"What's your major?" You will be asked this question or one of its variations countless times over the next four years. It is the default conversation topic for the college years. You may not have a ready answer, though. Or you may have an answer now that will change next semester. In fact, expect some uncer- tainty and indecision. It's natural and necessary. When we asked current college students and recent graduates what words of advice they would give to first-year students, the most frequent response was, "Be flexible!" Explore opportunities, let yourself change your mind, and be open to following your curiosity.

Academic planning, then, is a process of exploration. It involves asking questions, setting goals, taking action, and reflecting on your progress. You will probably decide, revise, and decide again. You will make adjustments along the way as you learn more about your own interests and talents.

This chapter covers all aspects of academic planning:

  • Your academic advisor and you
  • Selecting a major and minor
  • Changing your major
  • Developing a graduation plan
  • Selecting and registering for classes

Your Academic Advisor

Ideally, your academic advisor is an approachable, caring, knowledgeable mentor who will inform you about your options and requirements and help guide you in your decision making. Usually, your advisor is assigned to you. He or she might be a full-time professional advisor or a professor in your chosen field of study who also advises students. At this early stage your "chosen field" is whatever box you checked when you sent in your initial paperwork. You have the option to change advisors.

A good academic advisor will help you:

Develop your class schedule

Navigate the class add/drop process

Select and change your major/minor

Organize your classes so that you can fulfill your requirements and graduate

Explore alternative classes and courses of study that you may not have consid- ered before

Develop into a well-rounded student by providing information about campus activities that may interest you

Stay informed about course changes, policy changes, and graduation require- ments

Find resources if you are struggling with school, work, or even personal issues

The best academic advisor:

Has convenient office hours

He that won't be counseled can't be helped.

Is interested in your academic development

Asks you questions about your interests and desires for the future

Is knowledgeable about your major

Makes you feel welcome

Inspires and challenges you

You have the right to change advisors and many students do so at least once. You may change majors, your initial advisor might become unavailable, or you may simply seek an advisor who better suits your needs. Here are some things to consider about requesting a change of advisors:

Don't depend on first impressions. As in any relationship, first impressions can be misleading. It's worth meeting at least a couple of times to get the full sense of the person and how you two work together.

If you do decide to switch, take time to find the advisor who best meets your needs. Talk to students and professors to get recommendations. Schedule meetings with several different academic advisors to discuss your current situation and your goals. Finally, determine which of them are available and can best meet your needs.

After deciding upon a new academic advisor, be sure to visit her or him and make the assignment official through the proper channels. If you fail to do this correctly you may delay your registration process! 

If for some reason your request for a new academic advisor is denied, resolve the situation as soon as possible. Your preferred advisor should be able to help you smooth out the process.

You, the Academic Advisee

Being a responsible and conscientious advisee will help you and your advisor. When you work with your academic advisor, you should:

Respect your academic advisor's schedule and time. Your advisor has many other responsibilities and students vying for his or her time and attention. Don't take it personally if you have to remind your advisor who you are the first couple of meetings.

Schedule meetings well in advance to make sure she or he is available and to make sure you've given yourself enough time to prepare.

Come prepared. Bring a list of questions you would like to ask as well as your calendar/planner. Ask your advisor what else you should bring.

Arrive early. If you miss your appointment it may take you weeks to get another one. If you are late for your appointment, you may not have enough time to discuss all of your questions, concerns, and ideas.

Ask questions and take notes. Keep track of your notes so you can refer back to them when you need to.

Selecting a Major/Minor

Most colleges require students to declare a major in the latter part of their sophomore year or the beginning of their junior year. Check with your student handbook or your academic advisor for your college's requirements.

