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Monday Master Class: Drop Courses Every Semester

Course OverloadToss

One of the key concepts of last week’s Radical Simplicity Manifesto was the importance of a manageable course schedule. Organizational techniques can only take you so far. Eventually, the confluence of too many hard courses becomes too much to handle. Avoid this problem by avoiding overwhelming schedules.

The advice described in this post goes a long way toward this goal. I first learned this unexpected nugget way back in 2003, when I was conducting the initial interviews for How to Win at College. It stuck with me for two reasons. One, it’s simple. Two, it opened my eyes to how much control elite students maintain over who or what gets permission to demand their attention.

The rules reads as follows: Drop a course every semester.

From Overload to Reduction

Allow me to elaborate. At the beginning of each semester, sign up for one or two more courses than the normal load for your school. During the first two weeks, attend all of these classes. Read the syllabi. Get a feel for the professor’s lecture style and personality. Ask questions about what the tests or papers will be like. Complete a few reading assignments and gauge what the ensuing discussions require.

Once you have completed this scholastic recon: drop the courses you liked the least; leaving yourself with a normal course load. There is no penalty for dropping courses. It costs no money. It doesn’t show up on your transcript. But the advantages to you can be substantial…

A Little Pain to Avoid a Lot

Yes, I agree, it’s annoying to sit in on extra classes. But it’s just for two weeks. And the first two weeks of the semester are the easiest. This is a small price to pay to avoid a toxic course — the type of mood killing, time stealing, kick in the groin monsters that have a way of thoroughly trashing unsuspecting undergraduates. In How to Win, I referred to this technique as an Academic Insurance Policy. It protects you against disaster semesters.

From Controlled to Control

The students who first taught me this advice had a strong desire to control their experience. One of the ways they were able to support a Rhodes Scholar lifestyle, without going insane, was by fastidiously eliminating any potential source of mental friction in their day to day schedule. They realized that taking great care in course selection is a crucial piece in ensuring that their college experience foldings the way they wanted. My humbles suggestion: follow their lead.

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16 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Drop Courses Every Semester”

  1. Cal, your post is timed beautifully. I am currently in discussion with a student about this very thing. They started more courses than the norm because they thought they could manage. But just as you state, he picked too many hard courses to handle.

    Rather than feel as if he’s failed, he should feel in control of his life. It’s a question of perception. Many people need to drop courses, but see the negative value instead. It needn’t be that way.

  2. @University Scholar:

    I don’t know about “beliefs” — indeed, alternative viewpoints should be sought out — but personality is, from my experience, a valid reason to drop. I should clarify. By “personality,” I mean, mainly, his or her approach to teaching the subject. Some physics profs, for example, adopt a “this is tough, I’m going to spew this at you and see which of you can hang on” attitude, which, for some students, is motivating, but for others might be crippling.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with this philosophy and have used it to weed out the ridiculous teachers.

    The one caveat to this is that in order to participate in class discussions, you need to do some advanced reading, hence you might need to buy class materials you buy might not be fully refundable if you wait too long to drop a course. Of course, there are ways to get around this (e.g. if you’ve got a friend in a class, borrow his textbook or sell your textbook through some on-campus student book exchange or try to find exact same/or even equivalent materials. I guess how long/whether you should even buy the class materials all depends on how long you’re planning on “eavesdropping” and how long/whether you can return these materials to the bookstore.

    Some of the decision to drop classes also should be based on how much you really think you’ll need a given professor’s help. I know that this is not easy to predict in any given class before the semester really heats up, but getting a feel for class demands is important. Also, I think that a knowledge of how arbitrary/concrete the information is (and hence how much of your success in the class depends on somebody’s opinion) should be inquired about while asking about the tests/papers.

    Interestingly enough, I did have the same kind of physics professor you mentioned above. He went as far as trying to scare students out of his class by rattling on about how lots of students always dropped his class after the first exam. I felt uncomfortable as I had never taken physics before and knew that it would be very likely that I’d need a good professor in order to succeed. So I switched into another physics sequence with a professor who was more willing to help students. Did I succeed? Yes. It taught me another important lesson that should be stressed when evaluating classes: never underestimate the power of snap judgment.

  4. @David:

    Thank you for the excellent additions. In reference to your final point, did you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink? There’s an interesting chapter on how students can accurately predict how well a professor will be rated by his class just by seeing a few second clip.

  5. No I haven’t but I looked it up online and so I have a general idea what it’s about. As I’ve been thinking about subconscious learning/thought and how it works, I’ll probably look into getting it and giving it a decent read. Maybe it might even explain why I can spend 5 minutes trying to figure out the answer to a crossword puzzle hint, leave it alone for 5 minutes or so, and be able to solve it in 2 seconds upon looking at it again : )

  6. I can spend 5 minutes trying to figure out the answer to a crossword puzzle hint, leave it alone for 5 minutes or so, and be able to solve it in 2 seconds upon looking at it again : )

    If we really understood how that worked and how we could optimize it, it would be an amazing study hack.

  7. Yes, I admit that would indeed be sweet, but I’m really not sure how to apply it to school. I can however give you an example from my crosswording to illustrate how it might work. First of all, let me say that I’m fairly experienced at crosswording (LA Times mostly), having done it constantly every day for about a year now:

    The clue was “Exclusive, in a way” and I had put down “_la_ni_h” as my answer. The other intersecting words gave me no clue as to what the missing letters could be. I thought for awhile before finally starting to a different section of the puzzle. Than I returned to it and got a few ideas:

    1. From experience, there generally tends to be a pattern of vowels and consonants.

    2. Certain vowel combinations appear more often than others (how many English words can you think of with an “ae”? More often then not, English words have “ea”.)

    3. Certain consonant/vowel or consonant/consonant combinations appear more often than others. (Which do you see more often at the beginning of a word: “St” or “ts”).

    While these rules are more or less current is certain situations, in this case they led me to enter in “clannish” as my answer.

    The point is not that I got the answer but that by letting my subconscious mind work, rather than my conscious mind, I was able to discern which rules applied where and how they applied. Also of interest is the order in which I used these “rules” to arrive at my answer applied, another thing my conscious mind wasn’t able to discern at first.

    Any thoughts on how this applies to school??

  8. This sounds very helpful, and I will likely use it when registering for my next semester. I wish I had done it this semester. However, my university’s drop deadline is the Friday after classes start, which means that I will only have 3 (MWF) or 2 (TR) classes to evaluate the prof before I have to make a decision.

  9. @Amy:

    Wow, they really give you no time! At MIT, for example, the drop date is three weeks before the last day of classes. Though I guess a full week of courses should be enough to make a decision on whether or not to take a particular course.

  10. @David:

    I’ve been thinking about this crosswording issue. The application that comes to mind is just how experience with a particular intellectual field yields much more ease of working within those confines. The analogy I’m thinking of: if you spend a semester engaging with the ideas in a particular class, talking to the professor, asking questions, thinking about it on your own time (i.e., the equivalent of doing the crossword every day), then when a test or paper comes along, you can, in essence, “see the matrix,” providing nuanced, insightful answers that just come naturally to you (i.e., like the tricky crossword clue.)

  11. Yes, I think that that would indeed be correct. The only difference is that the “confines” of a crossword puzzle are more open than those of a class. Also, I think that this is some of the reason why your system for solving technical problems without pulling all-nighters works.

  12. Yes, the add/drop date is early. However, we have an equivalent to what you are suggesting: Q-dropping, which comes pretty late in the semester. The caveat is that a student is allowed only 3 Q-drops in an undergraduate career, so it’s not something I could use for this purpose.


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