From physics to art history, colleges offer hundreds — even thousands — of courses to help you expand your knowledge, explore new interests, and prepare you for your future career.
Interested in climate change? There’s a course for that. How about Greek mythology? There’s a course for that, too.
With so many choices, you may find yourself overwhelmed as you scroll through the course catalog, especially if you are a new college student or you are undecided about your major. Add the need to balance graduation requirements, personal interests, tuition costs, and your very busy schedule, and you may not know where — or how — to start choosing the right courses to meet your specific needs.
The courses you take each semester have a profound impact on your graduation eligibility and college experience. It’s important to spend some time deciding which courses are right for you. When you find a course that interests you, it’s important to look at it in the context of all the other courses you are choosing that semester so you can build an ideal schedule that will inspire you and set you up for success in the coming college years.
Here are a few tips to help you choose the right college courses to meet your individual needs.
Understand the Different Types of Courses
Before getting lost in the course catalog, it’s important to understand the different types of courses that are available to you. From there, you can decide what courses are right for your learning style and where they fit into your college journey.
General education courses
College is a time for exploring new subjects and being exposed to new ideas. To help students expand their knowledge, most colleges require students to take general education courses, typically during the first two years of school.
General education courses include liberal arts and STEM subjects and are usually introductory or beginner level courses. They are also typically included in graduation requirements, so it’s a good idea to know how many general education courses you are required to take to meet your school’s requirements.
A key benefit of taking general education courses in your freshman or sophomore year is that they could help you decide on a major if you are still undecided. For example, you could take astronomy as a required general education science credit and realize you love the subject and seek out additional higher level astronomy classes.
If you took AP classes in high school, check with your college advisor to see if those classes satisfy a general education course requirement and count toward college credit. If they do, you have the opportunity to take other classes that interest you to round out your schedule.
Courses required for your major or minor
If you know what you are going to major and minor in, you will be required to take courses that are specific to that field of study and degree program. These classes are typically intermediate or advanced level courses and may require a prerequisite class.
While typically students choosing these courses have declared their major, you can take them if you are still undecided to help you gain valuable insight into a specific subject.
Electives are classes you can take on any subject you want to explore. These could be additional classes in your major or minor field of study that aren’t required as part of your degree program, but offer you a deeper understanding of certain topics. If you haven’t chosen a major, electives are a good way to learn about different topics that could help you decide.
They may also be on anything outside of your field of study; you have the freedom to take any elective you choose if you can fit it into your schedule. Some colleges build in a certain number of elective courses as part of their graduation requirements, so check ahead of time to know if there’s a required number of electives you have to take.
Remote or hybrid courses
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some colleges are continuing to offer classes online or with a hybrid schedule. It’s a personal decision as to whether you want to take a course that offers a remote or hybrid schedule, or if you prefer to stick with classes that only meet in-person.
Lecture hall courses
If you attend a larger college or university, some courses may be offered in a lecture hall with hundreds of other students. There is little personal interaction with the professor in lecture courses, but they often require you to attend an additional discussion class with a graduate student. If you have a hard time learning in this type of environment, consider smaller, more personalized formats. You should be able to see the maximum number of students allowed to register for a specific course in the course catalog.
Many courses require hands-on lab work or field work, especially science classes. If you want to try field work or enjoy a more hands-on learning environment, look for classes that offer labs and research the kind of work they include.
5 Factors to Consider When Selecting College Courses
Choosing the right college classes goes beyond just checking off the course requirements for your degree program. Each semester presents a unique opportunity to build a class schedule that inspires and challenges you, while also giving you the opportunity to enjoy college life.
Here are five factors to consider as you choose your college courses.
1. Course load
College classes are challenging and require a time commitment in order to succeed. But based on your personal level of aptitude, you may find some subjects easier than others. When building your schedule, be aware of your course load and difficulty level. Mix course levels so you have some classes that may be easier than others to help manage your stress levels.