Selecting a major may be a carefully weighed decision, it may be a leap of faith, or it may be a little of both. You will find a variety of advice when it comes to deciding on your path to graduation and beyond. Some say "follow your bliss." Others say "follow the money." Only you know your motivations and interests. Here are a few ideas for how to make the decision:

Joseph Campbell QuoteCreate a list. Of course! Lists are the launch pad of any big decision. In this case, write a list of the topics, classes and careers that interest you. Add and delete as time goes on and you learn more about yourself and the subject area. (We know at least a few people who wanted to become doctors—until they realized that their fear of needles and blood really was going to be a problem in that profession.)

Take tests. Your counseling center or career center may offer aptitude and personality tests that can give you insight into your personality, skills, strengths, and weaknesses.

Evaluate the requirements for potential majors. Look over the course catalog or the department websites to find out more about specific classes that make up the majors that interest you.

Take courses that interest you. One of the best ways to learn about a topic is to take courses related to it. Most colleges also allow students to "audit" classes, which means to take classes without paying for them or earning credit. Auditing classes can give you a broader sense of the area of study and in some cases a "sneak peek" at upper-level coursework. Again, your academic advisor is
a great resource here because she or he can recommend the classes that accurately represent the work of a given major.

Daniel J. Boorstin quoteTalk. Talk to people who work in a field you find interesting. Visit with instructors who teach interesting courses. Check out your college's Career Center and Alumni Office—the staff can point you to all sorts of resources, including alumni who have volunteered to mentor undergraduates.

Get involved. Nothing beats hands-on experience for finding out what you like. To paraphrase the American poet Theodore Roethke, we often learn by doing what we want to do. Check the Career Center or various academic departments' offices for work-study or volunteer opportunities and internship programs.

Consider the career. Where can you go and what can you do with your major? While you may love the content of business management classes, if the thought of leading, advising, and managing people terrifies you then Business Manage- ment is not the major for you. Before selecting a major, carefully consider what kinds of career options it would lead you to:

  • Evaluate your personality. How does your personality suit your major's career options? Are you a people person or do you prefer working with numbers and facts? Are you a team player or someone who works better alone? Do you thrive on change or crave routine?
  • Reflect on your values. Which professions enable you to live your values? You are going to spend a lot of time working. Will it be fulfilling?
  • Map out the educational commitment. Many careers require more education after the initial college diploma. You may have two, four, six, even seven more years of classes, residencies, apprenticeships, and so on.
  • Envision where and how you want to live. Your career may determine where you live or how much you travel.
  • Consider career conditions. What kinds of hours do you want to work? Would you thrive in a profession that has busy and slow seasons? Do you like to work on tight deadlines and in a fast-paced environment? Do you like autonomy or would you feel comfortable working within an organiza- tional structure?
  • Hot Jobs!Evaluate earning power. Some professions have higher earning potential than others. How important is money to you and your future? What kind of lifestyle would you like to have and what kinds of commitments and sacrifices are you willing to make for it? The U.S. Department of Labor has all sorts of interesting information about careers on its website, including how much various professions make, and what the projected need is for workers in those professions:

Changing Your Major

Many students begin working on one major and then switch after they discover something new and exciting about another major or after they realize that their current one isn't the right fit. You can change your major. In fact, the average college student will change his or her major at least twice. George Burns quoteThe more frequently you change majors and the later on in the process you make the change, the more costly it gets. You might graduate later than you planned or pay for classes that were unnecessary to your degree. However, switching majors in college is less costly than completing one degree, and then coming back to school years later to earn the degree you really want.

Selecting a Minor or a Double Major

Selecting two majors or a minor is a good way to get the most out of your college experience. Of course it can be difficult and time-consuming, too. Before committing to a double major or a minor, consider the following:

Decide as early as possible so you can develop a good course schedule and graduate in a timely manner.

Limit your electives. Because of the number of classes required to fulfill a double major or a major/minor, your schedule will not have room for many electives.

Select thoughtfully. Do your majors complement each other? Will the combi- nation add to your range and career choices? Is it reasonable to pursue the two majors in four or five years?

Think of your academic plan as a work in progress: in the first year it's very malleable. With flexibility and foresight—and some help from your academic advisor and others—you can customize an academic plan that has room for experimentation and graduation.

