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.


5 Things to do Before Classes Start


Image "Prepare" courtesy of Flickr User Photo Monkey, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The start of the new school year is a hectic time for first year students. New environment. New people. New skills to learn and use. To make starting university a little bit more smoother, here are five things you can do now to get ready for classes.

1. Get your Student Card – ASAP

Long line-ups at the Carding Office is a unique but often unwanted experience. If you enjoy lining up for half an hour to get your photo taken by a tired and stressed out photographer and then waiting another 15 minutes for a tired and stressed out office worker to print out your card, then by all means wait until school starts. Otherwise, go now and get it done without line-ups and hassles. Ditto for library cards, bus passes, key cards, or any other paraphernalia you have to get.

2. Walk Around Campus and Locate Your Classrooms – 2 weeks before school starts

While walking around with a tour guide is a great way to learn some useful information (this place sells the best falafel on campus) and trivia (nuclear waste used to be stored in this building), taking a solo trek around campus is the best way to get a feel for the culture and pace of the school. While summer tends to be a bit more relaxed, the atmosphere really doesn’t change. This is also your chance to gawk like a tourist and still get away with it or pretend you’re not a first year student and see if you stick out like an Arts student in the Engineering building. Also take the opportunity to locate your classes and plan how you’ll get from one to the next within the allocated amount of time between classes. Do a “dress rehearsal” if your campus is large. You may get some help with this if your school has a good orientation program for new students.

3. Register for classes – ASAP

Registration times tend to vary in universities across Canada, so if you’ve already done this, great! If you haven’t, plan out your courses carefully before your actual registration time. Don’t make the same mistakes I did! If you don’t know what courses to take, ask a friend who’s a couple of years ahead. If you’re new to the area and don’t know anyone, walk into a cafe (one of the 10 billion Starbucks or Tim Horton’s) on campus during slow periods and chat with other students. This may sound a tad bit creepy, but explain that you’re a new student who doesn’t know anyone on campus and would like some course suggestions. Alternatively, e-mail you faculty or department and ask them what courses are popular with their students. You could also try asking if they could put you in touch with an older student or mentor.

4. Check out and Google your Profs – Before or As Soon as You’ve Registered

Do this before you actually show up for class. While the ratings on ratemyprof are subjective, the comments can be really helpful. If 20 people mention that one prof cannot stand tardy students and give pop quizzes frequently, make sure you’re never late! Don’t use the comments as your sole source of information though and take them with a grain of salt (especially when they seem to contradict each other). Another way to get a feel for the professor is to Google them. Go to their research or teaching page analyse their tone. Unless someone else wrote that prof’s page, these pages often reveal the professors’ attitude towards teaching. Even armed with all this information, try to show up on class with an open and positive mind (especially for profs with extremely low ratings). As Harry Potter (and decades of research) clearly shows, prophesies tend to fulfil themselves. Expect the prof to be good and they just might be. Expect them to be bad and they most certainly will be.

5. Stock up on school supplies – 1 or 2 weeks before classes start

You will need a lot of paper. I mean, A LOT. Unlike high school, you’ll have to print most of your own course material, problem sets, and notes. Printing at school can get expensive, so buying a printer and stocking up on paper is a good idea. Shop before school starts (not in the first few weeks after it does), especially if the only place you can shop is the campus bookstore. It will be ridiculously crowded the first few weeks of classes as all students head there to buy course material and school supplies.

What about buying textbooks? I recommend buying second-hand whenever you can and buying after classes start if you can’t. Check out the textbook buying guide for additional tips.

Good luck with your preparations!

Lessons From Course Registration

Funny Error Message

Image "Not Found" courtesy of Flickr User chiaraogan, Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Course registration was a couple of days ago for my year at my university. As my registration time was early, I parked my not-quite-awake self in front of the computer to monitor the number of open spots left. After ensuring no last minute changes were necessary and frantically clicking “refresh registration status”, my registration finally opened. I clicked “register all” and waited for the “all courses registered successfully” message to appear. It didn’t. One of my required courses just wouldn’t register. After re-clicking “register course” several times (it could have been a computer glitch…) I realized that the system didn’t think I had the first year pre-requisites for that course. This was when my “darn it! How could I have been so stupid” moment kicked in.

In first year, I did a “special” program with course codes that differed from the typical first year course codes. These “special” course codes are usually included in the pre-reqs alongside their equivalents, but not for this course. Furthermore, I assumed that like most courses, I could register first, then wait for humans to sort out the pre-reqs later. Unfortunately, this course doesn’t do that and just bars anyone without the listed pre-reqs from registering.

