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Picking classes

Senior year brings an amalgam of intense feelings, confusions and apprehensions. It is a year of transition where independent work becomes significantly more serious and the prospect of leaving the academy for the first time is daunting. These fears and anxieties are normal, unavoidable and important to moving on — natural growing pains. One consistent and far more avoidable senior-concern is the pangs of regret associated with doubting class selection choices.  There are more than a thousand class options per semester — a student will take around 35 in his 8 semesters. It is impossible to play out in one’s mind what could have been. There are steps, however, that can be taken to minimize this sense of doubt, and ensure that one is confident in one’s choices.

The most important and perhaps overstated item of advice given is that the quality of a professor makes or breaks a class. The degree to which this is true makes it worth taking a class by a stellar professor, even in a subject only moderately interesting. Knowing which professors fit this bill is discovered by reputation and consultation with other professors who themselves wish they could audit their colleagues classes. Also, course reviews and Youtube clips of previous classes can be useful tools. For example, in my experience taking Caryl Emerson’s COM 415: Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, and the Tasks of Literature is less about understanding Tolstoy than it is about learning how to approach an author from Caryl Emerson. If a student exposes herself to the great minds living at this institution she can better access the dead ones codified in the pages of our texts.

In order to take full advantage of the tremendous professors available at the University, it is also important to balance the type of work one takes on in a given semester. Even in a world where a student chooses all the “right” classes, one cannot extract all the wisdom available if there is an imbalance in class work requirements. Too many essays and an 80 page Dean’s Date or too many problem sets and back-to-back-to-back finals doesn’t allow a student to maximize his attention allocation. A little planning allows for a healthy mixture.

In balancing different types of course work, one also encourages well-roundedness. Interesting people can and should participate in many forms of cultural and scientific literacy. It is of course important to be passionate about something and achieve a level of expertise, but that should not come at the cost of exposure to diverse disciplines. The most stimulating people are computer science majors who understand biblical allusions in literature, or comparative literature majors who have confronted questions of impending computer singularity (the point at which computers surpass human intelligence). It is important to build the ability to approach life with the varied tools necessary. Taking liberal arts seriously also allows students to continue studying interesting things on their own, after their formal schooling has concluded. Amassing analytic tools also allows for one to grow into new interests. We are constantly becoming aware of new interesting intellectual pursuits. We can indulge these curiosities thoroughly if we expose ourselves to different modes of thinking.

Simultaneously important to acquiring a varied set of analytic tools is also developing functional skills necessary to be an asset in a “real-world” working environment. Many work skills can be learned quickly and on the spot, while others require the careful guidance of a professor. A robust statistics course is important for many jobs, and while statistics is seldom anyone’s favorite class, it is undeniably helpful and not taking it could be a source of eventual regret.

Ultimately, I believe it is important to not get bogged down in the future. Selecting courses to check boxes of what one ought to know for a potential job is a major source of regret. So too is treating the course title numbers as existing in a progression — as in one should take a 300-level course only after having done a 200-level version. These numbers should mostly be viewed as easing cataloguing for the office of the registrar. The titles of courses is important — the corresponding digits are not. Choosing classes is about a little research, a little intuition, a little luck and little disregard for what one “ought to do.”

Aaron Applbaum is a Wilson School major from Oakland, Calif. He can be reached atapplbaum@princeton.edu.

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