As a wee pre-first year, I received a printed Oberlin course catalog in the mail. (Which I read, by candlelight, in an unheated log cabin in the woods of Kentucky. Just kidding. I was already in Hawaii at this point, which meant I was reading it on the beach barefoot with sand between my toes.) It was a huge book — I think it was blue? — and filled with everything I hoped I could devour over my four years at Oberlin.
Reality set in, though, when I started dog-earing (don't do this, says my librarian dad! Don't ever do this to books because it makes them sad! It was a catalog disguised as a book though... but... yeah... in retrospect, I probably should have used mini post-it notes. Thanks, Dad.) and highlighting page after page filled with classes of interest to me. I wanted to take everything, and I wasn't even in college yet. High school was infinitely boring by comparison because it didn't have classes called Form, Style, and Meaning in Cinema, or Gender, Social Change, and Social Movement, or even Odyssey and the Myths of Comedy (for the record: all of these are real classes I later took in college). I really wanted to be in college already, with no help from the course catalog teasing me throughout my pre-college wait. Something would have to change.
Something did. Or rather several things did.
First of all, I graduated from high school. That was a big step.
Next, I got to campus, where the course catalog was no longer just a paper tome (protip: it's no longer a book, friends, sorry about that), but a digital catalog where I could no longer dog-ear pages, much to my father's delight.
Then, I realized that I wasn't doing this alone anymore. I had people to talk to who had actually taken the REAL LIVE CLASSES I wanted to take. The professors I knew only by first initial and last name on paper were REAL LIVE PEOPLE. And my advisor was no longer a name in an email, but a human with a REAL LIVE OFFICE I could visit where I could receive guidance toward course nirvana. (For me, this was Pat Day '71, a man I admire greatly and who ended up being my major advisor after I declared cinema studies. Pat's wonderful to talk to and always provided really useful checks and balances for the semesters I planned for myself. Also he showed us Star Wars at the beginning of American Cinema. So thank you for that, too, Pat.)
Which I really needed. Because a different reality set in once I got to campus: the one where my initial list was way too long for four YEARS of college, much less one semester. I'm pretty sure every Oberlin student has had this moment at least once during their college career (if not once a month), and it's crushing in some ways. Pre-college students: you will one day feel this way, around college or something else, and it's a moment of mortality that makes you realize that there's more in this world than you'll ever be capable of accomplishing... but it's a blessing that you have many choices, and many of them will be jusssssst fine.
My first semester was relatively easy to plan and execute. I knew I wanted to take an exploratory course in the two areas of interest I already had in my life, cinema studies and biology, to see if I wanted to progress more. During the summer, I registered for a First Year Seminar (my first introduction to media studies and it was almost completely unplanned! Thanks, Pat Day's A Sense of Time and Place!) and Form, Style, and Meaning in Cinema. After confirming with my advisor that an intro bio course would give me some classroom and academic variety, and that an introductory Hebrew course would be a nice complement to my other choices, I had my first semester set. I walked into my course registration time during orientation with a list of Course Registration Numbers (CRN), logged into PRESTO (our registration system), registered for everything, and walked out within two minutes after printing out the calendar schedule with the time blocks for each of my classes. College was this easy? I didn't even have to use the "shopping period" of add/drop? I could totally do this every semester, I thought. Painless and simple!
And never to happen again.
Every semester following that first one, there was always a hitch. Classes I wanted to take had time conflicts with classes I absolutely needed to take. The professor I was excited to learn from was on sabbatical. I needed to complete a course I was already in to complete the prerequisite for the next semester's course. The waitlists. And unlike my first communal registration period during orientation, this all happened in the solitary space of my room where no one could hear me bash my head against my computer's keyboard while yelling WHY PRESTO WHY. Woe is me. (Funny, I wrote a blog post with almost that exact title in 2009.)
My overall process for each semester did remain relatively similar, though, and it's one I recommend highly because it worked very well for me! I have few academic regrets regarding the courses I did take (though I have many surrounding courses that I never managed to fit in... c'est la vie).
I would grab an old fashioned pen and paper (okay, okay, you can do this on your computer but the act of writing it down really helped me narrow things down when I was doing it), go through the course catalog one department at a time and write down all the classes I was willing/able/required/EXCITED to take in the coming semester (plus the time the course was offered, the professor, what requirements the course fills, the CRN, and if I could figure out the type of class — lecture, discussion, reading heavy, writing heavy, etc.).
