I declared my major in the fall of my freshman year. For such a monumental event, the process was surprisingly bureaucratic: I ran around campus collecting signatures on a little white form attached to three carbon copies in blue, pink, and yellow. As a symbol of my separation from the rest of the university, they let me keep the yellow one.
It’s a bittersweet memory. I’m excited to specialize in my favorite subject, but it’s sad to think that I can only do this because I’m giving up a lot of other subjects. It’s weird to think that I might never take another English class, another chemistry class, another music class. I can try my best to stay well rounded, but I’ll always miss something.
Like most colleges, my university tries to make up for this by requiring a bunch of classes under the umbrella of general education. If you’ve never heard this term, the basic idea is that your college will make you take classes outside your major so that you’ll graduate with a broad, coherent education. I’m thankful for these classes because they allow me to pursue my major and still learn some concepts from other fields. In this article, I’d like to give you five pieces of advice for making the most of your own requirements.
Consider your school’s philosophy.
My first point is a little geeky, but a lot of students have mental baggage when it comes to this topic. They grumble about “useless classes” and secretly believe that general education is nothing more than a grand conspiracy to take their money and torture their minds. Unfortunately, this kind of cynicism can prevent you from taking full advantage of you requirements. Before you choose any classes, it’s important to cultivate the right mindset about them. If you considered academic fit during your college search, this shouldn’t be too hard. Your school has a guiding principle behind its curriculum, and you should try to understand this principle and “buy into it” as much as possible.
Let’s look at some examples. The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology expresses the following goal for their general-education program: “Within the context of a liberal education, the Humanities and Social Science (HSS) curriculum fosters in our students the desire and ability to think critically, communicate effectively, succeed in a global context, and exhibit ethical and responsible leadership.”
On the other hand, Bard College has the following perspective: “The undergraduate curriculum creates a flexible system of courses that gives coherence, breadth, and depth to the four years of study and helps students become knowledgeable across academic boundaries and able to think critically within a discipline or mode of thought.”
If you understand the difference between these two schools, you can understand why their goals are different. Bard is a liberal arts college, whereas Rose-Hulman is a small engineering school. Their quotes are similar, but I can tell that Bard has a theoretical, inward-looking focus to their program while Rose-Hulman emphasizes the possibility of creating leaders who will use their technical skills to make changes in society.
Consider your major.
There are two ways to interpret this advice: you can choose your general-education classes so that you end up with knowledge in several disparate fields, or you can choose them so that they relate to your major as much as possible. Logistically, the first approach is a good way to create balance in your schedule each semester. Career-wise, it can help you keep your options open even when you’re past the point where you need to declare a major.
The second approach might allow you to take classes that count toward your major as well as your general-education requirements. This often happens when a course is “cross-listed,” or assigned to more than one department. For example, my university offers a Computational Neuroscience class through the math and cognitive science departments. I can use it as a technical elective in my major because it’s a MATH class, and I can use it to fulfill my social-science requirement because it’s a COGS class.
Don’t take the same classes as everyone else.
Many students fulfill their general-education requirements with large, popular introductory classes even though they would prefer the environment of smaller discussion-based classes. Some students do this because the introductory classes are prerequisites for other classes in the department, and others do it because they think it’s pedagogically better to start with a broad survey course rather than something more targeted. My impression, however, is that many students choose lower-level classes simply because they haven’t done enough research to realize that other classes might suit them better. For example, a physics major might prefer to fulfill her humanities requirement with a 300-level Philosophy of Science class rather than a 100-level Introduction to Philosophy class.
Don’t be afraid of a challenge.
College classes can be worthwhile without being difficult, but you shouldn’t specifically seek out “easy As.” If you choose a suitable number of classes that fit your goals and interests, your schedule shouldn’t present any insurmountable difficulties. On that note, don’t worry too much about the “level” of your classes. Course numbers are landmarks to guide you, not barriers to stand in your way. If you have the prerequisites for a class, you should go ahead and take it! Freshmen can take 300-level classes, and juniors can take 100-level classes, with no problems at all. If you’re in the latter situation, you just need to keep in mind that your degree probably requires a certain number of classes above the 300 level. Most universities will also allow you to take graduate classes as an undergraduate.
You might be inclined to take most of your general-education classes during your first few semesters on campus. This approach will allow you to explore new fields without delaying your graduation, which means it’s a good idea if you’re undecided about your major. (If you’re starting at a community college, you won’t even be able to take upper-level classes until you transfer to a four-year school.) At the same time, you shouldn’t let anyone—even your adviser—give you the impression that general education is pointless and you should take random classes to “get it out of the way.” If you choose your classes carefully, you’ll be better positioned to benefit from them.