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A senior's guide to course selection

<h6>Paige Allen / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Paige Allen / The Daily Princetonian

It’s hard to believe I’m about to choose my last classes at Princeton. This will be the last time I will wake up at the ungodly hour of 7:20 a.m., and watch the clock tick minute-by-minute, closer to 7:30 a.m. The last time I will scroll through the course website for hours, looking through all the fascinating new courses on topics I’d never realized until then that I had to take. Scratch my head over how to narrow down 15 equally good choices to four. And have my eyes light up at the glorious return of favorite and renowned professors from their Sabbatical sabbaths.

This will be the final stop in my journey of adding, switching, dropping, pdfing, cursing, learning, drowning in, discovering, regretting, and thanking Princeton courses.

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Oh, course selection. You have and will always be my first love/hate relationship at Princeton.

In honor of my final course selection period, I wanted to reflect on my opinions and experiences around picking classes. As someone who never fails to memorize the entire course catalog, I hope these tips can help others who may also be struggling with navigating this kind of difficult decision-making process.

Of course, take everything I, a crusty senior who wishes she had more semesters at Princeton, say with a grain of salt.

Since everyone’s process of finding courses is different, I won’t tell you exactly how I do my research, but I will suggest seven tips I’ve learned over the past four years that I think can help you with yours:

1. Don’t take classes just because they are easy or popular.

Even though it might be enticing to take a course marked “easy” (think Rocks for Jocks), or a class many of your friends are enrolling in, in my opinion, it’s a waste to take a class on a topic you’re not actually interested in. During midterms, you might find yourself hating the work and probably PDFing it in the end. So don’t waste a class for some arbitrary idea of “easy” or “popular.” Princeton has plenty of great, “iconic” classes, some of which are going to be harder or more niche than others. Don’t be deterred by that; instead, seize those opportunities to challenge yourself, diverge from your closest friends, and meet a different set of people. 

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If you’re worried about the grade, remember that you can’t judge a book by its cover. I personally have signed up for classes that I thought were going to be really hard (i.e. Journalism classes, Macroeconomics, Chinese), but I surprised myself by doing well. Looking back, it’s no surprise that I excelled: I loved the topics and professors so much that I naturally wanted to do better in those classes. So a course you thought might be too hard for you can turn out to be your best Princeton class ever.

2. Balance and self awareness is key.

Aside from the topic of the course, it can be helpful to assess classes based on their assignments.

Play to your strengths: If you know you enjoy reading, go ahead and sign up for those classes with 100–200+ pages each week.

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Mix it up with the class size: don’t make your semester all 10-person seminars or all 100 person lectures.

Challenge your weaknesses: Maybe you know you have a hard time working in group projects, but there’s a class you’re interested in that has a group presentation. Take it still! You’ll learn valuable skills from a class that challenges you and grow your interpersonal skills, creativity, and leadership.

Pay attention to the assignments each class requires! Don’t sign up for four reading heavy classes or five classes with problem sets due each week. Like the Avatar, it’s good to try to master and balance all four elements!

3. Always anticipate dropping a class if you need to, but don’t be discouraged or ashamed if you do!

I cannot stress this enough. It is not bad if you drop a class one week in, nor it is shameful if you drop 10 weeks in. Life happens. Maybe you were shopping your second week and found a better class. Maybe a family accident happened and you suddenly had other unforeseen responsibilities added to your schedule. Or maybe you really tried your best for half of the semester but midterms showed you that your efforts weren’t producing the results you had hoped for.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. No one should judge you on your decision to drop a class because this is your education. Not your parents’, not your peers’, and not your professors’. You have no obligation to explain yourself. If you need to focus on three classes instead of being stretched thin over four, do it. If you need to grit your teeth through a work-heavy but doable five class semester to have more time for JP or thesis work in the spring, do it. Make the decisions you need to best help yourself succeed, and don’t worry about the perception your decisions might give off.

You can never control what others think, but you can be the one in charge of your academics — just don’t let your academics take over your health and life.

4. Prioritize teachers over topics! (Stalk your professors)!

Professors are the heart and soul of a course. Yet, there are two types of professors: good professors and professors who do not know how to communicate well.

The latter type can squeeze any passion for a subject out of you, even if the class is on a topic you’ve waited your whole life to study.

So I recommend: Do. Background. Research. On. The. Professor!

  1. A good class usually has many raving reviews about the professor.
  2. Ask friends who’ve previously taken the same professor for their opinions
  3. Email the professor (or look up their research/talks/CV/etc.) to see what kind of a person they are!
  4. Shop classes, even if it might make you worried you’ll be behind in other classes. Especially try to stay and sit in on the second class (first class is usually syllabus day) to get a sense of how the professor really teaches.

Find professors that make you excited and eager to get to know them. Seek out professors who are quick to respond to your questions about the class/syllabus (if you have questions) and the professors who are eager to spend office hours with you. They can become lifelong mentors who help you with your future plans.

5. Don’t base classes on reviews alone (and don’t choose alone!).

Classes change year to year because professors learn how to improve their courses. Just because last spring's class had a low rating doesn’t mean that, this year, it won’t be a fantastically taught class.

