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On Deciding Your Major

If you are lucky enough to know what you want you want to major in, we applaud you. The rest of us are not quite as fortunate. However, here is an important bit of information you should know that no one ever bothered to tell you when discussing your college career: It’s okay not to know what you want to do for the rest of your life.

In fact, it may surprise you to find out how good of company you are in by not knowing. According to the Northwest Education Loan Association (NELA), two-thirds of college freshman begin college without a chosen major. Even then, around sixty percent of students change their major at least once. Ohio University claims that on average students change their major three times.

Take a deep breath. Choosing a major is not an easy feat. So here are a few pointers that might help you along the way to deciding which major is right for you:

Explore your options. Most colleges offer a career exploration class that focuses on helping you decide what major you would excel in. It’s great for freshman, but upperclassmen are not out-of-place in these courses.

Workshop it Out. Universities and colleges also hold workshops for career placement. These are generally free for current students and can be a great way of getting a feel for what path you should take.

Take a Test. There are loads of websites and quizzes geared towards helping you decide what career paths you may enjoy. These are great because they use personality questions to determine like-minded career choices and are free. Here are a few to sample: CareeerPath and CareerTest.

Audit a Class (or Two). Auditing a few classes that deal with your major. Auditing is when you sit in for a class with professor approval without getting credit for the class. It gives you a taste of what you will be doing in the future. It’s also a great way to network and meet folks who will be going into similar fields before you graduate.

Work for It. Internships you will be working hands on with real companies doing real work. While a lot of internships require a student to be at a junior or senior level, you can find plenty of companies that will accept younger students. Not all internships are paid, but the experience and padding of your future resume will be well worth putting in some unpaid time.

Do what you love. The money will follow. This advice might be the hardest of all to swallow, but it is important. No one wants to work forty or more hours a week doing something they hate, so don’t compromise now. Invest your education into something that interests or inspires you even if you don’t think you can get that weekend vacation house in the Hamptons from it. It will pay off in the long run.

On The Importance of Knowing Your Secretaries

Students often forget that their department or major has secretaries and that these secretaries are paid to help them. Many fellow students I know dash right past the front desk in the Psychology building to hunt down a professor they have had when they have a general departmental question and forget the smiling men and women who are sitting there ready to give an answer. I’m not saying it’s bad to talk to a professor when you have a question that could just as easily be answered by a secretary, in fact building a personal relationship with a faculty member helps a lot and may be a topic I will write on later, but professors are busy. Unless he or she is your academic advisor, you should consider just going to talk to your department’s secretaries, and here’s why:

1. If you were going to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant known locally for its great Mexican food for the first time, you would do well to spot someone who looks like a regular and ask them what they think the best dish on the menu is. Secretaries are these regulars and when you first arrive at a new school as a freshman or a transfer, you’re the newbie who doesn’t know what to order. Secretaries exist to help you figure these things out and they have their finger on the pulse of your department. They know the class schedule like the back of their hand and they probably know the class schedule for the upcoming semester before you do (and possibly even before some of the professors do). If you have questions about the mechanics of finishing your major on time, certainly talk to your academic advisor but check with the secretaries too. There may be a class offered in the upcoming semester or over the summer that you don’t know about yet.

2. Secretaries are people persons—at least normally, exceptions do exist and that’s too bad—unlike some of your professors or, god forbid, your academic advisor. Remember, professors are paid first and foremost to teach classes and do research and some may have spent too long reading broken-spine editions of Kierkegaard, peering through microscopes, or roughing it in Papua New Guinea cataloguing new language groups to remember how to speak one-on-one with a student. They are experts in their given field but sometimes can also get lost in them. Secretaries are used to organizing things and presenting them to inquisitive first-years. They have their feet on the ground. Go to them first.

3. Professors can be notoriously hard to catch in their officers or when they have free time. Often times you need to first set up an appointment to meet with them anyways. Secretaries, on the other hand, are always around. Professors might only show up on campus to teach a night class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but secretaries are usually always around nine-to-five, Monday through Friday. In fact, I’ve noticed that secretaries are one of the only groups that maintain normal business hours. The surest and easiest way to get a question answered in person is to go talk to a secretary. No appointment necessary.

4. Secretaries have candy. I’m not joking with this one, but you may not see my point yet so keep reading. I’ve noticed that most secretaries have a bowl of mint candy or chocolate kisses on their desks and combine that with the smiles they usually wear and the general air of approachability they exude and I have to ask: why wouldn’t you want to go talk to a secretary if you have a question? Professors can be scary sometimes, especially if they’re one of those overly bookish types that I mentioned earlier or if you are flunking out of one of their classes. Maybe you just feel like you have a dumb question. Secretaries are nice people (again, usually) so go up to their desk, grab yourself a mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and ask away. No question is too dumb. Maybe you don’t get your question answered, but hey, free candy.

