This article could be seen as a continuation of my earlier article on making the most of your general education requirements. It can be overwhelming to figure out your schedule, especially in your first few semesters when you’re likely to be undecided about your major. The good news is that most colleges design their programs so that you’ll have some open elective space to take enriching classes even if they don’t meet requirements.
This list is based on other articles I’ve seen, especially this Slate series about “the most worthwhile classes you can take in high school, college, and adult education.” It’s based on my own experience, as well as that of other TP contributors. I tried to choose a wide range of subjects, and I believe that all of them will give you a better understanding of the world even if some are more practical than others.
That’s the background, so here’s my list!
I’m a math major, and everyone told me to take computer science classes when I started college because a lot of math majors go into careers that require programming. At first, I was reluctant to take their advice because I had never programmed before and I didn’t like the idea of being surrounded by people who learned programming languages on their own in middle school. Even so, I ended up being thankful for my programming classes because I have a better understanding of how computers work and I understood MATLAB much more easily when I needed to learn it for my applied math classes. Even if you don’t plan to work in computing, learning programming is a great way to refine your logical thinking skills.
I took introductory microeconomics in the fall semester of my freshman year because it seemed to be the most mathematical class that would meet my social-science requirement. My class didn’t have any prerequisites and therefore didn’t require math beyond basic algebra, but I learned a lot of concepts that have given me a better understanding of how businesses work.
“I would recommend taking a class in the fine arts,” says Rachel Schaub. “I took Understanding Theatre and was able to go to plays and write reviews of them one semester, and I really loved it!”
Your university might require foreign language classes to graduate, and many graduate programs require foreign language knowledge (although the specific languages vary depending on your field). Even if you don’t have these requirements, the career benefits of foreign language study are well-known. “Professionals who know other languages are called on to travel and exchange information with people in other countries throughout their careers,” says the University of Louisville. More broadly, “[t]he ability to talk to others and gather information beyond the world of English will contribute to our community and to our country.”
Philosophy is versatile and can easily be applied to the interests you already have. According to Lehigh University, philosophy departments offer “courses for those who are interested in mathematics and logic or politics and societies or religion or knowledge or the human mind or the nature of reality.” Ultimately, though, Harvard University says that “[t]o study philosophy is to grapple with questions that have occupied humankind for millennia, in conversation with some of the greatest thinkers who have ever lived.”
The American Psychological Association reports that it’s the fourth most popular undergraduate major, and that’s probably because most people are innately fascinated by the human mind. Rachel says, “I took an introduction to psychology class my first semester, which actually made me become a Psychology minor!” According to the University of New South Wales, psychology classes will “help you understand yourself and other people by learning about aspects of human behaviour that will help you in daily life.” Since it’s a science field, psychology also “provides an excellent training in analytic thinking and scientific research methods that are applicable to a broad range of careers.”
Most high schools put their advanced students on tracks that lead to calculus, and statistics often falls by the wayside until college. (You need calculus to really understand statistics, but most colleges have algebra-based introductory classes.) Boston University says that statistics will give you “the necessary tools and conceptual foundations in quantitative reasoning to extract information intelligently from this sea of data.” In particular, statistics will help you refine your intuitions about probably and data by correcting misconceptions (see Wikipedia’s list of statistical paradoxes).
Women’s and gender studies
According to Wellesley College, these fields examine “how the lives of individual women and men are shaped by broader structural forces in both historical and contemporary contexts [such as] nation-building, globalization, economic developments, and the legal system.” “They’re really eye-opening, and you learn about a lot of really important issues from different perspectives,” says Debra Rowcroft, a Wellesley student who wrote an AP European History study guide for The Prospect. “Plus, these courses tend to have amazing class discussions (at least from smaller schools, like the one I attend).”