Always double check classes with your friends, academic advisors, past teachers, and parents. Never try to make decisions alone. Your peers can be extremely helpful in sharing advice on a class they’ve taken before. Your elders and advisors can help see how certain classes fit in your overall long-term academic trajectory and point out requirements you might have overlooked.

Just because a class doesn’t have previous reviews doesn’t mean it’s off the table. I took some of my favorite courses the first semester or only semester they were taught. In fact, new classes are extremely precious because most times, professors are more flexible and experimental in their curriculum. You benefit from a more attentive professor trying really hard to do a good job with their first semester of a course versus a professor bored with a class that is being taught for the 50th time. Being the first students can seem risky, like being a guinea pig for an experiment, but it can also be very rewarding! Professors are also learning through their courses, and you signing up for a class is helping them improve too!

Also, some visiting lecturers/professors only teach a class at Princeton once, so there are no reviews for them, or the reviews change every year because the professors change every year. But Princeton tends to bring in some of the best, most interesting people to teach for one semester. For example, in journalism classes, many pop-up semester classes are taught by Pulitzer Prize winners. Definitely don’t think a class taught by a new or visiting professor is a sign to “stay away.” Take the class because it’ll be your only chance to learn from them!

6. Explore, Explore, Explore

This is probably the most important tip I can give you. Undergrad is the best time to not box yourself in. Really take this time to dive into whatever makes you curious and excited. If you come into Princeton with an already set idea of what you should study, most likely you will end up doing the thing you were least meant to do.

Explore classes in every department on the course registrar, even ones you don’t think you’d ever “need” to take classes in. That way, you will be more sure that you are in the right place and won’t regret having “not tried” classes in certain departments earlier on.

Explore topics you’d never be able to learn on your own or outside of college. If you can learn about financial accounting through a Udemy course, why not take a theatre class? Or, if you’re going to do theatre side projects, why not explore investing? You might have misconceptions or preconceived judgements about a class or a topic, but never assume you know what a class or field is really like before you’ve taken it!

Make use of all the great certificate programs that haven’t yet become majors at Princeton (i.e. Asian American Studies, American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies). These certificate programs, because of their small sizes, provide a very intimate space for students to really befriend their teachers. Also, due to minimal faculty space in each department, every professor is chosen carefully for these programs, so you know you will be getting a high-quality class!

7. Plan ahead! But not too ahead!

Make sure to search up classes ahead of time for the upcoming semester. Especially be aware of application deadlines for certain classes! If you missed a deadline, email the professor or department ASAP. You might still have a chance to enroll if you notify them early on.

Each semester, try to do one or two of the Princeton requirements (EC, EM, LA, etc.), preferably in fields that are unrelated to your “expected major.” Better to do them earlier on so that come junior/senior year, when you have a clearer idea of what it is you like to study the most, you will have the space to explore those topics and enjoy them in a less loaded semester. But don’t take a class early on just to fill a requirement; find a course that truly interests you and satisfies a requirement.

However, DO NOT plan out your classes semesters too far in advance. If you’re a first year, just focus on what you want to take this semester and chip a little away at your Princeton requirements. Do not try to predict what you’d take senior year, or next year, or even next semester. Classes change all the time, and, as we’ve experienced with COVID-19, no class is guaranteed to return the same semester next year. Professors take sabbaticals all the time, and classes can be influenced by current events. So course lists are constantly changing.

Lastly, accept that you WILL take bad classes. You WILL make mistakes and choose “wrongly.”

However, this is perfectly okay, and why it’s even more important to not focus on finding the perfect four classes. Focus instead on finding the right professors. On balancing your course load. On understanding your learning styles. And on growing through challenging and “exploration” courses.

You can always take away something from a class. Even if it’s not your favorite course. Even if it makes you want to drop your major, or Princeton itself. Every class is an asset to your toolbelt of experiences, every professor a link to your future academic trajectory. You can find opportunity in any Princeton class you take.

At the end of the day, years later, you won’t remember everything you learn from the detailed readings you’ve done in class. In a few years, you won’t even remember your grade.

But the lessons you take away from your professors and peers are timeless. Your professors teach you about character, responsibility, and communication. Your peers teach you about collaboration, curiosity, and kindness.

You might graduate Princeton with a physical transcript, but no piece of paper can measure the wisdom and love you’ll gain from the people you meet.

Good luck to everyone with course selection. And remember, someday, you won’t have any more chances to take courses here. Then, you’ll realize just how fast life goes by and how precious your time at Princeton was. Maybe then, you’ll think about course selection with less angst and more fondness.

Lillian Chen is a senior in the Economics/East Asian Studies/Creative Writing departments. She has taken or will be taking classes in Economics, Journalism, East Asian Studies, Chinese, Japanese, ORFE/Engineering, Comparative Literature, Math, Physics, Computer Science, Politics, English, Visual Arts, Creative Writing (poetry, fiction, screenwriting), Asian American/American Studies, Philosophy, History, History of Science, and Psychology. She can be reached at lillianc@princeton.edu. 

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