It’s that time of the year again: the time when WesMaps triumphs over Facebook as our main procrastination tool, when we spend our days weighing the pros and cons of taking that fascinating-looking anthropology class or fulfilling a major requirement, and when we realize that, believe it or not, the spring semester will roll around soon. This sometimes exciting, sometimes stressful time of year known as preregistration can often be a pretty intense experience. We can probably all share the memory of scrolling through WesMaps endlessly during the summer before our first year at the University, the experience feeling a bit like online shopping: Everything looked new and wonderful, and we wanted it all. As the semesters go by, that excitement can fade a bit in light of more practical responsibilities like fulfilling major requirements or GenEd expectations. But the stress that accompanies choosing classes seems to remain a constant, no matter what stage we’re at.
The act of choosing a course seems to bring with it so many opportunities for disaster: What if the course we were so excited about ends up being boring? What if it’s too challenging, or not challenging enough? What if we don’t get into the classes that we want, with the professors that we want? These are all legitimate concerns, but after several course registration experiences ranging from stress-free to panicked, I’ve come to realize that while the courses you choose do in fact shape your college career in a significant way, the course registration disasters that we often go through are usually not as irrevocably awful as they can seem. Still, it can’t hurt to bear in mind a few basic tips as the process begins, ones that I find we tend to forget in all of the stress and craziness of preregistration. I am no expert, but here are a few lessons that I’ve picked up thus far.
The first lesson: Don’t be afraid of the unknown. We’re constantly encouraged to explore a wide range of disciplines here at the University, and our open curriculum gives us the opportunity to explore as far and wide as we wish without many limitations. But even so, many of us come to college with an idea of what we would like to study, and we base our course choices upon this predetermined plan. Knowing what you’re interested in is helpful, but it is also important to recognize that there is so much that you have never been exposed to before arriving at the University. Scrolling through WesMaps as a first-year student often entails reading about courses, and even entire subjects, that seem completely foreign; after all, most of us never took a sociology or a political philosophy class in high school. But it is impossible to make judgments about whether we’re interested in something without experiencing it firsthand, and in order to do so we must take the risk of choosing that course without knowing exactly what it will entail. It’s never too late to take this kind of risk, no matter what year we are, what major we might be, or how the course might fit into our usual areas of study. Of course, it’s best to enter a course with an inkling that the subject matter is appealing to you in some way, but even if all that you have is a vague idea that the subject could be interesting, it may very well be worth taking that chance. That class could end up being the one that transforms your college experience, or your larger worldview.
The second lesson: Don’t be afraid of the known, either. I know: This seems like completely contradictory advice. But like much else in college life, it’s all about balance. Exploring new subjects in college is an opportunity that we shouldn’t pass up, but we often conflate this with the idea that having some sort of direction means boxing ourselves into following a certain path. As long as we are open to the fact that our ideas about what we want may shift throughout our college careers, there is nothing wrong with following a passion that we have come to know that we love. Delving deeply into whatever this discipline might be is not a limiting plan, either. Rather, taking more than one class in a particular discipline can only allow you to further your understanding of and connection to what is likely a deep and complex subject. Zooming in on a particular subject area is, of course, mandatory for those of us thinking about majors, but it is important to realize that having a focus is also acceptable for younger students; it’s not too early even for first-years to hone in on a particular academic passion, as long as these courses are balanced with others that might be a bit more out of one’s comfort zone.
The third lesson: Don’t listen to the hearsay. One of the wonderful things about having a tight-knit campus community like ours is that you’re bound to come across someone who has taken the very class that you’re considering. Speaking to these students is often a very helpful tool; you’re able to get a better sense of the course content, the professor’s personality, and the workload before making a final decision. But too often, students completely disregard a course that would be perfect for them, simply because they heard one negative remark about the course or the professor. When speaking to your peers, remember that this is someone else’s view, not your own. The person that you’re talking to may have totally different interests, be able to handle a completely different level of work, or have different preferences in terms of teaching style. Classes are an intensely personal and subjective experience; often, a course that you felt changed your life is the very same one that served as the bane of a friend’s existence last semester. That’s why it is essential to take the advice of your peers with a grain of salt. The primary question is what you yourself are looking for and whether your goals can be achieved through that particular course. While it’s almost never possible to know for certain that a course is the right choice for you, you certainly know the answer to that question better than anyone else.
The fourth lesson: Most of the mistakes that you might think you’ve made in choosing classes are not truly mistakes. Even if you wind up taking a course that you dislike, the experience of engaging with material that is completely outside of your usual area of interest is part of what college is about. Learning to deal with a challenging course, with a professor whose views you might not share, or with material that might be hard to relate to are all experiences that matter. They allow us to better understand what we truly enjoy and care about and what we don’t, and they teach us important lessons about handling the unexpected. We must enter the course selection process knowing that we won’t always get exactly what we want: We can never know exactly what’s right for us, and even if we do somehow know, it still takes a great deal of luck to wind up with all of the courses that we hope for. But that’s often half of the fun; at least in my own experience, the most panicked course registration processes can actually result in the most exciting semesters, filled with wonderfully unexpected experiences that can turn out to be just what you were looking for all along.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.