Here is an amended and edited note I sent to my niece, Christina, as she was preparing to go off to college this week and I thought it might be of interest to students beginning their college career this semester. It’s a simple list of do’s and don’ts about courses to take and courses to avoid.
1. Don't take a course because your friend is taking it. In fact, going into a course with a friend may prevent you from making new friends. More important, that's not a good reason to spend 45 hours in class, 90 hours of homework, and a few thousand $.
2. Don't take a course just because it's reported to be an easy A or because there's little homework. While courses like this may raise your GPA, they really won't help you in life.
3. Don't take a course because the teacher seems nice. Nice and competent are two different things and while it's nice to have a nice teacher, it's a lot less important than having a competent one.
4. If you have the opportunity--and you may not in your first year or two—take a look at the syllabi for the courses you’re interested in. Many of these are readily available on the Web; just search for the course title and the instructor’s name or perhaps go through the college website. Reviewing the syllabus will give you an idea of the topics covered in the course and what will be expected of you.
5. Take courses that will educate you--that is, make you a well rounded intelligent individual--this doesn't mean that you're not one already, only that everyone can improve or so we educators assume. Take courses (at least introductory ones)in the fine arts, in art and music and theatre. Take a philosophy course or two--it will show you how the great thinkers thought. Take a course or two in economics (even if it may seem dry and uninteresting to you now). Take a course in anthropology; it will help you become less ethnocentric (my assumption is that we're all ethnocentric to some degree and our task is to try to reduce it and not let it blind us to the tremendous values to be derived from other cultures). Anthropology will help you see other cultures from other perspectives and in the process your own culture with a somewhat different lens. And last take communication courses--English and Speech Communication. Learn to write and speak as effectively as you possibly can. If you just glance at the want ads in the Sunday paper, you'll see that "communication skills" is almost always mentioned, regardless of the type of job. And if you read the first chapter of just about any textbook in communication, you’ll find additional evidence on the importance of communication skills.
6. Don't avoid courses because you may not do well in them. Although you need to keep up a good GPA, you also need to learn what you don't already know--after all, that's the purpose of college--and that often entails courses that you may not do well in. Many schools have systems in place which encourage students to take courses outside their area of competence without damaging their GPA, such as Pass-Fail options. Take advantage of them.
7. Don't worry about locking yourself into a major so early. Just explore, don't commit. You'll always have the opportunity to concentrate in your area of specialization. Devote yourself now to exploring the world of ideas and there's no better place to do that than college.
8. Work hard in the courses even when you don't have to. Remember, what you do in these courses is going to become part of who you are and who you become. You can't do mediocre work and expect to become excellent; you can only become excellent by acting excellently :-)
9. Approach your courses positively, with the idea that you're going to enjoy them and learn a lot from them. Learning can and should be fun. Too often, the bad reputation of a course or perhaps simply because it's required, gives students a negative attitude toward the course and perhaps the subject matter. This only makes learning more difficult.
10. Use your course work to continue keeping up with technology. For example, if you're taking public speaking, learn PowerPoint in and out and make use of it (even if you don’t have to). If possible, take a few computer science courses. And if your coursework doesn't help you keep up with technology, seek out the information and skills elsewhere on campus. It’s essential that you become comfortable with and proficient in the newest technologies; your competence here (as with communication) will prove useful throughout your career, regardless of what that career turns out to be.