy of Law class when applying for legal research positions) shows that you have some background knowledge that can prove to be useful.

So yes, having that piece of paper handed to you while you suffocate in a a shapeless gown and goofy hat is a huge accomplishment. That piece of paper is not the be-all and end-all of what you did with that education. Look beyond the paper and figure out what it is you did that makes you unique and perfect for a position.