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When you first start college, most of your classes are intended to teach you the fundamental concepts of a few subjects as well as to prepare you for the rest of your college career. At some point, though, you’ll need to take more advanced classes that build on the foundation you acquired in earlier classes. Most majors will allow you some freedom as you’re choosing and scheduling these classes, so I’ve written this article to help you move forward to higher-level classes.

Understanding Course Numbers

Every college numbers its classes differently, but you’ll generally find that more advanced classes are numbered higher and are likely to have more prerequisites. At my university, classes composed mostly of freshmen are numbered in the 100s. Sophomore classes are numbered in the 200s, and classes for juniors and seniors are numbered in the 300s. (Remedial classes are numbered lower than 100, and graduate classes are numbered higher than 400.) Of course, this doesn’t mean that sophomores can only take 200-level classes. Anyone can take classes at any level, although most majors require several 300-level classes.

When to Take Upper-Level Classes

This decision depends on your individual goals, so there aren’t as many rules as you might think. Technically, you will probably have the option of taking upper-level classes as soon as you start college. This is especially true if you got credit for AP exams or dual-enrollment classes you took in high school. If you’re interested in a class and you have the prerequisites, it’s reasonable to consider taking it even if it’s a high-level class outside your major.

It’s still important to be careful, since some classes have implicit prerequisites that aren’t listed as enrollment requirements. Last semester while planning my schedule, I went to a session of an art history class dealing with visual culture. I realized that I wasn’t prepared to take the class because it built on basic ideas that were foreign to me even though they were familiar to the other students. In order to be fully prepared, I should have taken the introductory art history class. If you’re not sure whether you’re ready for a particular class, it’s fine to email the department or professor and tell them about your background. They may be able to give you advice on what class to take next. You may also find it useful to talk to older students at your school who have been in similar situations.

Differences between Lower-Level and Upper-Level Classes

Upper-level classes are often thought to be harder than lower-level classes, but this isn’t universally true. They tend to be smaller and less standardized (unless your major is very popular, in which case it might take longer to reach the small classes). In many cases, I’ve found that assignments are more open-ended and professors are more open to students’ suggestions on the logistics of the class (when homework is collected, for example).

Many of my classes have featured take-home exams and presentations during finals week, rather than in-class exams. There are still plenty of in-class exams, of course, but I never see multiple-choice questions like I did in a few of my introductory classes. I do think that college has gotten harder as I’ve gotten older, and it’s mostly because the material has become increasingly abstract and takes longer to understand. When you have more knowledge, it’s easier for professors to give you complicated problems that require you to synthesize all of it.

Most lower-level classes have outside objectives beyond just teaching material. These goals may include improving writing skills or increasing quantitative literacy. In upper-level classes, professors assume you have these skills so that they can focus more exclusively on their content. This means you probably won’t be required to take notes or attend class (unless it’s part of your grade in a discussion-based seminar), so it’s important to be self-motivated and able to manage your time.

Some departments have special classes to help you transition to upper-level work. For example, my school has a class called Introduction to Advanced Mathematics, which is commonly taken by math majors in their sophomore year. Lower-level classes like calculus and differential equations tend to focus on computation and learning particular methods for solving numerical problems. Upper-level classes will generally focus more on proofs of general theorems. Writing is surprisingly important in these classes, because it’s necessary to be clear and precise when you’re writing a proof.

On the humanities side, Rachel Schaub says, “I’m an English literature and professional writing double major, and I’m taking more of my upper-level classes this year. I’ve found that although professors may not state it outright, they usually have higher expectations for students in upper-level classes. Most of my English classes are graded primarily on essays and research papers, and there is a higher level of writing expected in upper-level classes. As for professional writing classes, most of the classes in this major build on each other. Students who are in upper-level classes are expected to know and use information from their introductory classes, which is why intro classes are usually prerequisites for upper-level classes.”

Graduate Classes

You don’t need them to get into a top graduate school, but some students find that graduate classes refine their understanding of their subject and help them stand out. If you attend a university, you’ll probably be allowed to take a few graduate classes, although some schools have more restrictions than others. For example, I took dual-enrollment classes at a university that only allows undergraduates to take one graduate class per semester. If you attend a liberal arts college that doesn’t offer graduate classes, you may have the option of cross-registering at a nearby university.

Undergraduates may take graduate classes as part of a special program that allows them to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in four or five years. Graduate classes are very similar to upper-level classes in that you’re probably ready to take them if you have the prerequisites. You can also ask around and find out how common it is for undergraduates to take graduate classes at your school.

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