My “how could I have been so stupid moment” stemmed from the fact that I knew my “special” course codes weren’t listed as pre-reqs. However, I just assumed that I could register for this course first and wait for pre-req checks later. I would have realized this wasn’t the case if I had just done a test registration (yet another mistake). After a mini “aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” moment, I e-mailed the course coordinator while watching the number of available seats in the course decrease. Fortunately, this was sorted out soon after and I made it into the course.

Although this issue was resolved quickly, it was a headache that could have been avoided easily. Here are some of the things I learned from this process:

1. Don’t be complacent! Remember to check pre-requisites carefully, e-mail the course coordinator/department if there is even a tiny concern, and do test registrations if possible. It’s better to be careful early than to realize too late that things are screwed up, especially if you’ve done something that’s not the norm. Be vigilant even if you’ve registered for courses before without trouble!

2. Don’t assume! This goes for more than course planning.

3. Learn from other people’s experiences. If I had asked the students in the year ahead of me (who did the same program I did in first year) about this course, they would have told me to e-mail the course coordinator first. On the flip-side, some sources are more reliable than others. When conflicting opinions arise, go to the official source.

4. Have a Plan B. Think briefly about what to do if something goes south (before it does!). Know where to find the contact information of people who could help, fix, or speed things up.

5. Take action and be patient. In my case, I ended up e-mailing the course coordinator and my first year program’s coordinator. I also asked people from previous years and my year whether they had any trouble registering for this course (a little too late, but better late than never). I didn’t have to contact so many people, but doing something made me feel less helpless as I waited. Try a few different routes to solve a problem without going overboard. If you’ve exhausted all options, calm down or move on to something that could keep you occupied.

Hopefully your course registration went/goes more smoothly than mine did!  (Comments? Write them below!)

Three Steps to Academic Bliss Step 1: Choosing the Right Courses

Fortune Teller

Image "Fortune_Teller_ 004" courtesy of Flickr User OrigamiNate, licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

There are 3 steps to academic bliss (a.k.a. improving grades):

Step 1: Chose the right courses

Step 2: Picking the right tools

Step 3: Fine-tune your techniques


Instead of covering all three steps in one very long article, I will do three shorter articles instead. So to start off… Step 1: choosing the right courses.


The most critical step to getting good grades is ensuring you are taking the right courses. A class that plays on your strengths makes getting good marks easier and more fun. Conversely, a class that is both boring and hard can wreck your term and GPA.

Determining which courses to take can be simple or complex. In general, there are three types of courses students take: required courses, interesting courses, and choice courses. Required courses are well… required, either for a degree/program or another course. Students take interesting courses because they like it (these are usually far and few in between), and choice courses include everything else. For example, psychology might be a choice course for a science student who must take a certain number of arts credits. Likewise, an anthropology student may have a choice between medical and cultural anthropology. In the grand scheme of course selection, we are really only concerned with choice courses. Students must take required courses and it’s fairly easy to decide whether to take an interesting course. These two types of courses combined set a “baseline” for your GPA. Choosing the right choice courses will boost your average above this.

Before I go any further, I want to state that I believe anyone can do well in a course, even if that course is in a discipline you don’t believe you are good at. Therefore, do not let a course with hard reputation deter you from taking it if you really want to. However, if you have no great interest in the course, there is nothing wrong with taking an easier course. When I use the word easy (or hard), it implies “easier for you because it plays upon your strength”. Easy and hard are personal, not absolute, gauges of a course’s difficulty.

So just how do you pick the right choice courses for you? Follow these easy steps:

1. Obtain your transcript (unofficial is fine) for all of your years at a post-secondary institution, especially those at your current school.

2. Look at your average for each term. Then note down all of the courses you achieved above average and below average for that grade reporting session.

3. In which courses were you obtaining the highest marks? It is entirely possible you are achieving the highest grades on all of your required courses. In that case, you are either in a major that is perfect for you or you are not using your choice courses to boost your grades as effectively as you can.

4. Look at your top 5 grades (top 2 if you are in first year) and think back to those courses. Did they require a lot of memorization? Lots of problem solving? Abstraction and big picture thinking? Creative interpretation? Essay writing? Formal reports? See if you can find a common thread or a characteristic that is common to most if not all of those courses.

