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Editor’s note on what the Real College Checklist series is: Welcome to The Prospect’s latest series to help you stop being a confused motherfudger staring blankly at all those acceptance letters. Yeah, did you seriously think you wouldn’t get in anywhere? Really?

Well, now you’ve dug yourself into a hole: too many colleges to choose from, and a lot of them are pretty similar. They’re all in large towns or have the same number of people in the student body or all have a goat as their mascot. How do you sift through them all and pick a college?

Never fear, the Real College Checklist is here to help you look at the stuff that actually matters in college. No more of this “oh, factor into your decision how many books the library has!” crap. We know you want the juicy stuff.

There’s something to be said about the amount of freedom college gives you to explore your academic interests. There are dozens of departments and hundreds (if not thousands) of different courses for you to take. You can expand your horizons by taking every intro class in the school if you’d like, or maybe you’d rather stick closer to your major. However, with all that variety comes a double-edged sword. Yes you can take things you want to take, but you’re also going to have a boat load of required classes. When you’re looking at a school, make sure to look at the classes you’ll have to take. This applies both to the general education classes and your major classes.

General Education classes are basically the high school part of college. It’s going to be a checklist of topics you need to cover. So a typical curriculum might say you have to take math, science, foreign language, history, social science, arts, philosophy, and literature. However, that list isn’t the full story. Make sure to look in depth into the requirements and how to fulfill them. Do you need to take one science? Two sciences? Two sciences with a lab? Can you cover major requirements with your general education classes? Can you double them up or do you need to take one class for each requirement? Can you pass/fail a general education class, or do you need to take it for a grade? See what types of classes you can take for each of the requirements.

I know my school has a philosophy/religion requirement, and yet, despite the fact I’m a religious studies minor, I wasn’t able to fill that general education requirement with any religion classes that appealed to me. However, the history requirement (which is three classes) had tons of great classes that I was excited to take. Just because a school doesn’t technically have general education requirements (this is often called an “open curriculum”), that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be classes you’re expected to take. Don’t take “open curriculum” at face value; make sure to ask a current student what that actually looks like.

Many (but not all) schools will waive a foreign language requirement if a student can pass a competency test or has taken four years of foreign language in high school. Some schools will take AP/IB/Dual Enrollment credit for general education classes, but many will not. It would be beneficial to find out if testing out of a requirement is possible or if a school will accept outside credit for these requirements, as this can save time and money. So let’s say you hate math. You don’t want to take a college level math class, so you should check out if your AP class will waive you out of it or if the school requires it at all. But there’s one last place you probably forgot to check. When you’re thinking about a school, make sure to check out what classes are required for the major.

Let’s say you’re the aforementioned math-hating student, and you decide you’re going to major in sociology or political science. Then, when you arrive at school, you find out you need to take several statistics and research classes that are math-intensive. That’s obviously a problem, but you didn’t look up the information before you committed to the school. Whoops.

This is the same for those of you who don’t love writing. Most majors will have a writing requirement, and many will require a thesis as well. If you’re going to major in psychology you’ll want to see how much of the major is biological based vs. social based. If you’re an art history major you’re going to want to see how much art you’re studying, and if there’s a studio or drawing requirement. Many majors are going to require research, hands on learning, theory, history, and a variety of things you aren’t going to necessarily be thrilled to take. These are things you probably won’t think to look at, but they matter. You’re going to spend a lot of time on your major classes, so make sure they’re things you’re excited to take.

College is a time to expand your horizons and learn skills you’ll use in your life, but it’s also a time to explore the things you’re interested in. So find out what you’re in for before you enroll.

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the author

Jillian is better known by her pseudonym “CollegeApp Chick", which is half college application blog and half small private college advising business. She’s currently studying Psychology and Religious Studies at a small public school south of the Mason Dixon line. When not advising, studying, or blogging Jillian is an active member of the Shakespeare theatre club, sandbox improv, women’s chorus, and is an officer in a social sorority. She likes to talk, a lot. Most importantly, Jillian wears dresses more than 250 days a year. For more of Jillian’s tips, find her at her website or her Tumblr.

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