10 Tips for Getting Into the Class You Need

If the course you need is closed, you may still be able to find a way in.

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A recent New York Times piece, "Students Face a Class Struggle at State Colleges," describes the dramatic shortage of places in classes at California state colleges. The crisis is nationwide: Public universities in economically distressed states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio also come to mind—simply don't have enough spots in many classes to accommodate a student population growing at 4.5 percent each year. What should students do? Here are our 10 best tips for finding places in closed courses:

1. Try an off-peak time. Consider taking the sections that meet at times students find most undesirable. Think late afternoons and evenings, 7 a.m., and Fridays. Go for the times that your cohorts would rather be doing anything else than going to class.

2. Come up with a really good reason why you need the course. Hoof on over to the professor's office during posted office hours, and explain why you need the course. Focus on academic reasons: You're a graduating senior, the course is a prerequisite for something you want to take next semester, your transfer from community college to state university would be held up without this course, or your senior thesis would benefit, immeasurably, from this course.

3. Consider waiting until summer. Many of the same courses, often taught in smaller sections, are taught during summer sessions. Check your university's website to see if your course is one of them.

4. Try a nearby school. If your course is full at that four-year state university, consider taking an equivalent course at a nearby community or city college. Just be sure that the course is substantially similar in content and, more important, that the credits can transfer to your home institution. One thing that's very useful to check out are your state's "articulation agreements," that is, prenegotiated agreements for seamless transfer of certain lower-division or introductory courses.

5. Look for an online substitution. At some high-tech, and overloaded, schools, there are online versions—with potentially unlimited number of places—of popular courses (especially math courses). See if your college has any of these.

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6. Find another course to satisfy the requirement. At many schools, distribution requirements are disjunctive—that is, you can choose any of a number of courses. For example, at the University of Arkansas, the fine arts requirement of the liberal arts college can be satisfied by art history, art studio, dance, drama, film, architecture, or landscape architecture. You can bet that, while people are sitting on the floor in the art history and music lectures, there isn't a line around the block for landscape architecture.

7. Appeal with a higher-level course. Some schools allow you to substitute a higher-level course for an introductory or general education requirement. Talk to a departmental adviser to see if you can replace the closed-out course with something more advanced—say, America in the '60s for American History 1865–2000. In times of stress, advisers often have special discretion to make such substitutions.

8. Wait it out. Virtually all schools have wait lists, and many experience surprising drop-rates in the first week or two—especially if the professor is bad or announces that the course will be curved or graded really hard. Even if you're 50th on the list, you can sometimes get in. You can check the real-time, online wait list every half-hour (pretend it's Twitter: you're used to tweeting every eight seconds).

[Read 10 Warning Signs of a Bad Professor.]

9. Look in your vault. Sometimes, you've already taken a course somewhere that could satisfy some requirement. It could be some AP course in which you got a 3, but only recently has the university relaxed the standard to take 3s for credit. Or maybe you have some roughly equivalent course from a community college that you didn't know was now acceptable for transfer credit. Or, at some schools, maybe even a "life experience credit" for some previous experiences or accomplishments outside the normal college setting would count. Inquire about standardized examination programs (e.g., CLEP, DANTES, APP), the credit recommendations of the American Council of Education, and/or an evaluation of an individual portfolio or examination by an academic department of the college. Hey, an ace in the hole is an ace in the hole.

10. Beg (or at least cajole). College professors and departmental advisers sometimes have considerable discretion in giving "overrides" to deserving—or sometimes just nice—students. Think about what things you'd like to hear from a student wanting to take your class. Then, go lay those things on the professor—only about three times as thick.

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