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Monday Master Class: The Biggest Source of Stress that Most Students Ignore

August 4th, 2008 · 47 comments

Academic HellCalendar

I recently met a student whom I’ll call Amy. She’s a rising junior in the pre-med honors program at a top state university. After a strong freshman year, Amy kicked off her first semester as a sophomore with a schedule bearing four “very difficult” courses.

“As soon as the semester started, I sensed that this schedule would not work,” she recalls. “But for some reason, I kept all of it, thinking: ‘Hey, I’m smart, I can make it through this.'”

“Big Mistake!”

“I found myself learning exam material, for the first time, three days before the test and living day to day, always fearing what was to come…it was academic hell!

When the grades were returned, Amy was not happy. To make things worse, she was drained. As she explains, by the end of the semester, she had begun to “loathe” her classes; a source of devastating deep procrastination.

The Turnaround

The following semester, which ended this past June, was a different story. Amy scored much higher grades. Her performance in the undergraduate research lab where she worked improved significantly, earning her the honor of a solo project — something that will play a big role in her med school applications. And she no longer loathed her classes.

What changed? Something simple. Something that no employer, professional school or graduate school would ever notice. But still something that made all the difference in the world for this one student. It’s a stress reduction technique that is tragically ignored by too many students.

In this article, I give it the attention it deserves…

The Biggest Avoidable Source of Student Stress

Between the first and second semester of her sophomore year, Amy changed her course load. She went from four very difficult courses to a much more reasonable 14 credit hours. She was also careful about the balance of courses. She had only one lab course, and selected the others to fall between 9 and 12, leaving her afternoons free to study.

“I felt like something was wrong; like I shouldn’t have this much free time,” recalls Amy. “With fewer classes, however, I could actually focus during my study time and make progress.”

Here’s the important point: Though this change drastically improved Amy’s life, the medical schools to which she plans on applying won’t even notice. In other words, the “academic hell” Amy suffered through during her first sophomore semester was entirely unnecessary.

The Hardcore Myth

Many students believe that taking a punishing course load will somehow indicate a higher ability; making it easier to land jobs or post-graduate positions. Here’s the reality: it won’t.

Employers and professional schools will notice your GPA, where you went to school, and your major. They don’t care about about how many credit hours you jammed into each semester or how hard your schedule was compared to others in the same major. The same goes for graduate schools. Though it’s true that specific professors on the admissions committee might look at your grades in the classes relevant to their specialty, they don’t care about the general hardness of your particular schedule.

The implication: once you’ve chosen your major, it’s in your best interest to construct the most reasonable, balanced, low-stress course load possible. Jamming in an unnecessary number of heart-attack courses serves no purpose other than to make your life hell. It won’t make you more impressive to the outside world.

Some practical advice for using your schedule to dramatically reduce your stress:

  1. Don’t double major. Even if you “like” both majors. Even if you think that the particular job or graduate program you’re interested in demands both. (They don’t.) Neither are good reasons. A double major will force you to have hard semesters and offers little extra reward in return.
  2. Select your major early. A big source of terrible semester are students who decide, late in their academic career, to tack on a new major or change their major — requiring a large number of hard pre-reqs to be knocked off in a short amount of time. Your major is less important than you think. Settle on something sophomore year and stick with it.
  3. Make a long-term course schedule. Don’t live semester by semester with your course planning. Instead, map out what courses you need for your college’s core requirements and your major’s requirements, and then make a long-term schedule to avoid pile-ups.

If I was only allowed to offer you one piece of advice to make your college years easier, it might be this simple rule. Nothing seems to have as profound an effect on student stress than a killer course load (though a killer extracurricular load runs a close second). What pains me is that this stress is so unnecessary. Get the credit hours required to graduate. Take the courses required for your major. That’s all that matters. Don’t make you life much more difficult than it needs to be.

As Amy says: “I realized that the pseudo-life I had been living that past semester was something I never wanted to do again.”

You should consider making a similar pledge.

(Photo by Joe Lanman)

47 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Biggest Source of Stress that Most Students Ignore

  1. David Wilson says:

    Wow, this was really helpful. I’ve been taking huge course loads at engineering school up until now, and its been killing me. I have a super light schedule this fall, and have been feeling a little guilty about it. This helped me realize that this might be a good decision after all.

  2. Nate says:

    This is my favorite post by far.

    To put this idea in the perspective of another student, I’d like to share how my last academic year went.