Developing a Graduation Plan

We know people on the "four-year plan" or the "five-year plan" and even some on the "ten-year plan." The "plan" in this case refers to a person's graduation plan. Some students decide their major, then schedule exactly those courses they need to graduate in exactly four years. They know their destination and they take the Interstate to get there: It's direct and fast. Others take a bit longer to decide on a major or they choose to pursue additional degrees (another major, perhaps? A minor? Two?). This is like travelling with a general idea of your destination and taking a combination of major highways and scenic byways to get there. A few students truly meander or are diverted by time, interest, or money and graduate later than their cohort group. The time it takes you to graduate is up to you and your interests and circumstances. No one gets a medal for coming in first. On the other hand, it can get pretty expensive to take classes that don't relate to your major or minor. It's handy to have a map, even if you don't end up following it precisely the way you intended to. Here's how to develop a graduation plan:

Use the course catalog. Most college course catalogs provide sample graduation schedules. You can create your individualized plan based on these examples.

Pay attention to prerequisites. Upper level classes usually have prerequisites, classes you are required to take before you move on. Make sure you fulfill the prerequisites early on so you'll be able to fit in all the courses required for your major.

Check in with your advisor. Your academic advisor knows the big picture and the little details, as well as insider information like which classes are really exciting but have a dull title.

Sample some classes. If you are unsure about the major you want to pursue, take introductory courses that will give you a sampling of the majors you are considering. This way you'll broaden your experience and find the major that really sparks your passion. Another way to explore your options is to audit a course or sit in on a couple of class sessions.

Don't miss out. Some classes are offered on a rotating basis: first level first term, second level second term. Others are offered sporadically. Sometimes there's an incredible professor who teaches a course once every other year or so. Find out about these special offerings—check with your advisor or ask other students— and plan accordingly.

Achieve balance. Easier said than done, we know! Balance in this context means registering for a combination of difficult and easier courses each term to avoid unnecessary stress. It also means regulating your credit load: Refer to your college's recommendations for the number of credits per term. You don't want to overload and burn out or perform poorly in that term; you also don't want to take so few credits that you lose momentum or lose out on financial aid.

Consider summer school, online classes, and...

You now have the option to take classes anytime and anywhere. Taking a couple of classes during the summer will give you more flexibility during the school year. (Also, the more credits you have, the higher priority you'll have for registration.)

Graduation Planning Calculator

Selecting Classes

Ah, the course catalog! So many possibilities! How should you choose which classes to take?

Find out what's required. Most colleges have undergraduate minimum require- ments that all students must fulfill. You will also have required courses in your department once you've declared a major. Check and double check the course catalog to make sure you're taking the right classes at the right level. (For example, a university requirement might be to take at least ten credit hours in math and the 200 level and above. If that's the case, Math 121 won't fulfill that requirement.) Your academic advisor will help you evaluate your high school transcript and college entrance exams to determine what course levels you should begin with.

Research the course. Start by reading the full description in the catalog. If you need more details, contact the department or instructor or go to the relevant website. Talk to your advisor and to other students who have taken the course. You may find reviews online or in a campus publication—these can be helpful, but they can be misleading, too. Consider This - Get what you need.Course reviews are by nature subjective. What another student calls "impossible and confusing!" you might call "challenging and intriguing!" Is the instructor good? Is the class easy? For some students these are the same questions, for others they're quite distinct.

Research the instructor. Word gets around: This instructor is incredible! That profes- sor's lectures are amazing! You'll hear about instructors who inspire and provoke, who challenge students and change lives. Their teaching style might be traditional or avant- garde, their classes might be lecture-based or experiential, but there's something about them that makes an impression on students. Try to sign up for such classes when you have a chance even if they don't fulfill a requirement—the worst thing that could happen is you take an awesome class from a great teacher, the best thing that could happen is you discover a passion for a subject you didn't know about before. If you hear through the grapevine about an instructor who is ineffective, follow up on that information with more research. There are some classes that you might want to avoid. You only have so much time and money and you want to make the most of your education.