5. Repeat step 4 for your bottom 5 grades.

Steps 4 and 5 should give you an idea of your strength and weaknesses. For example, I have obtained the highest grades on courses that required some understanding and then problem solving. I’m not as good at courses that are mostly memorization or courses with poorly defined course objectives. The more specific you are with your strength and weaknesses, the better.

6. Look deeper at the courses you did well in and think about the exams. Were the exams much more difficult or easier than the rest of the course? Did they feel really “tight” time-wise? Did the prof employ heavy scaling and did that benefit you? Did the course give you a good idea of how the exam was going to go (or was it completely out of the blue)? Are the midterms in class or at night? Are you a better exam taker if you write an exam during certain times?

As exams make up the most part of a course, step 6 should tell you which exam conditions best suit you. For example, I do best in exams with fairly comfortable and questions that are like those encountered during class. I’m not as good in exams that have unexpected questions and not enough time, or those that place emphasis on details (nerves!). If you are picking between a few equally appealing courses, knowing the exam conditions might help you eliminate a few choices. If possible, find courses with exam conditions that are favourable for you.

Step 5 will tell you what kind of courses you might want to try. If you are good at memorization, try something in biology, psychology, history, or the languages. If you’re a very abstract thinker, try some philosophy or higher level math or physics. If you like problem solving, stick to math, chemistry, or classical physics. If you excel at writing essays and papers, try English. Narrow down a list of courses that are good fits for you, not the other way around. Normally when studying, students fit their study strategies to the courses they are taking. That works well, however, isn’t it better to find ones that are perfect for you without extra effort?

Ultimately, the Golden rule of course selection is simple: play on your strength. The above steps present a systematic approach to figuring out what those strengths are and will hopefully help you pick courses that emphasize your strong suits.

Next Up: Picking the right tools…

“[Preparation] is Half the Victory”* – Getting Ready for Next Term

Organic Chemistry Christmas Tree

Image "Organic Chemistry Christmas Tree" Copyright 2010 Brenda Park, used with permission

*“Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory” – Miguel De Cervantes


Ah… Winter Break. ’Tis the season for Santa Claus, late-night parties, and too much turkey (or cookies, pies, and other goodies). Exams are over, marks are trickling out, and it is finally time to kick back and relax! I hope your term one grades are exactly what you wanted. If they are not, don’t despair! You can and will do better next term (stay tuned for my article about how to improve your grades). Regardless of how you did last term, some preparation during winter break will make your life much easier next term. Without further ado, here are some things you should do before heading back to school.

1. Relax and Recharge.

This is the single most important thing to do during Christmas break. Consider this analogy: a student’s “academic energy” is like the electricity stored in a battery. At the beginning of the year, there is plenty. However, that energy gets depleted until there is nothing left by the end of final exams. Winter break is the perfect time to recharge. Sleep lots, spend time with family and friends, and forget school. Let your stress and tension go. I know that some families make a big deal out of Christmas (or out of other holidays during this time), but you must find some time to relax. Going back to school without properly unwinding can significantly impact your academic performance and lead to increased stress, less motivation, and burning out.

If you can only do one thing on this list, do this one. You can catch up on everything else quickly at the beginning of next term if you are well-rested. However, an exhausted you will struggle with your courses even if you have done everything else to prepare.

2. Prepare for the New Term

Once you feel better rested, there should still be some time to get ready for the new term. The following tasks make great starting points:

a. Finalize your schedule

The first thing you should do is to take a look at your second term schedule. Assess it critically and ask yourself these questions:

1. Do I still want to take all of these courses?

This is especially important if you failed a course that is a pre-requisite for another course, or if you’re thinking of switching majors or programs.

2. Is the scheduling arrangement still satisfactory?

Did you like morning classes or afternoon classes in first term? How about whether they are spread out or concentrated in blocks? Is your schedule arranged to suit your preferences?

3. Do you want to switch professors?

Ask your friends about perspective professors and assess critically the comments on

b. Sell your old books and buy new books.

Check out this article for specific tips.

c. Read over the syllabus and available material for your courses.

If the syllabus is released already, skim over it to get an idea of what the course is actually about. Syllabi can often be found online. As well, if your school has some sort of electronic platform for your courses, check there to see if your prof has posted any announcements.

If you have bought your textbooks already, skim over the headings and see if you’ve studied any of the topics already. A quick overview will increase your confidence for that class because the topic would not seem so foreign.

I think everyone should set some goals for the upcoming term (and I know that’s not always fun)! It’s so an an important that it warrants its own article, and so keep your eyes peeled for it in the next day or 2 :).


Happy Holidays!