Reader Question: How do I choose electives?

… I’m not sure what electives to take. There are lots of different requirements, I don’t know what I like, and I don’t know what to take…

Every degree requires taking certain electives. Be they credits from a different faculty, English or other language requirements, or breadth requirements in your faculty, electives are an important part of your undergraduate degree. However, if you’re overwhelmed by the choices, don’t know what you’re interested in, and/or can’t decide what to take, this guide might help you.

First, figure out what the elective requirements are. Otherwise, you’ll be bumbling along in the dark and may end up taking courses that you don’t like and that don’t fulfill any requirements. If you’re in first year, have a general idea because just about everything you take will probably count for something. However, as you get up to the higher years, it’s important to know the details. It would be a pain in the rear end to realize at the end of fourth year that you’re 1 course away from graduating (and having to do the course in summer school or next year).

So, now that you know what’s going on, how do you decide on what electives to take?

Try these strategies: 

1. Path of least resistance

This is both the easiest and hardest method. It’s hard because you have to go through all of your degree and specialization requirements (basically everything about what you need to do to graduate) and figuring out exactly what electives you need. Then you simply take the easiest courses to fulfill those requirements. How do you know what the easiest courses are? Ask around! Perhaps your friends or classmates have taken courses they found easy. As well, certain courses are reputedly easier (a.k.a. bird courses). However, reputations are not always deserved, so use your better judgement. If you find yourself struggling within the first week, the course is probably not as easy as you expected and switching courses might be easier.

Pros:

  • Easier course load
  • Don’t have to take more courses than absolutely necessary

Cons:

  • Not always possible to tell what courses are easy
  • The easiest courses may not be the most interesting courses

 

2. Whatever fits

The involves having a rough idea of the requirements you need to graduate, then taking courses that fulfill those requirements and fit nicely in your time table.

Pros:

  • Class fits nicely in time table – no need to take 8 am electives if you don’t want to
Cons:
  • Courses may not be easy or interesting

 

3. à la carte

This involves having a rough idea of the requirements, then taking any course that would fulfill those requirements and seem interesting. There needn’t be any overarching theme here, just take whatever strikes your fancy.

Pros:

  • All the courses will be interesting
  • Can gain understanding of a broad range of topics

Cons:

  • Courses may be more challenging than expected
  • May only obtain surface understanding of each discipline with no real depth

 

4. Second love

If your major is your first love, then your minor (or second major) may be a second love. This is probably the hardest strategy to use because it involves some more planning. If you find yourself taking a few courses in a discipline and really loving it, it might be tempting to do a minor or second major in that topic. If that’s the case, figure out what you need to do to get that minor or second major and see if there are any overlapping requirements with your first major. Then figure out what courses would fulfill those requirements (and that are easy, fit nicely in your timetable, or that seem the most interesting). This is the situation I found myself in when I discovered that I love economics. I got a late start (I realized how much I liked econ in second year) and am now playing catch-up with my courses. So if possible, plan it as best as you can. If you got a late start and still really want to do it, give it a shot anyway and see if you make it.

Pros:

  • Studying something you love
  • Obtaining true understanding of a specific discipline
  • It looks better on a transcript to have a minor or a second major

Cons:

  • May be taking courses that are more challenging than any of the other strategies above. e.g. for a minor, a certain number of courses must be third or fourth year courses (whereas the elective requirements may be satisfied with lower level courses)
  • May still have to take some other courses (on top of the courses for your minor) to fulfill all elective requirements
  • Obtaining a narrow knowledge-base because you’re not taking a wide range of courses

Which strategy you choose is up to you. In general, if you have a second love, go for the minor or second major. Otherwise, use one of the other strategies to ensure you fulfill all of the requirements with the least number of courses.

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2 thoughts on “Reader Question: How do I choose electives?

  1. Thanks for the helpful article! Could you give me some advice about how to choose a major? I’m a first year student in arts and I’m not sure what to choose. I’m debating between poly sci and English. But my family wants me to do something more practical. Do you have any tips?

    • Hi AT,

      You’re welcome 🙂 Thank you for reminding me that I need to do a post on choosing a major! As for your particular dilemma, I don’t know what the right choice is, but I could give you some things to think about. I think it comes down to what you want to do after university as well as how important it is to please your family. If you know with certainty your future career direction and is willing to bust your ass to get there, then go with your choices and wait for your family to come around (and they will if you become successful at what you do). If you’re not sure what you want to do and don’t hate what your family wants for you, it probably won’t hurt you to listen to them. But if you absolutely hate what your parents want you to study, you have to decide between pleasing yourself and pleasing your family.

      Either way, I would encourage you to talk to some professors, people who are working in industry, and students in the majors you’re interested in. They will have lots of tips and advice for you about course load, which classes or professors to take, and future career/advancement opportunities in your field. I know this is a lot of work, but your major is a really important part of your undergrad degree and it’s worth it to take some time to make a decision you’re happy with.

      Thanks for reading!

      Wendy

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