Challenge a course when appropriate. If for some reason you are not satisfied with the course level you were assigned, you may want to challenge a course. This usually involves taking a placement exam that covers the material that would normally have been presented in the course. If you pass the exam, you are not required to take the course and can move on to higher level classes. Most colleges levy a fee for the process of challenging a course—and a student will have to pay the fee whether or not their challenge is successful. Also, if you do pass the exam you may have to pay for being awarded credits for the course. Again, check with your advisor before beginning the process.

Registering for Classes

Registration can be a cross between the lottery, an online video game, and a popular sale. Mark your choices, stretch out your fingertips, get your codes and passwords ready, and...wait...and...GO!!! The process varies from campus to campus but you can count on some element of surprise and anxiety until you are a junior or senior and you get top pick of classes. Build your ideal schedule in advance, knowing that you'll need to be flexible on the day of registration. Here are things to keep in mind as you create your schedule:

Your commitments. Do you have a work schedule? Family commitments? Extracurricular activities? Make sure you plan your classes accordingly. If you will be working until midnight most nights you probably don't want to schedule an 8:00 a.m. class. If you have a major sports tournament coming up, you may want to limit the number of challenging classes you take that term.

What's Your Prime Time?

Your biological clock. Not that one! The other one—the one that tells you to wake up at 5:00 a.m. and feel drowsy at 3:00 p.m. (or vice versa). By now you know when you're most alert, most able to learn, and most energized. Schedule classes and homework time for those hours, if possible. It's easy to find energy to play Ultimate Frisbee or to chat with a friend, but it's difficult to muster energy to sit through hundreds of slides of ancient artifacts—if those hundreds of slides are projected onto a screen in a dark, warm room when you're at your sleepiest.

Your downtime. You need to get from one class to the next. You need to eat. You need to study. (OK, maybe studying doesn't count as downtime. But "non-class time" has a certain awkwardness to it, so we'll file it in this category.) Be deliberate about your class schedule and your break schedule.

Do everything in your power to create an ideal schedule, make sure your bills and fines are paid up (sometimes the most miniscule fine can keep you from registering!), preview the registration process, get instructor approval for those classes that require it, have your pins and passwords handy, and register the very moment it's open to you.

The Filled Class

Have alternative course times availableYou researched and planned. You tapped in the right numbers at the right time were denied. The filled class is one of the frustrations of the first year of college, right up there with having to share a closet. One remedy is to take a breath
and see what else is available. If you really have your heart set on that class, you can contact the instructor directly and ask if he or she would be willing to make an exception. Or you can ask the instructor if she or he will allow you to attend the class through the add/drop period and take the spot of a registered student who decides to drop the course. You may even be able to register for an open section of the course, but attend the lecture of the closed class. Make sure your instructor is on board with this switch and confirm that the lectures and content for the two classes are identical before you attempt this creative approach.

Academic Planning Exercises

  1. Review all the majors your school offers and research at least two that interest you. What are the credit requirements for each major? What kinds of prerequisites are there for each major? Which classes in the subject seem particularly interesting? Which classes in the subject seem particularly difficult or not interesting? What kinds of intern- ships or apprenticeships are related to each major? What kinds of career opportunities are there?
  2. Which resources were most helpful in answering the questions above?
  3. Take an aptitude test or personality test at your college career center or counseling office. Or, if those tests are unavailable on campus, take one online. Reflect on your results: According to the test, what are your strengths, weaknesses, personality traits, and interests? Which education or career paths do the results suggest for you? What did you learn about yourself (or about the test) through this process?
  4. Outline your ideal week: When would you attend classes? When would you study? What extracurricular activities would you do and when? When would you sleep and eat? How much time would you spend socializing and what kinds of socializing would you prefer? What other things would you do with your time?
  5. What resources are available to find out more about a class or instruc- tor at your college?



for more resources and exercises.