College is different from high school in many ways. Both students and parents expect there to be differences, but they may be unsure of exactly what those differences are.
One of the major academic differences between students’ high school lives and their college lives has to do with the student’s schedule of classes. Students will spend less time in class. Typically, high school students spend approximately six or seven hours a day in class – that’s approximately 30 – 35 hours per week. College students may spend between twelve and fifteen hours per week in class. Because college students spend so much less time in class, they are expected to do the bulk of their academic work outside of class. College students who are clear about the difference have a much better chance of academic success in college.
A second major change regarding a college student’s schedule is that the student has much more control over, and therefore responsibility for, their own schedule. One very important task that each college student faces each semester is choosing their classes for the following semester. It is exciting for students to consider the wide array of classes from which they may choose, but also intimidating to consider the implications of making the appropriate – or inappropriate choices.
Students usually plan their schedule in consultation with their Academic Advisor, but students then may make last minute changes. Unfortunately, some students may make changes that are not in their best interest in the long run.
As parents of college students, we may feel that we should have some input. Discussing your college student’s class choices is always a good thing. Having a conversation with your college student about their schedule may be enlightening for both of you. It will help you to understand your student’s interests and goals, and it may help your student clarify their thinking as you talk about decisions.
It is important to remember that it is your college student who will be taking the classes, and that they have, hopefully, made informed decisions in consultation with an Academic Advisor who understands college expectations and requirements.
How does my student choose what courses to take?
There are many factors that dictate a “good” college schedule. Although parents should be taking more of a back seat in the course selection process, it may be helpful for you to understand some of the considerations that your student should be weighing as he chooses their classes. You may need to encourage your student to think about some of these issues and/or discuss them with their advisor.
A reasonable schedule of college classes is often a delicate balance of many factors. As you and your student think about an academic schedule, consider some of the following:
- Has your college student considered all placement information they have received from the college? Many schools administer inventories or assessments to incoming students to determine the appropriate level of writing or math or another class. Students may be placed in a particular level of a course based on SAT or other standardized scores. Students who register for a course below the appropriate level may find themselves having to take an additional course at the appropriate level later. Students who register for a course above the recommended level may find themselves struggling in the class. If your student questions a placement, they should discuss it with their advisor. They may be allowed to retest, or at least they will understand the reason for the placement.
- Your student’s schedule may contain some courses that meet all-college or general education requirements. Most schools require students to take some courses in several areas to round out their education. This set of courses may be called general education requirements, all-college requirements, liberal arts requirements, or something similar. This will help your student have a broader view of the world and to see how many different areas intersect with each other. Your student should work to take a few of these courses each semester.
- Your student’s schedule may contain some skills courses to increase their abilities in areas such as math, writing, speaking or computer skills. There is an obvious advantage to taking these courses early in your student’s college career so that they may use those skills in future classes.
- Your student’s schedule should contain some classes in their major if they have declared one, or in an area that they are considering. Encourage your student to explore early rather than waiting to complete all of their general education requirements. Taking one or two courses in the major early will help your student to confirm that this is the correct field. Having a course or two in the major will help your student to stay focused and motivated. If they realize that this may not be the appropriate field, they will have time to explore a new area.
- Your student will need to pay attention to pre-requisite courses. Many upper level courses require that students have taken particular introductory courses first. Occasionally, there may be more than one pre-requisite. Students should look ahead to see what they may be interested in taking next semester or next year and be sure that they are making progress toward that course.
- Hopefully, your student will have at least one course occasionally that simply feeds an interest or love of a subject. Most students have at least a little room in their academic career for general elective courses. These are courses that do not fulfill any particular requirement, but still add credits toward graduation. Students often discover a new interest or passion through these seemingly random exploration courses. So if your student’s schedule contains an art, music, creative writing, drama, or other unusual class, don’t discourage them from exploring.
What else should my student consider?
In addition to considering the types of classes on your student’s schedule, there are many other factors that need to be balanced. Help your student think about the following:
- Not all courses are offered every semester. Your student may need to consult with their advisor or department chairperson to make sure that a particular course will be available when they need it. If a course is only offered once per year, or even every other year, careful planning may be required.
- Your student will want to listen carefully to their advisor’s recommendation about the number of credits they should carry. There is usually a minimum number of credits to be considered a full-time student (important for athletic eligibility, housing, and financial aid). There is also usually also a maximum number of credits allowed. Some students are anxious to take the minimum to ease their load, or to take the maximum to try to finish early. Both extremes may potentially be dangerous. An academic advisor can help your student determine what is appropriate.
- Your student might consider teaching style as they put together a schedule – balancing some lecture classes with more interactive or participatory classes.
- Not all classes are equal. Some classes may have a reputation for a great deal of work, while others have a lighter load. A balance of heavier and lighter work load, or academic subject and skills classes, will help to make a schedule manageable.
- Your student may need a balance of early and later classes, shorter or longer classes, classes that meet once a week, twice a week, or three times a week. Some students thrive on early morning classes and do their best thinking at that time of day. Some students find that they are at their best in the afternoon, or find that their energy is lagging by late afternoon. Some students prefer evening classes, while others can’t stay focused by evening. Some students prefer classes that meet several times each week for a shorter time, while others like classes that meet only once a week.
- Your student may want to think about spreading their classes throughout the week. While it may seem appealing to have classes only on one or two days, this will mean not only a lot of time spent sitting in class on those days, but also that all assignments or tests will be due on the same days. Will they be able to be organized enough to stay on top of things? Whatever their preferences, your student will need to be flexible. Not every class will be offered or available at the most opportune time.
- Your student may need to consider the locations of classes. Can they comfortably get from one location to the next in time for back-to-back classes?
- Your student will also need to think carefully about external factors that may affect their schedule. They may need to work a class schedule around an athletic schedule, drama or music rehearsals, work, or other activities. Do they need to work around a sports practice schedule? Is your student a commuter who needs to consider traffic issues? Do they have an off-campus job? Some of these factors will force your student to think about priorities. Should they choose a schedule around a part time job, or can the job be flexible enough to allow them to make class choices a priority?
The fine art of creating a schedule
Creating an appropriate schedule of college classes, a schedule that will allow your college student to succeed, is a balance of many factors and is in many ways, a fine art. Most academic advisors or advising centers are skilled at helping students think through many of these issues. The more knowledgeable that your student is about college requirements and norms, about their own interests and strengths, and the more closely that they work with their advisor, the more successful they will be.
As a parent, you may be most helpful as a sounding board and guide. You can help your student think about the factors that may influence their schedule – and then you should encourage your student to work with the appropriate person at the college to create or evaluate their schedule. Ask questions for your student to consider, offer some observations, but remember that your student will be the one sitting in the classes.
As well intentioned as we may be, as parents we may not understand some of the subtleties or requirements influencing scheduling. Encouraging your student to use the college resources available to help with planning and to take responsibility for their own schedule, will be yet one more step toward that goal of independence for your student.