Consider choosing a variety of subjects —ones that tend to challenge you and ones that you naturally excel at. Also, avoid trying to take too many classes in one semester in your rush to graduation. Check ahead with your academic advisor to make sure you’re still on track to graduate and if so, be mindful of not pushing yourself too hard.
2. Class times
If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, you may want to avoid that 8 a.m. class held on the other side of campus. Alternatively, if you tend to get tired or lose focus in the afternoon, a 3 p.m. class may not be the best choice.. Consider spreading out your classes throughout the week so you aren’t stuck with a packed schedule every day.
While sometimes you have no choice but to take a course at a time that is not ideal for your schedule, it’s helpful to be aware of class times as you select your courses and choose those that fit into your life.
3. The instructor’s teaching style
When choosing a course, learn about the instructor. Ask others who have taken the class about what it was really like. Read their bio or faculty page, check their LinkedIn profile, or review sites like Rate My Professors. You can even email the instructor ahead of time to ask about how they like to teach the class, the course load, and the general syllabus. Based on what you learn, decide if their teaching style fits with your learning style.
4. Group projects vs. independent work
You can find clues in the course description about the emphasis placed on group projects throughout the semester. If you enjoy group projects, you can seek out those courses. Consider asking students who have already taken the course for examples of these projects to gain a better picture of what’s to come. If you prefer working independently, avoid those classes.
Many higher level courses require prerequisite classes before registering. Be sure you read through the course description to learn if your chosen class has any courses you need to take ahead of time.
Choosing Courses When You Know Your Major
Choosing courses can be easier when you know your major field of study because you likely already have a list of classes you are required to take. However, it’s still important to build a schedule that works for you each semester. Here are four tips for choosing classes when you know your major:
1. Map out graduation requirements
Once you declare your major, learn which classes you are required to take to earn your degree. Then, map out which classes you will take over each semester leading up to your desired graduation date. Be sure to include any general education and elective requirements in your plan.
2. Work with an advisor
You should have — and know — your college advisor, who can talk through your career aspirations and help you build an academic plan to meet your goals each semester. Your advisor will help you keep track of your classes to ensure you are working towards meeting all of the graduation requirements for your degree program.
3. Add electives that interest you
College will challenge you and expose you to different ideas. Electives offer a wide range of options to learn something new, so be sure to take advantage of this opportunity! Research different electives, then round out your schedule with classes that pique your interest.
4. Consider taking a summer school course
Summer school can be a good option to help you fit in all of your degree program requirements or take prerequisite courses to stay on track with your graduation plan. It’s also a great time to take elective courses on subjects that interest you. Class sizes are generally smaller in summer school and you are more likely to receive more personalized attention. If you are feeling adventurous, consider summer study abroad programs.
Choosing Courses When You Are Undecided
If you are undecided about your major, you aren’t alone. Many students who arrive on campus don’t know what they want to do with their careers. Even for those who have declared a major, 30 percent change their major during their first three years of college. Here are three tips for choosing classes when you are still figuring out your major:
1. Meet with an academic advisor
If you are already in college, meeting with a career counselor can help you explore career paths that may be right for you based on your interests. They can also help you decide which classes to take as you think through your career options.
2. Explore summer school
If you are in high school, college summer school courses are a great way to explore your interests. Harvard Summer School offers summer college programs for high school students that provide a glimpse into the college experience. These programs give you the opportunity to take rigorous for-credit and non-credit college courses on a variety of subjects, which could help you determine the types of classes and subjects you may want to take when you start college.
3. Plan ahead
It’s never too early to start thinking about your college journey. By exploring your interests while still in high school, you can build the right class schedule when you get to college that will prepare you for your life and career while also giving you a great college experience.
Learn more about Harvard’ Summer School’s college programs for high school students — the Secondary School Program, which offers more than 200 for-credit college courses in an immersive experience; and the Pre-College Program, which offers non-credit academically rigorous courses.