At some schools, the course catalog looks like a phone book. You may be thinking “information overload!” as your eyes glaze over and you begin to feel a little panicky.
If the sheer volume of possibilities is more than you can handle all at once, shut the catalog. Sit down somewhere and think about a few key things, including the following:
o The basic, common denominator list of courses that you must complete to graduate. Even if you don't know what your major is going to be, there are some classes that nearly everybody ends up taking. You'll have to take them sometime, so you might as well get started. Our advice is to get them out of the way ASAP, so you can take fun stuff your senior year–or courses that enhance your major or your employment potential.
o Your major. What's it going to be? Do you have any clues yet? This is a very big decision, and you don't have to figure it out today, this semester, or even this year. But start thinking about it.
o In this quest for a major, the course catalog is your friend. You may decide to look for classes that are prerequisites for important courses you'll want to take later. (A prerequisite means that you must have completed a certain class, such as Economics 100, before you can move ahead to related classes–Economics 200 and beyond. Call it reaching point A before you can get past point B.)
o Particularly good classes to take. Every school has them–professors whose courses are Standing Room Only. Classes you'll look back on as thought-provoking high points of your academic life. Get the scoop from upperclass students.
o Particularly bad classes to avoid like the plague. Now's as good a time as any to find out which professors are dynamic lecturers, which are drones, and which are psychos. Jed, a University of Kentucky student and a “definitely nonscientific” guy, decided to get his much-dreaded biology requirement out of the way his freshman year–much like a patient in a doctor's office who shuts his eyes and holds his breath until the shot's over. He picked an easy-sounding course from the catalog, “Biology for Nonmajors.” What a surprise he had in store for him! “First of all, it was a Tuesday-Thursday class that met at night, 7:00-8:30, and I could tell right away that it was going to be a struggle just to stay alert. Then this professor came in, and he had a real attitude. He said, 'I don't know why biology for nonmajors should be any different from biology for majors.' The next thing I knew, we were looking at slides of tertiary-level DNA, whatever that is! I freaked.” The next day, he dropped the class like a hot potato. (He later found one much more to his liking, called “Human Ecology.”)
o Classes that will expand your mental horizons. Live it up. Again, get to know the course catalog. Pore over it; read about everything that intrigues you even a little. Look for courses in subjects you never studied in high school. For example, here's your chance to learn something about art and architecture, even if you can't foresee any use for this knowledge in later life. Learn to play a musical instrument or ride a horse, just because you've always wanted to.
What's the point of learning things you can't use to make money or further your career? A lot of goal-oriented, job-focused people want to know the answer to this question.
Let's answer it by looking at an imaginary student, Joe Tunnelvision. He wants to be a doctor; naturally, he wants to get into a good medical school, and he's well on his way. In high school, every elective course he took was in science–he even made up his own independent-study anatomy class after he had exhausted the school's scientific course repertoire.
Now, as a freshman and a molecular biology major, he doesn't want to “waste his time” on anything that won't help him reach his goal. Therefore, he has no time for art, music, languages, or literature beyond the minimal requirements. (Joe, a cynic, only signed up for intramural soccer because he knows he's supposed to appear “well rounded” when he applies to medical schools. He also did some volunteer work for the same reason–to carve another notch on the old resume. Joe's too narrowly focused to comprehend the greater benefits of those extracurricular activities. Which is his loss.)
Joe can't see four years down the road, but we can. He gets accepted at medical school, all right, but not by one of his top three choices. Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Stanford all turn him down, and Joe can't figure out why. It turns out that it's because of his big void in the humanities. His academic career was so heavily tilted toward science that medical school admissions officers felt he didn't have enough depth–compassion, a sense of humor, and a breadth of understanding–to become a great doctor.
There probably won't be a formal professor information service such as the one at the University of South Carolina at your school, but you can bet that there's plenty of helpful word-of-mouth information floating around out there–all you have to do is find it by asking around. If the professor in question teaches English, for example, find an English major. If this person can't give you a first-hand evaluation of the teacher, maybe he or she can at least direct you to other English majors who can.
A word of warning: Take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Are you talking to an airhead who resents having to crack a book? Or some angry person who didn't get the grade he thought he deserved and therefore has an ax to grind? If so, you may not be getting the most objective picture of the professor or the course.
It's true, forewarned is forearmed. You may, however, decide not to take somebody else's word for it. Maybe, you'll want to enroll in the course despite what someone says because it sounds interesting. To which we say: Go for it!
Don't be afraid of hard work or hard classes. If you're looking to coast through school, you're going to miss out on some demanding but very rewarding course experiences.