September 18, 2010


When selecting courses your first year, you’ll have to worry about two main things: satisfying Core requirements and exploring what the University has to offer. In the flurry of AP credit score-keeping and placement testing during O-Week, the Core looms especially large in most new students’ minds.

This much should be obvious about the Core: Don’t blow it off. Like it or not, you’ll have to take courses in several fields. You’ll be spending time doing science even if you want to read Chaucer night and day, or discussing Homer when you want to be playing with your Bunsen burner till the wee hours of the morning.

To avoid coming out of the Core feeling like there’s a black hole where a year of your life should have been, you should seek out the most challenging courses in every area. That means boning up on calculus before the placement test to ensure you’ll be in an upper-level class, and, more importantly, choosing your courses with care.

You can delay requirements until much later in your academic career, but that’s rarely a good idea. First-years get priority placement in Core classes, so you won’t get what you want if you wait to enroll. As a fourth-year, you’ll also want to take more demanding classes. Do well in the Core, and you’ll necessarily outgrow it.

Now you can start deliberating about what specific classes you should take. Here are a few rules of thumb to help you decide.

First, it’s often better to choose courses based on the professor, not the subject. You’ll probably forget what their lectures were about by graduation; but engaged, passionate profs can mean the difference between feeling like your education was just a bunch of busywork and knowing that what you got from college was valuable—in rare cases, even revelatory. Good professors can convert English majors to chemistry (or vice versa).

The best way to get an idea of a professor’s teaching style is to sit in on a class. Ask your R.A.s or other upperclassmen about any profs you can’t see in action. E-mail professors about the goals and materials covered in their courses, or see them during office hours. Don’t rely on or course evaluations alone.

Second, use pink slips liberally. Though the variety of Core options makes it unlikely that you won’t get any of the courses you requested, electives fill up quickly; try to venture into upper-level courses and you’ll be at the bottom of the barrel in terms of priority placement. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t get what you requested. The first-week ebb and flow of students from one class to another means that in all likelihood, you’ll still be able to get into the class you want, provided you attend the first class and have your prof sign a pink slip to let you in. Better yet, contact profs before the quarter and tell them you want to be in the class.

Third, avoid overloading yourself. Your friends might half brag, half complain about 500-page-per-night assignments from the two extra graduate courses they’re taking. Remember that the University has the normal course limit set at four for a reason: If you want to be deeply involved in your classes, don’t spread yourself too thin.

While choosing your major isn’t as important for first-years as making a dent in Core requirements, the end of your second year is not as far away as it seems. Keep in the back of your mind the question of what you want to pursue in depth as a third- or fourth-year.

Picking a major ultimately comes down to whether you like doing work in your major field or not. That said, don’t assume what you like now is what you’ll like in a year-and-a-half. Take a wide variety of courses, and, when you really enjoy a certain subject, talk to the undergraduate chair of the department about the major. Get a hold of upperclassmen majoring in the subject you’re interested in as well to find out about general experience of the major.

Ultimately, whether or not you like your classes depends on how much time and effort you put into choosing them. There are academic treasures out there to be discovered. As Whitman said, “Now, voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.”