New Student Registration: Planning Your Freshman Course Load
High school students rarely spend intense amounts of time thinking about course planning. They might be able to choose an elective here or there, and they might be able to provide input on specific classes they might want to take, but administrators take full responsibility for ensuring that these students graduate. As long as students go to school and pass their courses, they’ll emerge with a diploma.
Everything changes in college. Here, students have a remarkable amount of freedom to dictate what sorts of classes they’ll take, and how many different classes they’ll sign up for during a given year. This kind of freedom can be intoxicating, particularly for students who have never experienced anything like this in the past.
But with this freedom comes a great deal of responsibility. Specifically, students in college must ensure that they take all of the required classes in order to obtain their degrees, and they must do so within a specific time frame, or else they’ll see their schooling costs skyrocket.
Students who plan ahead tend to emerge from college just a little earlier, and they spend less on schooling as a result. This kind of planning should begin during the freshman year of college, and here’s how to make it happen.
College students have three sets of requirements to master while they’re in school. One set is dictated by the college or university, and it contains all of the classes administrators think students should master before they leave the higher education environment behind them. These “core” classes are easy enough to ignore, but they’re a vital part of the education experience. Next, students have a set of classes that are dictated by the type of degree they’re going to obtain. A science degree, for example, comes with a requirement for science classes, while an arts degree might require language and communication courses. Finally, students are required to complete courses specific to the majors they choose.
This is a great deal of coursework to cover, and the way the school is structured makes a difference, in terms of planning. Some schools work on a term system, in which students have three or four different time periods in which to check off their required classes. The National Center for Education Statistics suggests that only about 8 percent of public institutions follow this model. The rest use semesters, in which there are only two or three different time periods for students.
Courses in the semester system are more in-depth, so students earn a few more points (or “credits”) for completing them, but it can sometimes be slightly more difficult for students to check off all of their requirements when they have one or two fewer time periods open to them.
All of this can be a little confusing, particularly for students who have no idea how to plan a class load, but there are experts that can help. Academic advisors, employed by the school, can meet with students regularly and help them to develop a comprehensive plan they can follow in order to get all of their coursework completed in a timely manner. Meeting with these experts is often included in a student’s tuition bill, so there are no extra fees to pay, but a report from The New York Times suggests that 1 student in 10 never meets with an expert like this. It’s likely that students like this don’t graduate on time, simply because they don’t have a comprehensive plan to work with.
While all students should meet with an advisor before choosing courses, there are some classes that are reasonable for all first-term students to consider. Typically, these courses begin with the words:
These are courses that are designed to help students grasp the basic concepts involved with a particular field of study. These also tend to be the courses students must complete as part of their core requirements for school. Loading up on these types of classes can help students to stay on course to graduate, while helping them to adjust to life as a student.
In addition to basic, core classes, students should pick and choose a few classes that seem interesting or novel. Core classes can sometimes be a little less than inspiring, and a day filled with boring work could tempt students to goof off or leave school altogether. Studies suggest that about half of all college enrollees drop out, so it’s vital for students to do whatever they need to in order to stay motivated and enrolled. Picking a fun class here and there could help.
Students who didn’t feel challenged in high school might find hard, advanced classes intriguing, and for them, these classes might even seem fun. However, it’s not always a good idea for students new to college to experiment with classes that are challenging or difficult. After all, college classes are already much more challenging than the courses a student might take in high school. For example, the Chicago Tribune profiled a student who took advanced courses in high school, who had a freshman GPA of only 2.7. Even advanced students need time to adjust, and they shouldn’t push the difficulty level too far as a result.
If classes get too difficult, students can tap into a variety of resources for assistance, including tutors, writing laboratories and study groups. But students who choose wisely may not find that they need this assistance, as they’re not choosing classes that could be considered too difficult or too overwhelming.
While students have a great deal of data to parse concerning what classes to take, they also need to determine just how many classes they should take at one time. It’s a difficult decision, and there are a number of different factors to consider.
Some schools provide students with the option of taking a specific number of classes at one set fee each term or semester. It might make financial sense to take as many classes as possible, bumping right up against that limit, as it allows students to take advantage of their tuition and keep their overall college bill low. But experts suggest that students new to college life should keep their course loads relatively light. CollegeBoard, for example, recommends that students take only four to six classes each semester.
A light schedule isn’t necessarily an easy one, as most college courses require students to complete a number of activities outside of class, including:
- Pulling together speeches and presentations
- Writing papers
- Studying the reading materials
- Preparing for tests
While a student might only spend a few hours a week in the classroom, all of these activities can take up a huge amount of time when the student isn’t in class. In fact, these sorts of tasks could consume much of a student’s waking hours.
Even so, students also have other responsibilities to attend to. They have to sleep, eat and do laundry, for example, and they might have jobs to participate in. Some students have family members to care for, or pets that need attention. Students might also have volunteer activities that consume a bit of time. It’s also important for students to pay attention to their social lives, so they’ll stay connected and happy as they study.
In time, most college students develop a system that allows them to juggle all of the various demands that are placed on their time. But college freshman may have a little experimenting to do before they find the right mix of social, personal and academic activities. Keeping the course load light allows for that kind of testing.
Students find out about the courses they can take by referencing a printed course catalog or perusing their options online. It’s a bit like shopping, and it can be incredibly fun, but unfortunately, it’s somewhat common for students to hit unexpected obstacles when they’re choosing their classes. For example, a study in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that one community college student in five had a difficult time getting into a needed course in the fall of 2010. There may have been too many students enrolled at one time, or perhaps there weren’t enough teachers. Either way, these students planned for a course and discovered that there was no room for them.
There are some things students can do when this happens. For example, in most cases, students can drop the courses that don’t work for them within a few weeks of the start of classes. This means that some slots open up down the line, when there was no room at the start of the class. Students can plan for this by asking to be placed on a “wait list” for the course. When a spot opens up, these students will be first in line.
Students can also meet with the instructor of that full class and ask for some special consideration. A teacher might be willing to add just one more student if that student comes to the meeting with all of the proper documentation and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get added to that class. Academic advisors can help with this process.
In addition to planning coursework and pulling together a comprehensive checklist for school, students need to determine how they’ll pay for the courses they plan to take. We can help. At SimpleTuition, we’ve compiled a number of resources that can help students. You can browse our “Scholarship Center” to find out more about free forms of money that can help you to pay for school, or you can look through our “Find a Student Loan” page to see details about private loans that can help you to cover your bills. We also have a number of articles about how student education financing works. Please browse our site to find out more.