The Secret to Picking College Classes

college classes

Wondering how to pick college classes? Michael Ermann, Olive Book founder and Virginia Tech professor, shares his number one piece of advice for choosing the best college classes.

The single best advice for choosing college classes I can give you, both as a college professor and as someone who as a college student chose most of his courses using this method: pick your college classes by professor. No one ever had a bad class with a good teacher! 

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Pick College Classes by Professor

Pick your classes by professor—either by your experience with a given professor or by their reputation. Don’t select classes by the convenience of scheduled class time, by which friend will be in the class, or even by course topic or major. Of course, you’ll need to take several classes in a particular subject to complete your major, but when the department offers more than one section of a class, or for classes outside your major, select by the best-teacher method. You will have a better experience in a topic you loathe with a strong teacher than in a class on your favorite subject taught by a weak one.

Start a list on your phone now of good professors. Seriously, set that up right now before you read on. Then when you hear from a friend about an inspiring entomology teacher, or when you catch good things said about one professor by another professor, you can add their name to the list.

You will have a better experience in a topic you loathe with a strong teacher than in a class on your favorite subject taught by a weak one.

If You Run Into a Roadblock…

Often that good professor will teach a class that you cannot easily register for—one with a prerequisite you haven’t taken, or one only open to a major you are not in. Usually, this is not a problem! Go see the professor or administrator in person, because it is difficult to say no to an eager student’s face.

When I was Architecture Program Chairman at Virginia Tech, I almost always approved reasonable exceptions when the student was sitting in front of me. Likewise, I almost never did so by email. I have a robust fear of allowing exceptions in writing lest the student forwards the email to all of his or her friends and then the rule is ineffectual. 

That’s another piece of advice for college, or for anywhere: never ask for permission to break a rule in writing—always do that in person.

3 More Tips for Picking College Classes:

Leave Space in Your Schedule

You spent 30 to 40 hours per week in class in high school, but the average college student enrolls in only 15 hours per week of classes. You may be concerned that you will have too much time on your hands, but resist the temptation to fill your schedule with the maximum number of hours you’re allowed to take. College courses require more time outside of the classroom than most of your high school classes. So even though you’ll only be in class for a few hours a day, you’ll need the extra hours to complete reading assignments, work on projects, and study. 

Use Those College Course Credits

If you took the time and effort to earn community college credit or AP or IB credits in high school, use as many as you can to check those freshman requirements off your degree plan. Not only will this save you time and money (it may even allow you to graduate early), it allows space in your course schedule to take higher-level (or just more interesting) classes.

Look Outside Your Major

College is the time to explore ideas and subjects. Think outside your degree plan. What are you interested in learning about? Colleges offer thousands of classes in hundreds of subject areas. Take advantage of the wealth of expert knowledge around campus. If a class has a prerequisite or is only open to certain majors, go in person to ask if you can enroll. It will be difficult to say no to a curious, engaged student!

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