Then I confirmed the absolute yeses for each semester, usually one or two based my major or a specific graduation requirement I was trying to complete. Those were my hard-and-fasts, which means that starting to select my other classes for the semester would have to be based on those two. I'd then create a list of 6-8 classes I'd be cool with including in my schedule that semester. (I would never get to take them all, but I would always be happy with some combination of them. I still have these lists somewhere. I should try and find them and I could redo Oberlin all over again, or at least you all could try on my behalf!)
At this point, I'd visit Pat for our semesterly meeting and talk about my list. (Protip for everyone doing college anywhere: don't forget your advisor! They are great for a million reasons but especially for choosing classes!) Pat's been at Oberlin for awhile and knew lots about my major and general graduation requirements, and he was excellent at helping figure out a good balance and checking I had all the right things in my brain. At the end of the meeting, I'd receive my RAP number, a custom registration number that would allow me to sign up for my next semester's courses in PRESTO.
By the time registration rolled around, I'd have my choice schedule, my few alternates, and my "Hey Professor Awesomepants, I need consent for your course and/or a spot on your waitlist!" email ready to go. I'd spend only a few minutes doing this once during the pre-semester registration, and then when necessary during the add/drop "shopping period." (Add/drop shopping is the first ten days of each semester where visiting classes you wish to take/get into is highly encouraged. It's also the only time during the semester that your schedule is in flux as consent is granted, waitlists are adjusted, and balance is ultimately achieved.)
This worked for me, but in true Obie form, not everyone does things this way, and even since I've graduating, even some of the approaches have changed (thanks, technology). Like I mentioned before, we've got an all-digital course catalog now. Color-coordinated spreadsheets rise and fall in popularity, usually partnered with students trying to balance more than one major. Facebook queries asking your immediate network for class and professor recommendations come up every semester (these are always fun!). In the past few years, a new project called OPrestissimo has helped hundreds of students plan their semesterly schedules by combining information from the course catalog and PRESTO into one handy-dandy spot.
I collected a bit of additional advice from some recent grads imparting their registration strategies below, both for first-years in particular and for planning out college courses in general:
For new Obies:
Ida: My first two years, I maxed out my credits every semester and had classes from at least five different departments every semester. (Oberlin gave me an award for this later, no joke, apparently it made me a well-rounded liberal arts student.) About a week before registration, I would sit down and go through the listings of literally every single department, take down the names, times, and CRNs of every course that interested me, and then put together a schedule I liked. (This is how I ended up almost never having morning classes, and often having either no T/Th or no M/W/F classes.)
I let my majors guide me, in that I took at least one German course every semester and a linguistics course almost every semester, and in my last two years I was taking mostly just ling and German - but on my quest to find my second major I went through a ton of subjects: physics, environmental studies, psychology, computer science, ethnomusicology, sociology, English, philosophy, obviously flute, some ExCos... my advice to ickle firsties would be to put your eyes on every single class and seriously consider taking it. That's how you discover passions you didn't know you had. (And that's how you make schedules with four-day weekends.)
Jimmy: I had such broad interests that I just kind of took intro-level classes in things that I thought I might be vaguely interested in and as it turned out I was very interested in some things and less interested in other things. My FYS Selfishness or Altruism with Keith Tarvin which was by far my favorite class and misled me into thinking I was a bio major when really I just liked reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
Alice: My first semester I took two classes that were just for first-years. I recommend this: not just colloquia, but some of the creative writing and Theater 101, that sort of thing.
Lilly: When I started Oberlin, I was going to be a serious pre-med student. That lasted...maybe a year. So I chose two classes to go with my pre-med schedule. And then the other two classes: I took a FYS seminar (HIV/AIDS in America) because I was told to, and it was amazing and ended up changing my life. And then I took a second class on a whim. Seriously, going through PRESTO and being like, what is open during any of my free time? And that professor became my mentor and that subject became my major, economics. Embrace randomness!
Sneha: I had an inkling that I wanted to study math and/or philosophy, so my first semester freshman year I took Discrete Math and an intro philosophy survey class. I also took a history class (for fun) and an FYS. One thing I found true for myself (not sure if this holds for other people) is that I typically didn't get much out of survey courses. I learned much more by taking a class that digs deep into a subject than one that hops from topic to topic every week. My feeling is that professors often enjoy teaching the former type of class more too. I tried to keep 100-level classes to a minimum (this would be hard to do if you're starting a science, I guess) but in general I found I got more out of a class if I challenged myself to take a 200-level even if it was the first class I took in that subject area.
