Welcome to Excel Test Prep’s Summer College Series!!!
Written by Sonia Mahajan & Kiyasha Mehta; Edited by Mariah Embry
If you’ve watched any Hollywood movie about college life, you’ll know that college classes mostly take places in big lecture halls, everyone skips class, no one knows their professors, and nights are spent either partying hard or crying in the library. How accurate these film portrayals of college life are dependent on the school (and the movie), but for the most part, college classes are much more diverse and interesting than the movies portray. Here’s a brief rundown of what you can expect from college classes.
Most college students will take introductory classes and general education (GE)/core requirements their first year. Depending on the college, GE/core requirements may be lecture classes, seminar classes, or a mix. In college, classes can start as early as 8:00 in the morning and end as late as 10:30 at night. It’s up to you to build your schedule to fit your needs (although I’d recommend not scheduling any classes during the hours clubs typically meet). If you do better when you wake up early, it’s possible to be finished with all your classes by lunchtime. Other students prefer to sleep in and will schedule all their classes for later in the evening. Some students will plan to have all their classes on two or three days of the week so that they can spend the other four to five days of the week focusing on studying outside of class or working. College scheduling is very flexible and completely up to you and the classes you want to take. Additionally, some colleges have “shopping period,” a period of one to two weeks during which students can add and drop classes with no penalty until they find a schedule that fits.
Laptops and Notebooks
Every college movie and many articles by current college students tout the fact that professors will allow you to use laptops and tablets in every class. While this has been the case in many of the classes I’ve taken, many professors, especially those in seminar classes and discussion sections, prefer students to use notebooks and some explicitly forbid the use of laptops in class.
Unlike high school classes, college classes typically don’t have daily homework assignments. Most of the work for college classes is readings from the textbook, term projects, or studying for final exams. Some classes may also require students to complete problem sets or discussion responses, although these are usually weekly or biweekly assignments.
Professors and TAs will have office hours, periods of time during which you can go in to talk to them to clarify concepts, learn about their research, or just get to know them better. Even in large lecture classes, professors will take note of students who regularly come in to office hours with questions and raise their hands in class. Getting to know your professor is beneficial for applying to internships and jobs (which could ask for academic references) and delving deeper into your own interests (some professors will even recommend you to programs and jobs they think you’d like!).
Exams and Assessments
Some classes may include midterm and final exams that are a significant portion of the grade for the class. These exams are much longer than high school tests—each midterm or final can take up to three or four hours—and usually count for 10-25% (in the case of midterms) or 20-60% (in the case of finals) of the grade for the class. However, in college, there are many classes that require final papers or projects instead of exams, which some students prefer. It’s pretty easy to find classes that fit your learning style.
Types of Classes
Introductory Classes- While it’s true that most introductory college classes take place in large lecture halls containing between 150 and 1,000 students, most first-year college students will take part in smaller discussion sections for introductory classes. Intro classes are typically taught by professors while discussion sections are led by TAs. Introductory classes will introduce you to a certain major, usually do not have prerequisites, and may be prerequisites for more advanced classes in the major. Intro classes for very popular majors, such as computer science, may be designed to be “weeder classes,” or very hard classes that separate those who are truly committed to the major from those who are not. Weeder classes typically have high drop rates, but they are also harder than the average class for the major. In college, it’s okay to drop classes if you feel like you have too much on your plate, but don’t drop classes just because you’re afraid you’ll get a bad grade. If you’re really worried about your GPA, though, many schools offer the option to pass-fail certain classes, so you can focus on learning and exploring.
Lecture Classes- Lecture classes are similar to introductory classes, although they are sometimes smaller and focus on a more specific topic. Lecture classes are taught by a professor and will usually have a lecture or recitation component led by a TA. Some lecture classes take attendance using quizzes or iClicker questions at the start of every class, although many lecture classes don’t take attendance. Some of the classes that require attendance will make it a small part of the grade. Most lecturers use slides to present, which they later post online for students to access. A few professors will even create optional study guides or lists of topics to know for the final exam.
Discussion Sections and Recitation- Discussion sections will usually be run by a teaching assistant, or TA. TAs are graduate students or undergraduate juniors and seniors who are specializing in the field the class is in. Discussion section size ranges depending on the class and college, but a typical discussion section will have between 20 and 30 students. In discussion sections, your TA will usually go over the material covered in that week’s classes, provide additional notes and clarify any questions you have. Sometimes, TAs will facilitate a discussion and students will do most of the talking. “Recitation” is essentially the same as discussion section but involves less discussion. Science, economics, and math classes typically involve recitation while social science and humanities classes usually involve discussion sections.
Seminar Classes- Seminar classes are smaller classes that are discussion-based but getting into a seminar class your first year might be hard, especially if your school has a large average class size. (This might be something to take into account when applying to colleges and choosing where to attend. Private colleges and small liberal arts colleges, such as Swarthmore College or Pomona College, typically offer more seminar classes at lower levels and overall smaller class sizes.) Unlike lecture classes and intro classes, seminar classes usually take attendance, which can be beneficial if you find you need to be held accountable in order to show up for class. Seminar classes offer more one-on-one interaction with the professor and your classmates, although they may also be taught by graduate students or postdocs.
Lab Classes- Some science classes in college may require you to take a lab class. While these lab classes are more common for science and engineering majors, students in the social sciences and humanities may also take lab classes as part of GE/core requirements or just for fun. Lab classes meet one or two times a week to conduct experiments and usually require written lab reports. Lab classes vary in size but are more hands-on than lecture or seminar classes.
While no two colleges are the same and no two classes will be the same, this has hopefully given you an idea of what to expect from college classes. If you want a better idea of what college classes are like at your specific college, don’t be afraid to reach out to upperclassmen or campus ambassadors the summer before your freshman year to find out what you can expect. While a lot of college classes are harder than your typical high school course, remember that you’ll most likely be studying something you enjoy in college. College classes are fun, so don’t be afraid of them!