Classes: The Reason You’re Here
Your first year of college comes with many changes and
challenges. Suddenly, you have to take care of all these things
that were done for you in high school. You’ve got classes to choose,
schedules to arrange, roommates to get along with, and a stomach
to feed. Most important, you have to find a way to balance a challenging
academic life with an incredibly fun social life. What’s a bright-eyed
first-year student to do?
Believe it or not, your academic success will greatly
enhance your social life. Consider this: a failing student will
be put on academic probation, or be removed from the university entirely.
Remember, you start college with a clean slate. Your GPA begins
with your first class. Try to balance studying with your social
life—and by balance, we mean equal parts on both sides. Ninety percent
partying and 10 percent studying is not a balance. We’re not saying
that you’ll ruin your life if you let your first-year grades slip;
what we are saying is this: you are in college to learn. You and
your parents are spending good money on your classes and it’s important
you get your money’s worth.
Your Academic Advisor
Now you have to figure out what classes you’re going to
take. Many first-year students are clueless about this process. That’s
where your academic advisor comes in.
Think of your academic advisor as your lifeline to putting together
the best possible schedule for your four-year plan. Some schools
require that you meet with an academic advisor in your first year,
generally before class registration starts. Even if your school
doesn’t require a meeting, it would be a mistake not to use this
vital resource. Signing up for classes is the most important thing
you’ll do when you arrive on campus, so be sure to make an appointment
with your advisor as soon as possible.
You will only need to see the advisor once a term to choose your
classes, especially if you’re doing well academically. But you may
need to see him/her more often if your grades slip or if something
comes up that requires you to change your schedule drastically.
Your advisor is also the person with whom you’re going to discuss
your prospective major.
Your academic advisor is usually not allowed to share
any of the information you tell him/her with anyone, even information
about grades or personal information you might reveal. Officials
from the university are often allowed access to your academic information,
but your parents and outsiders are not, unless you give consent.
Your university has core requirements that you’ll need
to take (and pass) before you can graduate; most of the time you won’t
even be able to move on to higher-level classes until you pass these
core classes. English is a big core requirement and you’ll probably
have to take more than one section of it. You may also have to take
a foreign language, science, math, physical education, or history.
It’s a good idea to get many of these requirements out of the way
as soon as possible, but don’t get swamped with so much work that
you let your grades slip. Remember, you’re adjusting to college
life and all of its challenges.
Learning how to write effectively is a key to college
success. So, taking a writing class your first term is a great idea, because
you’ll be writing more than Tolstoy did before your four years in
college are through.
Most schools offer writing intensive classes that are
only open to first-year students. If your writing isn’t up to speed, the
professors who teach these courses will help you perfect the art
of writing a college paper.
Also, the placement exams you took in high school, such
as SAT IIs and APs, may fulfill some of your core requirements—if
you scored high on certain exams, you may not have to take some
subjects. The university may also offer tests that get you out of
some requirements, like a foreign language. Ask your academic advisor
about what you can do to skip some of the core classes and move
on to your electives.
Electives are classes that you’re not required to take
but that either fulfill the requirements for your prospective major
or simply earn you the credits you need to graduate. If you’re allowed
a couple of electives in your first year, choose something that
interests you instead of trying to rack up credits for your major.
Chances are you won’t even know what your major is yet.
One of the great things about your first year is that
it is a time for academic discovery. Don’t be afraid to take electives
that sound strange or that aren’t related to your most obvious interests.
The wider you cast your net, the more options you’ll have when it
comes time to pick a major. That course on ancient Mesopotamian
architecture could lead to a rewarding major in archaeology.
The Course Catalog
Every semester your school will print a course catalog
(sometimes called a course bulletin) that lists classes being offered that
term and gives a little synopsis of each class. The synopsis should
tell you what to expect in the class, so be sure to read the catalog
carefully before registering.
In general, each class has a code made up of letters and
numbers. The letters correspond to the department that offers the class;
for example, ENG for the English department, ACC for accounting,
DAN for dance, and CHM for chemistry. The numbers will often tell
you what level the class is: ENG101 is beginning English. In addition,
the catalog will list the days and times the class is scheduled
for and how many credits you’ll receive for taking the class. Each
college has its own system of numbering and lettering classes. Once
you get the hang of reading the catalog, it’ll be easy to find the
classes you want and need.