Ari: I TOTALLY DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS METHOD, but I'm going to share it because I think it's funny and kind of embarrassing. For my first semester at Oberlin when I didn't know anyone and then the following few semesters, I figured I would use the internet to do all the recommending. I downloaded all of the data from ratemyprofessors.com, which was still mildly active at the time, and downloaded the class schedule from the registrar's website and put them together in a spreadsheet, so that it would automatically color code the classes with the highest-rated professors bright green. Then I would delete the classes that I didn't have the prereqs for (bad choice!), and pick and choose a schedule from the remaining list.
Ida: As diverse as my interests were/are, it usually only came down to maybe eight or a dozen classes that I really wanted to be in, and then it was just a game of schedule-puzzle and a question of whether they'd be full when I registered. Find out who the stellar professors are and stick to them like superglue gone wild. A+ 10/10 guaranteed way to love your coursework and never again have a social life.
Jimmy: I went through my major departments and picked out the classes from those that I really wanted to take. Usually from those alone I would have plenty of classes to make up my schedule, but I would go through most of the rest of the departments and write down anything that caught my eye there. It was good to go into a scheduling period with 7-8 classes that I really wanted to take; I usually had 3 or 4 classes within my majors, and maybe a class from outside my majors.
Alice: I started with getting classes I needed to finish my major and filled in around them. I ignored departments I had no interest in. As a bio major, the major issue was finding classes that would work with labs — if you have to take a Tuesday lab and Wednesday lab in one semester, for example, that cuts waaaaay down on the number of social sciences and humanities you can take. (Sidenote: cinema studies classes, art classes, and some creative writing classes also do the three-hour chunk thing like a lab class does, which eats up a lot of scheduling possibilities, but it also made for some nice completely free afternoons that I could schedule for work.)
Sneha: Almost my entire time at college, I focused on taking 2 classes that were directly related to my major, and 2 classes that just looked like they would be fun to learn about. I kept my ears open for recommendations of good faculty and fun classes.
Ari: The spreadsheet approach led me to some pretty awesome classes and one pretty terrible class. Some big structural mistakes:
Professors (and people in general) aren't either good instructors or bad instructors. People are generally good instructors for classes that they love teaching. And teaching styles change over time. The ratings that I grabbed from the internet were big mishmashes of angry and happy reviews from students who had taken all kinds of classes from these professors over many different years. So the numbers from the internet didn't actually mean much in reality.
I thought that I needed to take 100-level classes in every department before I took upper-level classes. While this is sort of true in some natural science departments, it's not always a good choice elsewhere. And I didn't figure that out until I was too far into a double science major to take many elective courses. I missed out on a lot of good, specialized history and anthropology classes that way.
Your peers are generally better than excel spreadsheets, for most things at least.
On the other hand, in the spreadsheet's defense, the three classes I took my first semester at Oberlin were, in retrospect, some of the best classes that I took and have taught me skills and frameworks that I use at least every week if not every day, AND indirectly but definitely helped me get my current job. And my current job involves sitting on inflatable rafts on subalpine lakes in wilderness areas of a beautiful national park, so that's saying something.
Two last things I've discovered in retrospect when looking at my own process years later:
You'll never get to take everything here (sighhhhhhh) but you can try your hardest to do as many excellent things as possible as a student. Two ways to make the most of it include keeping a running list of profs you are itching to take a class with (Oberlin History as American History is where it's AT!)
You might not have any idea who the awesome professors are during your first semester, but take advantage of orientation! Asking "Who's your favorite professor and why?" is a great conversation starter. There are a number of upperclassmen on campus during this first week to make your life great, including but not limited to academic ambassadors (use them, talk to them — they're also around to help you navigate PRESTO registration for the first time!), RAs/HLECs, fall athletes, student reps for a number of organizations, etc. Way back in the day, one of my student ambassadees (Is that what you call someone you're the academic ambassador for? I'm not sure.) walked up to me during an orientation lunch with a list of classes and we talked about all the professors on their list that I'd had classes with. (While I am now an Old Person, I still have super great professor people to share if you ask me that question. Seriously. Ask me that question!)
Okay, young Padawans. Go out and do this! I know you can.
This Obie who Won.