    Fall Semester ’07: 12 Credits. All A’s and 1 B (Organic Chemistry I!)with academic honors noted on my transcript, all the while after working an off campus job usually 1 day a week (Sundays).

    Spring Semester ’08: 15 Credits. Quit off campus job. While I did not do terribly well, I did not do that bad with 2 A’s, 2 B’s, and 1C (Organic Chemistry II!! Ugh). Eliminating any one of the B or C courses may have well benefited me in the long run!

    Now that I’ve learned my lesson, I’ve got 12 credits lined up for the this year’s fall semester.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    I have a super light schedule this fall, and have been feeling a little guilty about it.

    I’m fascinated by this guilt — which is very common. When you think about it, there is no real explanation. You are taking the required number of credits, your satisfying your major requirements, what is it, exactly, that makes one feel guilty simply because a course load could be harder? Fascinating question once you dive deeper.

    Eliminating any one of the B or C courses may have well benefited me in the long run!

    Indeed, there’s no reason why every semester can’t feel like your fall semester…

  4. Fortunately I learned the dangers of a killer course and extracurricular load early in my college career when I earned my first F in Zoology while trying to take a full load and get inducted into a sorority.

    As a college professor I urged my students to balance their loads and to put their college education in perspective. It’s hard for some of them to realize that they are the main cause of all their stress.

  5. geoff says:

    Without a doubt, this is a very helpful article. However, I also want to add that underscheduling a courseload during a semester may be just as detrimental as overscheduling, as I experienced last year in first semester.

    What I found was that I had WAY too much free time and I always put off work (ugh, procrastination+freshman year = not good!) thinking to myself “I’m taking a reduced load, I can get it done later”. No surprise, my marks suffered quite a bit. Come second semester, I had moved up to a full courseload with 3 lab courses and I finished the school year with a much better performance than what I started out with.

    This heavily depends on the person though, as now I understand that I’m one of those types who likes to keep busy. For myself, too much free time is more of a curse than a blessing!

  6. patrick says:

    I hope this article is right. Right now, I’m entering my senior year in high school, and I decided last year when I was creating my schedule, to take an easy course load, but still meet the minimum requirements. It was amazing how the college counselers at my college prep high school told me I was shooting myself in the foot, and that if I wanted to get into a top college (harvard, Yale, etc.) I’d need a harder schedule. Hopefully I’ll be glad I resisted the social pressure and took a schedule I liked instead of a harder one I wasn’t happy with. If it works out, I plan to keep doing the same thing in college. Cal’s right, there’s no reason to take a bunch of hard classes if you can meet the requirements with less stress.

    Cal- would your advice change for high school students?

  7. David says:

    While I’m a huge fan of the site and think the vast majority of the information here is helpful, I have one question. Given the fact that law school (or at least the one I’m at) doesn’t allow me to pick lighter course loads (I have a prescribed course list – 16 this year) what would you suggest is your biggest efficiency/productivity tip?

  8. Study Hacks says:

    Cal- would your advice change for high school students?

    Yes. I’m not expert on the subject at the high school level, but I do now, for example, that difficulty of your course load is something indicated on your application. And it does matter here. On the other hand, you don’t want to go crazy jamming in as many A.P. courses as possible. The right balance seems to be a challenging but manageable course load supported by a focused, minimized extracurricular schedule that leaves time for you to get your work done.

  9. Study Hacks says:

    Given the fact that law school (or at least the one I’m at) doesn’t allow me to pick lighter course loads (I have a prescribed course list – 16 this year) what would you suggest is your biggest efficiency/productivity tip?

    According to my law school friends, you need to develop your ability to determine what information you need for the tests, and what you shouldn’t waste your time on, and start everything early.

  10. Kara says:

    I completely agree with this post. I think it’s healthy to take a close look at why we put ourselves under such heavy course loads. Steve Pavlina talks (boasts?) about how he took a ridiculous amount of classes in college, but his motivation seems to be “sticking it to the man,” beating the system by doing more than was allowed. This seems more like pride than a love of learning, which is what college is about…

  11. Casvelyn says:

    If a student can take a punishing course load successfully (ie, without stress and ending with high grades), is it worth it, or is pulling back still a good idea?

  12. Study Hacks says:

    If a student can take a punishing course load successfully (ie, without stress and ending with high grades), is it worth it, or is pulling back still a good idea?

