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How to choose college classes: 6 tips

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UofM students
Students and staff members on the campus of the University of Minnesota.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

College course catalogs are brimming with possibilities: Hundreds of courses on hundreds of topics, waiting to be explored and pursued. 

But how do you decide what to take? With the skyrocketing costs of college, the stakes can seem high.

Is college as a place of intellectual experimentation? Or it is a place to learn practical skills in a specific career?

The class you least expect may be the one that sticks with you the longest.

Laura Helmuth, the science and health editor at Slate, asked her colleagues what courses were the most valuable, the most memorable and the most life-altering of their college careers.

Helmuth joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss some of the surprising answers. Rebecca Aylesworth, an academic advisor at the University of Minnesota, also joined the conversation.

How to decide what classes to take in college: 6 tips

1) Don't fear your GPA — challenge yourself

With the exception of some specific professions, no one will ask to see your GPA after college. Helmuth interviews many entry level candidates, and "when they put their GPA on their resume, I think: 'We don't need to see that.'" 

So don't let that little number keep you from pursuing something new. Put away the fear of a bad grade and try a new topic, whether it's Calculus or Theater or Computational Biology.

You may find that you pick up another important skill while you're at it: learning how to fail. 

2) Choose long-term thinking over short-term thinking

It's easy to dismiss a class that's too early, or meets too often or involves too many papers. That's short-term thinking: valuing your immediate preferences over your long-term goals. 

College can be filled with unpredictable distractions, like late nights and romantic relationships, but it's also a time, Helmuth said, to "think about long-term plans, and what kind of things I want to learn about the world." 

Waking up at 7 a.m. might be a drag for a few weeks, but you never know what doors that class may open for you years down the road. 

3) Pick a professor, not a class

Who is teaching can matter more than what is being taught.

"Relationships with faculty can be critical for students," said Aylesworth. She recalled a professor from her college years that helped shape her life, acting as a mentor for decades. 

If you admire a professor or are curious about their work, sign up for whatever they're teaching that semester. And don't be afraid to make contact via email or during office hours: Professors are resources meant to be used.

4) Study up on communication skills

No matter where your career takes you, solid communication skills will serve you well. Helmuth heard this over and over again from graduates when compiling her article: Make sure you have a class that makes you write on a weekly basis.  Written and verbal communication skills can be picked up in writing classes, speech classes or even theater classes. 

5) Follow your whims — even for just one class

The odds that you know exactly what you want to do with your life at 18, or 25, or whenever you enter school, are low. College is an opportunity not just to learn, but to learn what you're interested in.

"You never know what field you're going to end up in," Aylesworth said. "You can think you're on one path and end up in a completely different field."

With high college costs and growing student debt, many students try to get in and out as fast as possible — but taking an elective or two in something surprising can yield real world results. The class you least expect may be the one that sticks with you the longest.

Several callers shared their experiences with unexpected classes. A construction major took a class on British writers, and more than one listener studied plant propagation — these were the things they remembered, years out of school.

6) Consider whether college is the right fit

"Some students are pressured to go to college from their families or by outside expectations when maybe college right now is not the right place for them," Aylesworth said.

Entering college simply because it's the "logical next step" may not be the next logical step. Joining the workforce, enrolling in a trade school or pursuing other opportunities can be a better fit for some students. 

The decision not to graduate college isn't a permanent one either — it's never too late to go back and take a course or complete a degree.