Guest column by Chase Harrow | A crash course on course selection

· January 20, 2014, 7:25 pm   ·  Updated January 20, 2014, 9:48 pm

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Who do you know taking six classes this semester? Maybe you have a pre-med friend, always rushing off to lab. Or know a dual Engineering/Wharton student who has a GSR in Huntsman with equations all over the board. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like people with six classes are also taking the six hardest classes imaginable?

It doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s an unavoidable fact that some classes are harder than others: the impersonal pre-med science lectures, the upper-level engineering workshops, the graduate history seminars.

For the most part, though, our semesters are packed with ordinary major-fulfilling courses and requirements. And if you’re careful about it, you can take a six-class semester of ordinary or even moderately difficult courses and walk away with an easier semester.

Step one: Take that course you absolutely have to take, because you need it for your major or because your freshman hall is all enrolled and you miss seeing those people. Step two: Figure out what requirement courses you want to finish. Step three (this is the most important step): Find the courses that satisfy those conditions that seem absolutely related and relevant to that initial course you had to take. Step four: Sign up for six courses.

This is the recipe for a productive and easy semester.

I’ll illustrate with my personal motivating example. Last spring, I knew I had to take “Game Theory” because I felt it was important. I ran through a bunch of mock schedules, and I ended up taking three other microeconomic courses, plus two English courses. “Game Theory,” “Social Choice Theory,” “Political Economy” and “Labor Economics” covered a lot of the same ground.

If this sounds like a redundant, boring semester, you should look a little closer. The topics were similar but fueled by different motivations, and by studying them differently in different classes, I was able to learn something unique in each course. If you’re going to spend a few hours reviewing your notes before the test anyway, why not review them in a new situation, for different purposes, highlighting how adaptable the model is to different contexts? This is how you gain experience that only comes from repeated encounters. Simply attending lecture for one class was sometimes sufficient for reviewing the material well enough to begin the problem set of another.

Unfortunately none of my economics courses decided to address “Hamlet,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t design a smart semester that uses your different courses to your advantage. Taking six courses in similar topics instead feels like taking one big course.

So if you’re a history major who has always wanted to learn about Russia in the 20th century, think ahead and satisfy sector three as well that semester with a Russian lit or art history class. Finish your language requirement in Chinese with a Chinese cinema course and a history of modern China seminar.

Don’t be afraid to throw on more courses if those courses are chosen smartly. At the end of the day, the point of your education should be to learn something fully, to really throw yourself into it, and an immersive strategy like this one is not only perfect for that, but also is sometimes a lot easier as well as more productive than slogging through requirements blindly.

Chase Harrow is a College junior from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. studying mathematics, economics and English. Email him at charrow@sas.upenn.edu or follow him @ChaseH108.

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