    “Hard” is certainly relative to different ability levels. So using your own stress levels, as oppose to some fixed limit on credit hours, is a good idea. Beyond this, however, you want to be careful to avoid “deep procrastination.” (See my recent Monday Master Class on procrastination.) This can occur when you can handle a course load but it takes up so much of your time that you begin to resent it.

    My general rule of thumb is that as long as you have significant amounts of free time on most days then you’re okay…

  13. Josh says:

    I can definitely say as a 2007 graduate and a current graduate student that this is great advice. To any one out there who dares doubt what is said in this post — don’t, it’s all 100 percent true and will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. And if you can avoid it, don’t work in jobs, especially ones unrelated to your field, during college — find time to join professionally oriented groups and do as much networking as possible.

  14. I did a dual major in college and now I have both a BS and a BA. Nobody cares, not even me. It was just wasted time and energy.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    @Josh and Donnie: Well said.

  16. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    I loved reading this article Cal, but I do have one question. Although taking a reduced course load will benefit students for sure, what if a person has quite a few pre-req courses that have to be taken in order to study other courses in future college years. That is courses that might be considered difficult.

    I am currently taking a specialist in Biotechnology, as this is the only major type they have at my school. I am in my second year and most of the courses I will be taking are required courses. I won’t say that they are dificult although I am juggling with Organic Chem I and Analytical chem in first semester plus two Biology courses (molec and anatomy). Finally I need to take a seminar course as well.

    My marks were not all too great freshman year, although I might have the same problem as geoff since I took a reduced course load this year.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Although taking a reduced course load will benefit students for sure, what if a person has quite a few pre-req courses that have to be taken in order to study other courses in future college years.

    I don’t advocate taking a “reduced” course load, I instead suggest that you avoid “hard” course loads. Everyone, of course, has pre-req and major courses to take. The key is to spread out the harder of these courses to the best of your ability, balance with other types of courses, etc.

  18. Konstantin says:

    My college advisor actually turned me on to this blog, and I am so glad he did! Quick question. I’m a pre-med sophomore with a 20 credit schedule including 2 “easy A” classes. My GPA does need a boost from fall of freshman year, but my schedule is packed. Should I drop one of the “easy A” courses?

  19. Study Hacks says:

    My GPA does need a boost from fall of freshman year, but my schedule is packed. Should I drop one of the “easy A” courses?

    If I was you, I would definitely drop. One of the easy courses. Maybe a hard course instead. Two courses? In my mind, you’ll always get a lot more out of a small number of courses you can really focus on then a lot of courses that drive you insane.

  20. Kimberly says:

    For me, the guilt of taking a lighter course load stems from three things:
    1. I want to get the most for my money at college.
    2. I want to learn as much as I can by taking extra courses, simply because they interest me.
    3. I feel like I have to take advantage of every opportunity (inculding fitting in just one more class!).

    You pay the same amount for a full course load whether you’re taking 12 credits or 18- (at least at my college). I always want to take as many classes as I think I can handle to get the most out of my college experience for the same amount of money.

    However, I think Cal is right. It could be argued that all these things are better accomplished by taking less credits and having a balanced schedule. You actually learn more when you have the time to focus on each class; as a result, your money is better spent and you can feel assured that you’re getting the most out of your college experience.

  21. Study Hacks says:

    However, I think Cal is right. It could be argued that all these things are better accomplished by taking less credits and having a balanced schedule

    Right. I think a student following the A* strategy with a reasonable course load will come away learning more the overloaded student.

  22. Anna says:

    After reading a lot of your articles, especially the ones about course loads and simplicity, I’d really like to know what your advice would be for me!
    I’m currently a Junior, double majoring in Finance and Marketing (not to get a job that mixes them both, but because I really don’t know which I’d rather major in – I’m truly interested in both).
    I also figured that having two would widen my job opportunities, since I’d have a wider range of subjects studied.
    The only problem is the amount of courses I have to complete in order to graduate in 4 years. I’d be taking 18 hours next semester (6 3-credit courses), and 21 hours both semesters senior year! I even considered taking a few courses over this upcoming summer, but I need that time to get my first internship, in order to get a job when I graduate!
    If you could give me your take on this problem, I’d really appreciate the advice!

  23. Rachel says:

    @ Anna Just don’t finish in 4 years. Take 5 years.

