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Expert Advice: Planning Your College Class Schedule

Aug. 13, 2014
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Planning a class schedule is an exciting opportunity for students to take the lead in their educational experience, since they can choose their courses and when they want to take them. At first, putting together a class schedule might seem easy, since it should reflect a student’s personality and passions, but with graduation requirements and extracurricular commitments, it can become tricky and overwhelming. Students who participated in pre-college programs may arrive with a better understanding of how to plan the best class schedule, but others may need a little more guidance.

To help students plan well-rounded class schedules that are reasonable and enjoyable, NerdScholar asked the experts for advice.

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1. Challenge yourself, but be realistic.

A class schedule should be demanding, but it shouldn’t overwhelm the student. Frank Kelley, associate dean for undergraduate studies at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, says “it is easy to overload your plate with classes, outside employment, commute time if you live off campus, and time for family, relaxing and a social life.” Students, particularly younger students, will need time to adjust to their new lives on campus, so they shouldn’t add unnecessary stress by taking more classes than they can handle. When students are used to taking five classes a day in high school, the transition to five classes a week may leave students with more free time than they expect, but most of this time should be dedicated to studying. “College-level classes will require more time for studying and reading,” says Joann Ericson, academic advisor at the College of Human Ecology at East Carolina University. “Even though you have fewer class hours, you do not have less work. Allow specific time in your daily schedule to keep up with your course work.”

As students progress through college, classes may be more difficult and there will be commitments outside the classroom, too. “Students need to learn how to plan their days realistically and not try to pack too much into a day,” says Stephanie Freeman, director of the arts and humanities program at North Carolina Central University. “Time has to be allotted for studying and resting, two areas that often get neglected.”


2. Be aware of your learning style and habits.

In addition to being realistic about their workload, students should be realistic about themselves when planning their class schedule. Ericson tells students to self-evaluate. “Are you a morning person — will you make it to that 8 a.m. class? Will you attend evening classes? How will you deal with large breaks in your day? Will you go home for a nap and then not feel like coming back? If you only have one class on a Friday, will you attend it?” These are the kind of questions students must answer honestly to plan a productive class schedule. For the first time in their education, students in college have control over when they are in class, so they should be mindful of what works best for them. Chad Dion Lassiter, professor of race relations at West Chester University, says “students know their strengths and challenges, so when planning their class schedules, they should be true to themselves.” Students should reflect on their learning styles and habits and plan a class schedule that best suits them.


3. Find a balance between required courses and elective courses.

College students will spend a lot of time taking required courses, since in addition to their major requirements, many colleges also have general education courses that all students must take. Freeman recommends “completing required courses as soon as possible. [I have] seen many students who lose their interest and enthusiasm for required courses the more entrenched they become in their majors.” Required courses lay the foundation for more specialized courses, and are more beneficial for a student’s academic development when taken early. “Additionally, many students may not want to have their requirements toward the tail end of their college career at a time where they may be pursuing internships or job interviews,” says Lassiter. Taking required courses sooner gives students more liberty with their schedules later.

While requirements are best completed early, elective courses shouldn’t be left until the end. “Students should establish a balance between the two,” says Lassiter. “Too many requirements can lead to being burdened and stressed.” Ericson encourages students to “get a good taste of college. They should try some subjects they have never sampled before, learn something new, and open up their world.”


4. Make time for extracurricular commitments without prioritizing them.

When planning their class schedules, students should be mindful of their lives outside the classroom. Lassiter says “college is about growth and self introspection, so there should be a mixture of educational experiences and social experiences.” Near the end of college, students are more likely to be involved in research, internships, student clubs and other commitments that are just as important as their courses. In many cases, college programs will involve extracurricular activities. Dr. Alfred Mueller, dean of arts and sciences and professor of communication and media studies at Neumann University, says “in senior year, majors focus on ensuring career readiness” through “capstone experiences like internships, clinics and practicums.” Extracurricular activities hold valuable professional development and training, and students should try to fit them into their schedules.

Internships, research and student clubs are important aspects of the college experience, but “students need to put their class schedule first and then work their other commitments around them,” says Ericson. “Although this can be difficult, school must be their priority. Work and internship supervisors should be supportive of this.” College classes are a student’s priority, and there will be times, especially around exam season, when a student will need to communicate this to employers. “You can request well in advance some flexibility in your work hours during midterms and finals, and let family and friends know your schedule, so you can socialize after tests and projects, not before,” says Kelley.


5. Research courses before registering.

Before planning a class schedule, students should research the courses they intend to take, including the professors and the workload. There are various resources that students can use to learn more about classes. “Many professors have professional web pages that include research interests, scholarly pursuits and course syllabi,” says Dr. Beth Holder, associate dean for freshmen success at High Point University. Researching courses before registration ensures that students are well informed about the professor, the work and expectations. When a student blindly registers for courses, there is a risk that the course isn’t right for the student, and the student could end up struggling or dropping the class. Researching courses also shows initiative, and can make a good impression on a professor. Mueller recommends that students “make an appointment to go meet the professor in person and talk about the course. Professors want students to succeed in their classes. Talking frankly with a professor about your interests and fears relative to the class before you even register for the course is a great way to make sure you are as much a fit for the course as the professor’s style is a fit for your learning habits.”


6. Always consult with your academic advisor.

When planning a class schedule, it helps to ask peers and professors for their input, but the best resource is your academic advisor. An advisor provides informed insight about a course or professor, and they can give honest feedback on the weight of your class schedule. “Your academic advisor can help be a reality check when you meet to go over your schedule,” says Kelley, and they help students steer clear of an unrealistic schedule. They offer personalized guidance, and understand a student better than a generic four-year plan. “Rather than stressing out about something in the undergraduate catalog, trust your faculty mentor or staff advisor to guide you accurately through the curriculum maze,” says Mueller. A class schedule is not something that a student should plan alone, and there are plenty of people at your college, from professors to advisors, who are qualified and willing to help. As Holder says, “students should be proactive and utilize resources to best prepare for a successful semester.”


Dr. Beth Holder serves as the associate dean for freshman success at High Point University. Beth loves to partner with students, faculty, staff and families. She encourages everyone to discover and enhance the “passion and purpose” within each of us.

Frank Kelley serves as the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, where he has worked for over 25 years. His office oversees advising and administrative affairs for more than 5,000 undergraduate business majors and minors at the second-most diverse university in the country.

Dr. Alfred G. Mueller II serves as dean of arts and sciences and professor of communication and media studies at Neumann University in Aston, Pennsylvania. Before assuming his current position, he spent over 20 years teaching and advising students at the University of Iowa, Wesleyan College, Penn State University and Mount St. Mary’s University.

Stephanie Freeman is the program director for the arts and humanities program at North Carolina Central University. She has been an educator for 23 years — 21 of those years at NCCU. She helped with freshmen and incoming student orientations for 15 years. 

Joann Ericson is the academic advisor at the College of Human Ecology of East Carolina University. She has spent the past 30 years invested in student success at all academic levels. She has been a professional academic advisor for three years. She has a B.S. from Lesley College and an Ed.M. from Harvard.

Chad Dion Lassiter is a national expert on race relations. He is on the Board of Trustees for the Community College of Philadelphia and is a professor of race relations at West Chester University.

 College student planning his schedule image via Shutterstock.