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.


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


  • 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.


  • Class fits nicely in time table – no need to take 8 am electives if you don’t want to
  • 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.


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


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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.

FYI: Citation Blues? Try Zotero!

FYI is a weekly column dedicated to presenting resources and other topics of interest to students.

Title: Zotero
Author: Center for History and New Media
Type of Resource: Firefox/Browser Plugin

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.


Comments: Have you ever written a research paper only to realize you spent almost as much time on the citations as the paper itself? Have you ever tried to decipher your own handwriting about a source only to realize it’s utterly incomprehensible? Have you ever started to compile a “work cited” page the night before a paper is due, only to find that you didn’t have a crucial piece of bibliographical information? Fear no more, Zotero, a handy dandy Firefox Plugin, can solve these problems and more.

Functionally, Zotero is a bibliography maker (like EndNote) on crack. It stores and organizes your sources and generate bibliographies in various formats. It is also capable of “grabbing” bibliographic data directly from the pages you are viewing along with a searchable screenshot (so you can easily find where each piece of information came from). This is especially good with some article databases like Ebsco. Other functions include inserting citations in Word or Open Office, syncing across multiple computers, and sharing “libraries” of sources. One caveat is that it only works for Firefox, though a standalone version designed to work with other browsers is in the works.

I have used Zotero extensively both in and out of school, and I believe it is a vital part of any student or researcher’s tool-kit. And with its highly affordable price tag (free!) there is no reason not to take it for a spin!

(Click here if you need help getting started.)