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.

Writing Courses

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.

Your Professors

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.

Class Size

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.

Registration Day

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.

    Preregistration Questions
  • 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 time?
  • 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 good grades.
  • 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 lighter classes.
  • 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 schedule.
  • 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 workload.
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