    I also agree with Kimberly that my main source of guilt about only taking 12 credits is money. The price for a full-schedule is fixed, so the price of 12 credits is the same as 18. So, the longer I have to stay in college, the more money I waste. Is it better to save money by really cramming it in, ending up with a B average? Or is it better to take an extra semester or two, spending thousands of extra dollars, and end up an A average?

    Practically speaking, it’s better to overload yourself to the point where you can just manage a B-average- that’s all most jobs really want to see, anyway.

    But, I just can’t handle the stress of more than 12 credits, so I have resigned to waste some money.

  24. Study Hacks says:

    I’m currently a Junior, double majoring in Finance and Marketing (not to get a job that mixes them both, but because I really don’t know which I’d rather major in – I’m truly interested in both).

    I have a pretty clear point of view on this topic: Drop a major. Graduate in four years.

    The two points to keep in mind, is that a) employers don’t care as much about your major as you think; and b) doing exceptional in something is better than doing lots of things.

    Here are two relevant articles:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/06/26/diligence-vs-ability-rethinking-what-impresses-employers/

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/10/24/does-your-college-major-matter/

  25. J says:

    Thank you so much for this. I took around 20 credits last semester, and got a B+ in Organic I and a B in a biological science class. Now I’m taking 21 and will likely get a B in Organic II and would actually love a B in Calc II. I’m set to get A’s in everything else, but they’ll be relatively low compared to what I would have gotten if I had more sense about course planning.

    I feel like an idiot because if I were smarter about all this I could have straight A’s and would actually enjoy my organic chemistry class. I’ll be much smarter about that in the future. You’ve helped lift the guilt I’ve often associated with a light courseload. Thank you.

  26. natasha says:

    so im taking 15 credits this semester: russian, history like class, social science class and professional writing.

    I have a couple hours between my afternoon courses and a few hours in the evening after my last class which ends at 7 pm. I work from 830 til 12 am on the other days when I dont have the 2 hour ( 5 to 7 pm) class.

    Am I doing too much, and should I schedule for the 9 am class instead of the 1020 so I have more free time?

  27. natasha says:

    never mind. my class schedule doesnt work for the 9 am. otherwise, what is ur best advice?

  28. Study Hacks says:

    so im taking 15 credits this semester: russian, history like class, social science class and professional writing.
    I have a couple hours between my afternoon courses and a few hours in the evening after my last class which ends at 7 pm. I work from 830 til 12 am on the other days when I dont have the 2 hour ( 5 to 7 pm) class.

    You might be okay if you take advantage of the morning as well. With only four classes, in the time between 8 am and 7 pm has to have more than just “a couple of hours” free.

  29. natasha says:

    thanks. that makes sense.

  30. Laurenne says:

    Thank you for helping me come to a great realization- I don’t have to triple concentrate after all.

    I put myself through 8 AP’s and an two extra college classes during my last 2 years of high school, which has put me a year ahead in college. With all of my liberal arts credits out of the way, I thought I might completely inundate myself in business classes for the next 3 or 4 years. Through this article, I’ve realized that these extra credits are a blessing, meaning, I don’t have to take a full course load and I probably don’t need a triple concentration anyhow.

    Thank again, what a blessing to have read this now and not years in the future.

  31. David says:

    Thanks for the great perspective on things! It helps tremendously. I just had one concern. I came into college with many dual enrollment classes completed, around 25 credits, all As and Bs. Thus far in college I have taken 12 credits (3 classes) a semester with a 3.65 average and for 2 of those credits each semester I am a T.A. for a chem class. I was accepted into a clinical research fellowship this summer and will be doing volunteering (both are at the hospital my dad works at as a physician). Throughout the week, I usually play intramural basketball and go to my youth group meetings. Should I be doing more in terms of classes, even though I can keep that same schedule (3 classes and 2 credit T.A. for 12 credits a semester) for these next 4 years (I am ending my freshman year) and can graduate on time and with a great gpa for med school. Take care.

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  33. Mike says:

    I’d just note that double majors not may be bad if you’re pursuing two majors with relatively low credit requirements. For example, I double majored in Psychology (which took something like 11-12 courses) and Religion studies (~8-9 courses), and it was no sweat. However, majoring in electrical engineering and psych, or something like that, would have been a nightmare.

