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Whether you’re in law school or getting your associate degree at a local community college, picking your electives can be stressful. When choosing your supplemental courses, you’re likely to consider a range of factors, and prioritizing them can be challenging. You might be wondering how to weigh…

  • Your career interests and future marketability
  • Your current research, projects, and area of study
  • Your academic strengths and passions
  • Your schedule and other logistical factors

First thing to know: You don’t need to stay within your current program area or your comfort zone. Sometimes, the electives that seem unrelated to your field can be among the most useful.

Here’s what to consider when choosing electives:

Your passions

#1 factor
Eighty percent of respondents to a recent Student Health 101survey rated personal interest in and passion for the subject as the most important factor when choosing electives.

Why it works  
Exploring a topic that you love is more fun and more motivating. It’s also a great way to delve into a personal interest that might not directly relate to your major. And rounding out your skill set makes you more appealing to employers.

Expert guidance
“Make sure to take classes outside of your major to broaden your thinking and show some versatility,” says Nicolette Sherman, vice president of hiring at Sanofi North America, in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

Your career plans

What skills do employers need?
Research your desired career to find out which skills employers want. “I [consider] how valuable the course is, according to industry demand,” says Varun D., a graduate student at Portland State University in Oregon.

Ask around
Career fairs and networking events give you an opportunity to connect with potential employers. Ask your academic advisor or department head about these events. You can also speak with alumni in your industry.

Crunch the numbers
“It will never hurt to take a statistics class,” Michele McDonough, a former university instructor, writes on CollegeFactual.com. Sorry, math haters: “Some form of data analysis is needed in almost every professional job in today’s world. If you can demonstrate that you know more about this subject than other job applicants, it will definitely work to your advantage.”

Your learning style

Identify how you learn best Prefer large seminars, group workshops, or small classes? Investigate suitable electives.

Do your homework
Research professors and review students’ evaluations before you make a selection.

Ask questions
Meet with professors or speak with students who took the course. See if the class is a good fit for your career ambitions, learning style, and personality. Professors can also tell you what skills you’ll acquire.

Stay balanced
It’s important to keep your electives from causing extra stress or redundancy. “Choose classes that require different types of work so you don’t end up writing five papers or solving five problem sets in one week,” suggests The College Board.

Looking to round out your skills for the job market?

Some electives can help you more than others

Consider these

  • Marketing classes
  • Social media writing or convergence reporting
  • Webpage design
  • Basic business or entrepreneurship courses

Here’s why
“Nearly every employer has a web presence so it’s valuable to know a bit about this feature of the business even if you are a biologist or health care professional. In addition, eventually [you may] want to parlay your degree and experience into a business of your own. Why not prepare now, even if your field is law enforcement, hospitality, home interiors, etc.?”
—Michael Ray Smith, PhD, professor of journalism, Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida

The availability of the course

On your mark, get set…
Many elective courses are popular and space is limited, so speed is essential. Be sure you have reliable web access when registration begins. Write down course codes and other important info beforehand.

Don’t rely on rumors
So you heard that Awesome Elective 102 is offered every fall? Check with the school’s website, a career counselor, or (better yet) both. Course availability changes all the time. Counselors can confirm that your electives fit your degree and credit needs.

Pick a course, (almost) any course
Still haven’t decided? Many universities have an add/drop period so you can test out classes.

Wacky elective offerings

If you’ve always dreamed of receiving academic credit for exploring out-of-the-box topics, these are for you:

Course Religion and Animals 
Offered at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts
Explore animals’ significance among various religions and maybe even discover why your cat acts like a god.

Course Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World 
Offered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts
View the dark arts through a historical and anthropological lens. Just don’t expect to cast any spells.

Course Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé
Offered at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick
Analyze Beyoncé and her music through the eyes of feminism and attempt to determine whether she represents progressive social change. Maybe memorizing all the lyrics to “Single Ladies” will pay off after all.

Your academic strengths & interests

Why play to your strengths?

  • Better grades
  • Higher confidence
  • A more enjoyable experience

Expert guidance
“While college is a time to explore and try new things, it is also a time to recognize and develop your talents. Knowing yourself and what you’re good at is extremely important in finding a career that’s a good match,” says Dr. Gigi Simeone, pre-med and pre-law advisor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Student’s story
“The [electives] that fit me best are what I pay most attention to. I try to pick things that I know will suit my interests. I don’t believe I could do well in a class that bores me.”

*Name and college withheld

Which factors do students rank very important or somewhat important in choosing their major, minor, and electives?

  • 97%: Personal interests and passions
  • 93%: Own strengths and challenges
  • 90%: Building specialist skill set or knowledge
  • 89%: Increasing appeal to potential employers
  • 87%: Future earning potential
  • 82%: Intellectual challenge
  • 66%: Reputation of a course or professor
  • 61%: Guidance from advisors & other mentors
  • 30%: Input from family and friends

Student Health 101 survey, October 2014. 339 students answered these questions.

Your postgraduate education plans

You up for more?
Do you want to go to medical school, business school, or law school? Currently working on your master’s and up for the challenge of doctoral work? While it may seem premature to start thinking about future plans, the decisions you make during school can affect your opportunities after.

Watch out for the prereqs
For example, if you plan to attend med school, you must fulfill certain pre-med requirements as an undergrad. Students aiming for a graduate degree in nutrition are likely to need credits in chemistry and physiology. If you’re working on a master’s degree and are considering PhD work, look into research requirements.

Too much?
If you’re feeling overly restrained by your postgraduate education goals, talk to your academic advisor or careers counselor about your options. In addition, realize you will likely have half a dozen or more jobs over your lifetime. “Just because you chose teaching as a major or profession doesn’t mean you cannot work in the technology industry as an educational consultant (for example) later on,” says Amy Baldwin, MA, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas, Little Rock.

Logistics & scheduling

This, already?
Some programs schedule course registration several months before classes begin. See if you can extend childcare and work arrangements to accommodate your schedule for courses you’re hoping to take. As the semester approaches, making changes becomes more difficult.

Combine and conquer
Some students like to arrange their schedule to have classes bunched on three days of the week, while others prefer electives that allow them to sleep in or those that fit around a work schedule. Unfortunately, these restrictions can limit your choices, but if you’re open to more options, you can more easily fit your life around school.

Student’s story
“I only take two classes online at a time but I am a mother, wife, and full-time worker. The workload–academic and personal–I may have going on for the upcoming semester will influence what I choose to enroll in.”
—Jennifer S., a student at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs.

Get the knowledge without the (academic) credit

Audit it
You can audit a course, which gives you exposure to the material, but not the credits or a final grade. Many professors are happy to let you audit a course. Consider choosing courses that will expand or build upon your skills, and be able to demonstrate your knowledge to future employers.

Pass/fail
You may be able to take a course as pass or fail. This is a good option if you’re considering taking an elective as an extra course but are worried that your grades may suffer as a result.

Do it yourself
For the truly motivated among us, you can ask a professor for a copy of the course syllabus and reading list. This is a good option if you want to learn more about a subject but can’t fit it into your schedule.

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utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

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Maria Yagoda graduated from Yale in 2012. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, The New York Times online, Al Jazeera America, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.