Freshman Year: Which College Courses Should You Take?

There are many ways to select a set of courses for your first year as a college student. Some universities give out a ‘suggested list of courses’, others simply give three or four options that freshman can choose from (READ: “5 Things to do Before You Go Away to College“). Others still email a link to incoming students that leads to an online book of what seems like hundreds if not thousands of courses with codes like ‘Math 102’ and ‘Social Science 53D’. Some universities will walk new students through each and every step while others want students to take their own initiative to ask for help. Some simply don’t have the time to sit down with every student individually. So where does that leave you? Regardless of where or what you are studying, there are a few universal rules to the freshman year courses (start you college career off with one of our college educated Irvine Tutors).


1. Read the course guide

Many students do not read the course guide because of the sheer volume of pages. This is not a good idea. The first two years of college require all students, regardless of major field of study, to take similar courses. Freshman English, for example will be mandatory for all students regardless of the fact that they are going to be majoring in engineering or dance. Read through the table of contents and highlight the sections that are pertinent for both your field of study and your current year. Often times, students take a class that they are admitted into but later find out that they were not required to take the course and that it will count as an ‘elective’. It is well worth it to read through the freshman welcome packet as well as the course guide.

2. Look for number patterns

Look for basic number patterns that can help you decide what courses to take. For example, Bio 1A will certainly come before Bio 1B. You must take prerequisite classes first. The university will not admit you into Bio 1B until you have successfully completed Bio 1A. Higher level classes and classes that are for specific fields of study may be more confusing. Does Psych 208 come before Psych 386? Probably not. If you read the course description, you will likely find that Psych 208 is ‘child psychology’ and Psych 386 is ‘criminal psychology’ and are not related. Make sure that you get your prerequisites out of the way or you may risk spending an extra year as a full time student.

Another thing to watch out for is when the courses are offered. If you forgot to sign up for Bio 1A in the fall term- thinking that you could take it in the spring- you may later find out that it is only offered in the fall, which means that you won’t be finished with freshman Bio until sophomore year.

3. Sign up within your window

When I was a student, my window to sign up started at 6 AM. I was not a morning person so it was certainly tempting to sign up for classes at 10 AM. That temptation can lead to an extra year of college or a very undesirable course schedule. If the system opens at 6 AM, get ready to log in a 5:50 AM, sign up for your classes and then go back to sleep. Within one hour of the opening window, most of the freshman and sophomore classes are closed. Alternatively, if your opening window starts at 10 PM (strange but sometimes true) then be at home and sitting at your computer by 9:50 PM.

4. Have a backup plan

I remember looking through the course guide and picking out all of the classes that I needed and I felt great about picking a schedule that worked around my part time job and other commitments. Of course, when I went in to sign up, my only mandatory class was full and I had to take it later in the day (READ: “College Textbooks: The Struggle is Real“). That meant that my entire schedule had to be changed around and there were several frantic moments trying to rearrange the entire system. The next semester I had a plan A, B and C. I suggest that you do the same. Arrange your elective classes around those all important required courses and prerequisites. Pick out three or four elective classes that you are interested in and go to the next one on the list if the first one is filled.


Also, if a full load is four classes, consider signing up for five with the intention of dropping one class. (If you do this within the first week, and only the first week, there are no negative repercussions.) The reality is that you must take required classes but elective classes within your major and lower division elective classes are optional to some extent. I recall going to the first day of Multi Cultural English Literature only to find out that I had already read many of the books on the syllabus. Next, I went to Modern English Literature and the professor had a great sense of humor and the novels seemed really interesting. Knowing that I would be unmotivated to reread books from the previous year, I dropped the first class. Having a backup plan can make the rest of the term much easier.

5. Be realistic and don’t sign up for extra courses that you can’t handle

Even though signing up for an extra course or two with the intention of dropping one to suit your schedule and interests can be a good thing, signing up for six classes when four is a full course load, is definitely not a good idea. Some students will do this in their senior year in order to graduate on time (assuming the university allows it) but by that time they have learned college level study habits, can manage their time and balance other activities with academics. The first year of university is not a good time to be overly ambitious. Students are much better off taking a basic full load of classes and then taking one class over the summer to get caught up or to get ahead.

Many students who were very successful in high school find that they end up getting multiple C grades in their first year of university. Be realistic. It’s better to get three As and one B and then spend a few hours in class over the summer than to end up with five C grades and a 2.0 GPA in your freshman year.

6. Take at least one course that you are interested in

During my freshman year I took an anthropology course. I had no plans to become an anthropology major or to have a career as an anthropologist but I thought it sounded interesting. I next term I took ceramic pottery, I am a terrible potter but I thought it would help me sit down and hit the books in my mandatory courses if I could play around with clay on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. These cases counted as elective units and helped me get closer to graduation but they also helped me hold my interest in college in general and I met a lot of interesting new people to study with. If you have always been fascinated by Socrates but are majoring in pre-med, take that freshman philosophy class and enjoy the art of thinking. If you love to paint but want to be an English teacher, take the painting class and have fun being creative. College should broaden your horizons as well as prepare you for a career.

7. Take at least one course in your major

Countless students were dead set on a particular field of study only to change their mind several times before choosing a major in their junior year. This is totally normal. I recommend taking at least one course in your intended major during your first year. If you are thinking about being a chemist, take Chem 101. If you love the class, then you are one step closer to graduation. If it turns out that chemistry is not for you then it is much better to know that now while you still have plenty of time to explore other majors.

8. Take at least two mandatory courses

Take at least two required courses in your first term. For math you will probably be able to choose between Algebra and statistics. Unless you are a math major take the one that will be easiest for you. Ask if the course is graded on a curve. (If it is, look around to see how many math majors are in the class.) English composition is required for all students and so you likely won’t have a choice of classes.

Most majors have a lower division requirement, which you will need to take in your freshman or sophomore year. For you science credit you will likely get to choose between biology, chemistry, anthropology, geology etc… Get two of these mandatory classes out of the way in your first term.

9. Ask for help

Don’t try to do it all on your own. Even if you had it totally together in high school, remember that university life is very different. Most students that I talk to greatly prefer college to high school once they get past that first term transition. The first term is difficult for everyone if only because everything is new. Schedule a meeting with the academic counselor straight away even if you don’t think that you need to. Ask older students which counselor is really helpful and try to schedule his or her time. If you got a 5 on your AP Art History exam and you visit art museums on a regular basis, then you will probably do just fine in your art appreciation class. On the other hand, if grammar was the bane of your existence in high school and you struggled to pull a B level grade, then call up your Orange County private tutor (or find a tutor if you have moved across the country) and schedule a session early on. Your successful student colleagues are not walking through their four years of university study without help from someone, so neither should you.

A good freshman schedule will look something like this:

Semester system (Bio Major):

Fall                                                         Spring

Bio 101                                                  Bio 102

College  Algebra                                 Philosophy

Photography for non majors        Art History

English 1A                                            English 1B

Quarter System (Business Major):

Fall                       Winter                        Spring

Business 101    Business 102      Intro to Entrepreneurship

US History 1A   US History 1B    Ceramics for non major

English 1A         English 1B            English 1C

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