  34. Confused says:

    Dear Cal,
    I am curious as to why you changed your mind about double majors? In your yellow book you encourage students to add another major or minor, but you have posts on your website that go aganist that advice. I just finished my freshman year at a large research university, and sometimes it feels as if everyone has a double major. It makes me feel guilty for pursuing only one major, even though I know this will allow me to spend a year studying in France (I am a French major), write an honors thesis and explore other academic areas that I find interesting.All the other French majors I know can’t even spend a semester abroad, sometimes not even a summer, because they’re too busy trying to finish their other major or two minors or pre-med requirements. I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself, skipping meals to study and staying up until all hours of the night writing a paper. I want to actually enjoy college and enjoy learning, instead of being a grind like I was in high school. I love your blog and your books. Keep up the great work!

  35. Dan says:

    Hi! This is basically the best thing I’ve ever heard. I’ve come across this article multiple times, but after taking 2 quarters of 18+ units in science and math, I can definitely attest to taking the lightest course load you can. I was far too scattered and it stressed me out to the max. Next quarter, I am only taking two hard courses and one lab course. That’s it. That way I can devote serious time to my classes and lab, get better grades and hopefully feel a sense of control for the first time in a long time. Thank you Cal! 🙂

  36. sw says:

    I wish I understood this before I entered junior of HS. I wanted to take the most challenging course load at my school. I took six classes, including three AP classes (Calculus, Chemistry, and US History). The first semester I chose to drop out of my elective course and take two study halls because I simply could not finish my homework and do well on tests. It was a hellish year, and my grades suffered. Reflecting back, I see that all the unneccessary stress came from the believing hardcore myth(and having friends who do).

  37. Snow Polar says:

    I wish I can decide for myself if I want to double major or not to, however my dean strongly believes in “how double majoring develops you as a person” and makes it compulsory for all students in his faculty to double major. Those who refuses will have to sign several forms which as seniors told me, you wouldn’t want to sign it when you see it. :(.

  38. Raindrop11 says:

    Thanks!
    I’m a freshman on a quarter system.
    I’m actually just deciding whether or not to drop a course.
    Looks like I need to switch from 18 credit hours to 13.
    I felt kind of ‘confident’ that I would do badly with the heavy courseload. I was trying to persuade myself to just keep the heavy courseload.
    However I might have to ‘payback’ with a high courseload some other quarter since I don’t have any APs.

  39. Raindrop11 says:

    @Snow Polar
    You gotta see it and make the decision, I mean if it’s just some discouraging words on those forms it’s something to ignore. On the other hand if you’re scholarship would get withdrawn or you would get kicked out of school or fined $20 million that’s a different story…

  40. Christina says:

    This is such great information but so simplistic no one believes it- everyone assumes- stupidly- that more means better, smarter, faster, stronger. If you can work full-time and have a full-time course load you are seen “better” in peoples eyes for some reason. if you can take 7 classes in a semester you are more productive and more intelligent- even information out there misinforms students that competitive colleges will look at your course load to determine how rigorous a student you are and whether you can handle them. Listening to this was the biggest mistake I ever made- Not only am I completely stressed out all the time- I get no sleep and pull constant all nighters and don’t even get to assignments or study for exams the night before because you can’t keep up without cutting corners. Not only do I feel cheated but I feel dumb- by attempting to learn so much you virtually learn nothing.

  41. Greg says:

    Although this seems to be good advice, I don’t think it holds in all cases. As a counterexample, to graduate in four years in my major at my school (Industrial Eng.) you have to take 15 credits every semester and not miss a single course to be on track. On top of that, many graduate schools in IE specifically require higher math courses than included in the curriculum, so I end up taking some 18-19 credit semesters with difficult courses. Last semester I took 18 credits (consisting of Honors Diff. Eq., Mathematical Logic, Data Structures & Algorithms, and 2 upper level engineering courses), worked as a tutor, and still managed to pull a 4.0 GPA. The best part: this wasn’t stressful in the least (and I’m certainly not exceptionally intelligent or anything like that). I went to parties, still haven’t pulled an all nighter, and was able ride mountain bikes and hike once or twice a week.

  42. Ew says:

    Well, I can not drop any of my courses, because in my country everybody has the same curriculum and not doing something on time means great trouble. I have what I have to do, there is no option of doing lighter semester for me. I’m doomed. 🙁

  43. there some of the universities they want the total of credit hours at the end of the two semesters to have 16 credit hours so when in the first semester you did worse it is your matter to have many courses so as to boost your credit hours

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