7 Tips for Selecting College Classes

A helpful book shows college students how to take advantage of their academic choices.

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I've always thought that it's wonderful that many colleges require their incoming freshmen to read a book during the summer. I'm bringing this up because I want to nominate a book for this summer's college reading lists that I think represents the best possible selection: The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education.

Andrew Roberts, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, wrote this great book that can help students squeeze far more value out of their college years than any other book that I've read.

[Read 15 good things to do the summer before college.]

Here are the broad categories that Roberts covers in his book: choosing a school (If you don't know the differences between a college and a university, you really should read this book!); selecting a major; choosing college classes; being successful in college; interacting with professors; learning outside the classroom; attending graduate school; and rules professors live by.

Because so many college students don't know how to take advantage of their academic choices, I'm sharing a few of the 25 tips for selecting classes that Roberts provides in his easy-to-digest book:

1. Visit 5 to 10 classes during the first week of a semester: Try a different class during every time slot. Sampling classes can provide an early impression about which ones are worthwhile and which would be busts. If a promising class is filled, try again the next semester.

[Get more tips on getting into the class you need.]

2. Aim for variety: High school students are not familiar with most subjects that colleges offer. That's a great reason why underclassmen, in particular, should sample as many different disciplines as possible. By dabbling, they are more likely to discover a discipline that they like.

3. Don't rush to complete general-ed requirements: Freshmen and sophomores tend to focus on fulfilling their general-ed requirements early, but Roberts says that's a bad idea. If you postpone some of the general-ed requirements, you can better determine which subjects that you'd really like to focus on in college.

[Think about 10 questions to ask before picking a college major.]

4. At least once a year, take a class that challenges your beliefs: Leave your comfort zone and become acquainted with world views that don't sync with yours. If you're a conservative, consider taking a class on Marxism or perhaps women's studies. If you're an atheist, try a theology course. A liberal could choose a class on conservative political thought. Even if you ultimately hate the course, Roberts suggests that you should learn more than if you had simply chosen a class that confirms your beliefs.

5. Take writing-intensive classes: Choosing classes that requires copious writing sounds grueling, but Roberts offers pragmatic reasons for volunteering for this torture. Employers want graduates who can write, and you're not going to get a pass even if you're majoring in a technical or scientific field. You will also receive more attention from a professor in a writing-intensive class since he/she must review what you write.

[What are the 10 ways to ruin a college paper?]

6. Read faculty evaluations: Most universities have students complete faculty evaluations at the end of each semester. If the results are made public—and they often are—pour through them. Students tend to agree with each other on what classes are best, and these also seem to be correlated to performance. Students perform better in classes that they rate highly.

7. Consider auditing classes: The typical college student takes around 30 classes during their college career. In contrast, a university may offer 1,000 or more. If you want to soak up as much learning as possible, audit some classes.