As an incoming first-year student, one of my (numerous) concerns over the summer was deciding which classes to sign up for. I had no idea what I wanted to major in, and the course catalog seemed overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start! So now that I have completed my first semester of college (!), I’d like to share with you prospective and incoming Obies some advice for choosing your first college classes and examples of what some students decide to take.
First-year students register for some of their classes over the summer and sign up for the remaining during orientation. Last June I did a lot of research on the course catalog and Oberlin website and decided on my top three choices: Intro to Psychological Science, Expression Orale et Écrite, and a first-year seminar called Foodways and Foodscapes. I was most excited about the Foodways seminar - I love cooking (and eating!), and a whole class centered around food and culture sounded amazing. I had taken French all through high school and was thinking of majoring or minoring in it, and so I knew I wanted to continue that in college. I had never taken a psychology class before but I thought it would be interesting, so I decided to try that. Luckily, I got into all three of those classes. When I got to Oberlin for orientation, I decided to sign up for Introduction to Computer Science (CSCI 150). I had never done anything like that before, but I decided it would be a good way to round out my schedule and complete some of my course requirements.
I ended up really liking all of my classes and professors. My psychology professors were funny and engaging, and I thought the material was fascinating. The workload was manageable, just textbook readings and online quizzes once a week with four exams over the semester. I am looking forward to taking more psych, and I’m even considering it for a major! I was worried going into French, thinking that it would be difficult and stressful, but I found that the class was very laid back, and my professor was very kind and reasonable, which I appreciated. That class consisted mainly of readings, a few projects, and in-class discussions. My Foodways class was one of my favorites. I liked that it was small, and it was a good way to get to know other freshmen with similar interests. The readings from that class were great, and we had a lot of interesting conversations about food and culture. I was surprised at how much I liked computer science. I expected it to be really difficult for me, but despite the relatively heavy workload, I enjoyed it and felt like I learned a lot. I’m not sure if I want to continue taking many more computer science classes, but it was a good experience for me to have, and I like that it was very different from my other courses this semester.
As we finished up the semester, I interviewed some of my first-year peers about their classes. Here are some of their experiences:
Last semester I took Biology 100, Geology 120, Approaches to Western Art, and my seminar, called Well-Being. I chose biology because I might major in that subject, and this class is a requirement. I also chose geology because I’m considering Environmental Studies as another major, and geology is required for that.
My bio and geology classes each include lectures and a lab. Both labs meet once a week for about 2-3 hours. For some of the geology labs, you go on field trips, which is really fun. We went to Lake Erie and looked at wave formations and different sediment layerings and we went to Cascade Park and looked at original features like waterfalls and the river.
Art history is a lecture-based class. It’s pretty fast-paced; you go through a lot of eras of art pretty quickly. You read some criticisms of art from art historians. It’s a writing class so you write description/analysis papers, like reading response. It is a 100-level course so it’s not super-intensive and specific. We go to the Allen sometimes and go to a special room upstairs where we can look at the art up close, which is really cool.
I actually started out in a different seminar, but my advisor suggested I find more of a science-based one because that’s more what I’m interested in. I looked into other options and Well-Being seemed interesting because it incorporates biology and psychology and art. I like my seminar a lot because it’s a different format from most of my other classes, which are larger lectures. Well-Being has a lot of group projects and discussions which is a nice change of pace from lectures, and I like that I know everyone in that class.
In terms of advice, I would say if you’re interested in something you should definitely take that course as soon as you can, but also take classes that are kind of random or more exploratory. I wasn’t thinking of being an art history major, but I thought the class sounded cool, so I was like, why not, it’s my first year so I have time to look around.
I took Social Psychology, French 301, Intro to Philosophy, and my first-year seminar, Cryptography. For my cryptography class, we do worksheets where we learn mathematical concepts, how to encrypt and decrypt secret codes, and the history behind the subject. It’s completely group work and the amount of homework ramps up as you go along, but it gets you used to it so it doesn’t feel like a lot. You don’t need any prior knowledge to do it because everything you need in that class you’re taught there.
In French, we read things and write essays and talk about cultural things, review grammar, brush up on vocabulary, and talk a lot in class.
In my philosophy class, we spend a lot of time talking about the different theories that are the basis of philosophy - the things you need to know before moving forward in the subject. We talked about Sartre, Kant, consequentialism, and other topics. For that class, there’s reading as homework maybe once a week, and then two papers, which you’re given plenty of time for. It is a lot of lecture, but there are parts where you can ask questions and discuss. My class was bigger than usual, and I think it had about 40 people, but it didn’t feel huge.
Psych is super cool, we talk about all kinds of different social psychology concepts and then we relate them to the real world, so we’re not just learning about theories, we’re actually implementing them. That class has a fair amount of homework, all of the work and readings are really interesting so it doesn’t feel like it’s a lot. A three-page paper can go by super quickly when it’s about the psychological concepts behind the Black Lives Matter movement.
We registered for classes over the summer, but the only class from then that I ended up keeping was French. I knew I wanted to keep taking French after high school. I’m not super into math but I thought the cryptography class would be a fun way to do some math and have a varied schedule. I’m thinking about majoring in Psychology and social psych was the class that best fit my schedule and was the one that I was most interested in. I was never planning to take philosophy - I was trying to get into an English class but didn’t get in until the last day of add-drop, so I decided to stay in philosophy. That ended up being good because I’m taking a philosophy class next semester which has this class as a prerequisite. I didn’t think about course requirements at all when choosing my classes. I just chose whatever interested me and worked with my schedule.
I would recommend not putting too much on your plate to start off, but you shouldn’t make a schedule where everything’s easy, because then you won’t be motivated to do any of it. So try to find a good balance and remember that there’s gonna be other stuff that you’ll want to do as well like social stuff, finding a job, joining clubs, etc. All of it will have to find a balance in your life.
I’m taking Intro to American Politics with Professor Parkin, and it’s an amazing class, he has a lot of energy and really gets you interested in the topic and current politics. I’m taking Intro to Black and White Photography, and I took it because I did a lot of photography in high school and I thought taking an intro class would be interesting and a good way to meet people and refresh my skills. My first-year seminar is Global Pilgrimage in History, which I got randomly assigned into, so that was interesting, but I enjoyed it. It was a lot of reading, but it was okay. I’m also taking calculus, which is a struggle, even though I took calculus last year. It’s definitely my hardest class, even though it probably shouldn’t be.
I really like math - I’m not good at it but I like it - so that’s why I took Calculus. I’m interested in politics and photography so that’s why I took those, and I was randomly assigned my first-year seminar. I did stuff I wanted to do. I kind of have a large range of interests so I’m not worried about the course requirements. I would definitely recommend taking what you want to take and not worrying about the requirements. You’ll have time to worry about that later.
If you want some more resources to help you find good first-semester classes, I would highly recommend checking out this list of classes suggested for first-year students. If a class you want to take isn’t on this list, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take it, but you may need to get consent from the professor and/or have an appropriate AP/IB/SAT test score. If you have a question about a course and your eligibility for it, definitely just email the professor. Another useful resource is the course catalog, but know that not all of the classes on this list may be offered every semester or every year.
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