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!

Why I’m Writing This Blog

I went back to school at 25, part-time after work. At 26, I quit my job and went back to University as a full-time student. At that time, I was an office administrator and dispatcher, making decent money with benefits, had my own car and more than enough fun money to throw around. And my total debt was only a few hundred dollars in car repairs on a credit card.

Fast forward to now: I’m 33 years old, with a BA(H) in Criminology and will be receiving my BA in Psychology this summer. I work very, very part-time hours at a liquor store, because that’s the only job I can get right now. With $60,000 in student loans and coming close to $20,000 in credit card debt, I’m forced to live in a rented room in the same house as the boyfriend I’m desperate to leave. And I’m not the only one in a situation like this. Of my closest friends, only one found a “real job” after graduation, with the rest of us toiling away at whatever we can get to pay the bills.

Looking back on all that schooling and the last 7 years, I can see some of where I went wrong.  I can see some of where my friends went wrong. And it’s not always things that we can control, things that we are taught, or things that we are warned about. I know I can’t help everyone, that I don’t know the answers to everything, and that not everyone needs my help. But if I can help even one person to get their schooling on track, to get the credentials they need, to learn how to adult like a real grown-up, then at least I’ve helped them.

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.

A Few Words on Self-Care

I’m not going to lie: life can really suck sometimes. It seems like you are constantly on the go, never getting any time for yourself. Then, the rare time you do get a few hours free, you’re so overwhelmed with all the things you need to get done that you can’t just sit and relax. Day in, day out, it’s just go-go-go……….. until one day, it feels like you can’t go anymore.

That, my friends, is burnout. And we all get it at some point.

And yes, it really really sucks.

As I said Wednesday, my schedule is a little crazy right now. There are days, when I finally get a little me-time, when I multi-task my relaxing. I will watch TV, flip through Cosmo, read a book, have a glass or two of wine, and take notes for writing projects, all at the same time. And it’s really not healthy.

There will come a time when all of this go-go-go will start to get to you. It will be harder to get out of bed in the morning, and harder to fall asleep at night. Maybe you won’t be able to quiet your brain at night, or turn it back on when you need it most. You’ll spend your free moments making to-do lists, going over what you need to get done.

At one point in my University career, my health and body just gave up. I was taking 4 classes a semester, working two on-campus jobs (research assistant, and teaching assistant). I was on the Board of Directors for an activist group, and headed up their Fundraising and Events Planning committee. I volunteered in our campus Academic Advising Centre. I helped run Welcome Week events, gave talks to parents of prospective students, recruited students for multiple on-campus organizations, volunteered at local Fraternity events, joined the association for my major AND the one for one of my minors, and did independent research into what I had wanted to do a Psych Thesis on.

Then my health got in the way. First was the ear infection that winter, which got so bad it gave me random bouts of vertigo. This resulted in me passing out in a 7-11 near campus, and having to be rushed my ambulance to the hospital.  Then, the food poisoning hit me that summer. After spending 7 months researching e.coli as part of my job, I got a mild case of it. And by mild, I mean I spent 4 days in the bathroom, and had to be put on an IV for fluids more than once in a two week span. The real kicker came at the end of the summer, when I was gearing up for the next school year.

In the midst of thesis advisor meetings, preliminary research, summer class finals, a new workout regime, Welcome Week preparations, and a long-distance relationship, my mother had to rush me to the hospital. One day I woke up, and was so weak I couldn’t get out of bed. It took me 45 minutes to crawl across my bedroom, and down the hall less than 8 feet to the bathroom. Once there, all I could do was vomit. Then the headache started. I was put in isolation at the hospital for three days, while they gave me morphine and dilauded to try and stop the pain in my head (and they didn’t work, either). After blood work, a lumbar puncture, brain scans, and a fever of 105, the doctor told me it looked like West Nile.

This was my wake-up. I had to slow down, or else my recovery could kill me. I was under strict orders not to exercise, or over exert myself. I dropped down to 3 classes, and eventually dropped my Thesis due to the stress. I started planning more, procrastinating less, and getting things done bit by bit instead of a giant panic all at once. I even (mostly) gave up my all-nighters. Instead of trying to run committees I had no interest in and didn’t even like being a part of, I stayed home and watched Buffy on Netflix with the boyfriend (once he was back in town for school).

Basically, I gave up what I didn’t need. Why bother staying a part of an organization I was getting nothing out of, and wasn’t fully contributing to, when I could focus on the things that mattered most? When I had some health set-backs (most likely due to that fever that wouldn’t break causing a bit of damage that needed time to heal), I didn’t have to worry about getting in touch with 40 people to cover all my extra-curriculars while I was in hospital. I could just focus on being healthy.

Today, I still have a hectic schedule. I take time for me now, though. I’ll watch Netflix on my phone on my lunch break. I’ll make a point of painting my nails once or twice a week, so I’m forced to relax while they dry. Once a month, I take a half-day on a Sunday to just do all the stupid beauty crap I would normally put off, like dyeing my hair and putting on a face mask.And I take 20 minutes each night, right before bed, to just sit in my room, alone, and daydream.

I take care of me, now. And you should do the same for you, too. Yes, you can have your packed schedule, and your Do-It-All mentality. But you also need to have a Don’t-Work-Yourself-Into-An-Early-Grave mentality. When you start to feel worn down, that is your body’s way of telling you slow down a bit. So schedule in some time to relax, do a little something for you each day.

In the immortal words of the 90’s sexiest FBI agent, Dale Cooper, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.”

Damn good coffee!