5. If you take advantage of talking to your department’s secretaries whenever you can, even just to say “hi” now and then, you could begin to feel like a regular (if we continue with the hole-in-the-wall restaurant metaphor). This is a bit easier at a smaller school or in a smaller major when they are going to have an easier time remembering your name, but the advantages might be greater if you go to a larger school or are in a larger major. All of a sudden you become a familiar face around your department’s office. Don’t become a loiterer, but be a regular. Professors and deans—who often will have their offices in the same vicinity as the secretaries—will bump into you more and you can remind them who you are and what classes you had with them as you pass by. With any luck you could end up exchanging greetings with them when you see each other. This semi-personal contact is good, and feeling like a natural part of your department is even better—especially at a big school. This keeps you from getting lost in the crowd, which is very helpful for getting on the top of waiting lists for classes, finding out about internships or research assistant positions as soon as possible, or getting letters of reference from professors who actually know you as more than just a name on a class roster.

On Organization

If you ever plan on graduating in a timely manner, you’ll have to be organized. Luckily for you, I have my fair share of time-tested organizational tips that will make you a more efficient student and help you graduate on time.

Growing up, my mom often had a daily planner to keep all her appointments and events in one place and boy did I think that was nerdy. I couldn’t have been more surprised my freshman year when I was given a free one in an orientation goodie bag and decided to fill it up with the information in my syllabi; like due dates of assignments, tests, quizzes and papers. It wasn’t long until I found myself going back to it regularly to check things off that I had finished and to make sure I was on-track in each class. I kid you not, getting — and properly utilizing — a daily planner will greatly increase your likelihood of passing classes and graduating on time.

On almost the same level as daily planners, accordion file folders are well worth the few bucks you’ll spend on them, considering the amount of time and frustration they’ll save you later in the semester. These things are pretty self-explanatory, it’s a binder that folds out like an accordion to let you easily store papers from multiple classes into their own slots so they don’t get mixed together. They also come with little tags you can put class names on to be better organized. Much like an accordion, it folds back up nicely and conveniently so you can take all your papers to campus while keeping them neatly organized.

Finally, and what I think should be the base of your organizational system to success(™ coming soon), is the arrangement of your main study area. It’s important to have a desk dedicated solely to your school work. Make sure it’s always mess free to avoid distraction, and in a place where you can completely drown out all other stimuli to focus on your work. Facing a wall is an easy way to get rid of visual distractions, but sometimes drowning out the noises of your house, apartment or dorm can be slightly more challenging. For that, I would plug my headphones into my laptop and go to Simply Noise, select a tone and volume I liked, and go to work. With this noise generator, I often found myself taking fewer breaks and feeling my thoughts flow more smoothly, ultimately finishing my papers faster than I would otherwise. I tried listening to my own music library, but quickly found myself jamming out to the music and not doing any work. Everybody sings alone in their cars, so sitting alone at a desk will probably yield the same result. Good luck.

On Registering for Classes

Registering for classes had to be my least favorite part of college. During the last month of the semester, when registration for the next term became available, worried students could only talk about the lack of seats in a needed class and how their registration time was inconvenient. For freshmen and sophomores, it is typically the worst. Since they’re farthest away from graduation, they typically get the scraps after the upper class-men have taken all the better classes; but that’s just the way it goes, it gets easier.

If you’re new to registering for classes; don’t worry, there are a couple of ways in which you can optimize your schedule for your benefit and make the whole process a little easier.

A website that I’m sure is mentioned by students on every campus, is Rate My Professors. Here students rate professors from easy to difficult, comment on the best or worst classes of theirs, as well as rate their attractiveness. Though I have used this site before, I often found that students would live by it and not enroll in a class they needed because of information they found. I figured that if I went to classes and did my work, it wouldn’t really matter what professor it was and it worked just fine for me.

Another thing to consider is what time you should schedule your classes. I’ve taken classes that started at seven in the morning, and some that got out around 10 at night; it all depends on what works for you. For most of my semesters, starting from my very first, I decided to schedule my classes for almost every day and during the time I was used to attending school. I had just graduated high school a few months earlier, and figured that it would make for an easy transition to have classes from 8 or 9 a.m. until just before three o’clock. This was great for me, because when I got out, I was done for the day and didn’t have to sit around on campus and do nothing, as many students do.

Also, you must think about your job (if you are lucky enough to have one) and make sure to schedule classes at times that don’t conflict with your job hours (or potential job hours). I would usually draw out a mock planner to see when my best times for class and work would be and go from there.

Now for my last bit of advice for this post, which will probably be told to you at orientation. Your first two years should be focused on GE (General Education), the easy classes that are required for all students. They’re easy and easy to get into, so it should make your first few registration days a little less stressful.