The 3-1 Rule
You will need about three hours of study time per week
for each credit you take. If you’re taking 24 credits, you’ll have
to schedule 72 study hours; make sure you have enough time in your
week to allow for that. College is much more challenging than high
school, where you were able to take seven or eight classes a day,
write for the school newspaper, and play a varsity sport. College
professors expect much more from you than your high school teachers
did. If you’re taking two challenging classes, make sure you balance
your schedule with two classes that have lighter workloads.
Most college professors will treat you like a colleague
as long as you offer them the same respect. You may not have wanted to
get to know your high school teachers, but you’ll want to get to
know some of your college profs. Go to their office hours in the
first few weeks of school just to say hello and introduce yourself.
Chatting with your professors gives them the opportunity to get
to know you and makes you seem interested in their area of expertise.
By the time you register, you will probably have heard
a lot of horror stories about some of the professors who teach first-year
courses. Don’t let these stories sway your class registration too
much. Consider the source: a professor that “grades hard” might
just have graded your brother’s slacker friend appropriately. Take
the classes that you agree upon with your advisor and that fit well
into your ideal schedule.
If you go to a large school, some of your core classes
will be huge lectures with hundreds of students. In addition to
the professor, a few teaching assistants will be on hand to help with
the workload. Try to sit at the very front, nearest to the professor.
If you don’t, you may find yourself distracted and unable to follow
what’s being taught.
A smaller, more intimate class is called a seminar. Both
core classes and electives can be taught seminar-style. Smaller
liberal arts colleges hold most of their classes as seminars. Large colleges
have fewer seminars for their first years and sophomores. If you
attend a large school, you’ll probably have more seminars once you
choose your major.
If you plan well, you’ll end up with a mix of seminars
and large lectures your first year. If you feel comfortable with
a particular topic and did well in it in high school, then a large lecture
might suit you. If you’re wary about a particular topic and feel
you may need more attention in the class, try to find a seminar.
It’s time to make things official by actually registering
for your classes. You’ll have to fill out some forms before you
register, which you can get from your academic advisor or from the
registrar’s office. Some schools make you come to campus and stand
in line to register, either with a person or via computer. Other
colleges allow you to register over the phone or at computer stations
on campus. Registration is easy: people will be around to help you,
and you will be given explicit instructions to follow.
In a perfect world you’ll get into your top four classes,
but there are no such guarantees in the real world. You should always
choose a few alternate classes in case your first choices are full
by the time you register. One important rule is: register early.
No matter what, you’ll get at least two of the classes you really
want, but if you register early, you may get them all.
- Is the class a requirement or an elective? In your first
year, you’ll want to get at least four requirements out of the way; some
schools insist on even more.
- Is the class in a good time slot? If you’re a night person, don’t
choose an 8 a.m. class. Can you get to the
class on time considering your work schedule, other classes, and travel
- Have you heard good things about the professor? Bad things?
Substantiate rumors before you eliminate a class, and don’t sign
up for a class just because you heard that the prof always gives
- Do you have a lot of tough classes in your schedule already? Adding
another difficult class isn’t going to make your life any easier.
Consider balancing your schedule between challenging classes and
- Are you picking a class just because your friends are
taking it? Choosing a class for this reason is a bad idea. Look
for classes that suit your own interests.
- Is the class already full? If you get shut out of an important class,
attend the first class meeting and ask the professor if it would
be possible to override the system to let you in. Most profs will
agree unless they’ve already let in a lot of extra students.
- Do you know enough about the class? Before you sign up for
a class, you should visit the prof during office hours. You’ll get
a vibe from him/her that may help you decide whether or not to take
the class. Ask to see the syllabus if possible, and ask about texts,
workload, and class content. Remember, be polite.
- Do any of your classes count toward your major? If you’re already
thinking about a particular major, find out what the prerequisites
and requirements are and start taking some of those classes.
- Is your schedule balanced? You don’t want to take all
math classes or all English classes in your first term; a couple
of requirements and some interesting electives would make a well-rounded
- Are all your classes reading/writing intensive? Some classes
require a lot of reading, some require a lot of writing, and some
require a lot of both. Try to find out what each class entails and
don’t swamp yourself with too many classes that require a similar