Posts Tagged With: College Courses

Essential Notes for the Clueless College Noob

Deep down, aren't we all just confused chimps?

Deep down, aren’t we all just confused chimps?

If you’re a first-generation college student, an ignorant ex-Amish kid like myself, or just generally clueless, there are several things you should know before/as you embark on your journey of education. If you know anything at all about college or have friends/family that went to college, then this post will probably bore you to tearful yawns.

Are you Ready?

Most colleges require a high school diploma or GED, before they consider you bright enough to walk through their hallowed doors. Unfair, I know. If you’ve picked a college, check out their admission requirements online. If you haven’t picked one yet, get your GED, because you will most likely need it.

Many colleges also want your SAT or ACT scores. For some 2-year colleges, you may be able to take a placement test instead of the SAT or ACT.

Picking Your School

If money is a rarity, you should seriously consider starting at a 2-year college. In many (most? all?) states, an Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree can be earned at a 2-year college. This 2-year degree will (possibly? always?) allow you to transfer to a university (way more expensive) to complete the next 2 years.

The School Year

Most colleges, when they talk about a “year,” are referring to their school year. The school year does not resemble the practical and generally agreed-upon convention of running for 12 months starting with January. At many colleges, the school year starts with Fall Semester (Aug. to Dec.), middles with Spring Semester (Jan. to May), and ends with Summer Semester (May to Aug.). This is what it’s like at my current school; your school may be different.


A college course typically runs for one semester. If multiple semesters are required, the course is often broken into a series (e.g. Calculus 1, Calculus 2, Calculus 3). It is your responsibility to select your courses and register for them prior to their start dates. You may have to register for courses up to months ahead of their start dates. Find your college’s academic calendar. Sometimes, popular or required courses fill up early. Register for your courses as soon as possible after you’ve figured out which ones you want to take.

If you’re going for a degree, the college will have required courses. For example, you will probably have to take several writing courses and math courses at some point before you can graduate.

Each course that you register for will have a syllabus. This is an absurdly fancy term for a multi-page piece of paper that describes the course, the teacher, and the weekly course schedule. It is a hallowed piece of parchment and should be regarded with the highest of reverence. I kid you not.

If you’re like me, you’ll want to ease tentatively into the murky waters of higher education. For your first semester, you should consider registering for courses that will be easier for you. You could also register for less than the full course load. This will keep your stress at a minimum as you familiarize yourself with college life.

It is your responsibility to choose your courses and make sure they don’t conflict with each other. It sucks having to clone yourself after realizing that all four of your courses have lectures at the same time on the same day. Registering for courses requires a lot of charting and hair-pulling. It’s a bit like a puzzle–trying different courses together to see if you can build a complete picture without having multiple courses on top of each other. During the course registering process, you’ll need to note the lecture dates, times, and locations, lab dates, times, and locations, and all exam dates, times, and locations.

Some colleges have multiple campuses (i.e. education locations). Keep that in mind when selecting courses. You don’t want to be hitchhiking ten miles every day just to make it from Chemistry to Algebra.

Many courses have prerequisites. This means there are other courses you have to pass before you can take this one. They just won’t let you take Calculus 3 before Pre-calculus Algebra for some reason. Prereqs will generally be listed in the course catalog–under, over, or inside of the course description.

Some courses have co-requisites. This means that somewhere there exists a course that must be taken at the same time. For example, if you register for a chemistry course, you may also have to register for the chemistry lab course that goes with it.

As if all of the above wasn’t confusing enough, there’s more. Your school may have several different types of courses. There’s the regular kind where you go on campus for lectures and exams, there’s the blended course where you might have lectures online and go on campus for lab practice, and then there are the wholly (holy) online courses. Choose what works best for your schedule and learning style.

When building your course plan, be sure that the majority of your courses are relevant to your degree. It would suck for you to complete 60 credit hours only to find out that only 20 of them can be applied to your degree. Here comes two more years of school… Dumbass! But seriously, if you’re unsure, speak with a guidance counselor at your school.


There are several things you should know about textbooks. The first is that textbooks are ridiculously expensive. The campus will try to sell them to you at $75 to hundreds of dollars a pop. My next point follows quite logically. Don’t buy new textbooks from your campus bookstore unless you absolutely have to. Here is what you should do: Buy used textbooks from Amazon, Craigslist, your campus bookstore, etc., or rent your textbooks from a place like

The other thing about textbooks… be sure that you get the right edition. Many textbooks are updated every year, and teachers often insist on using only a specific edition. True story: I purchased my very first college textbook from my campus bookstore after showing the store lady my syllabus. Guess what… She sold me the wrong edition, and I didn’t discover it until the course was underway, and I couldn’t figure out why the page numbers the teacher was assigning didn’t make sense. The point is, the textbook edition and/or ISBN that is required for the course is listed on the syllabus. Always match these to the one you’re buying.

What the Fuzz is an Undergraduate?

Associate’s Degree: A two-year degree typically earned at a community (two-year) college. It is a standalone degree, but is often earned prior to transfer to a university for two more years of study in order to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree: A four-year degree. If someone asks if you’re a college graduate, they usually mean, “Have you earned your bachelor’s degree?”

Baccalaureate: Sometimes used as another word for “bachelor’s degree,” particularly in the European school system.

Undergraduate: Any student that has not yet earned a bachelor’s degree.

Undergraduate degree: Another term for “bachelor’s degree.”

Graduate: A student that has earned a bachelor’s degree.

Graduate study: Study performed after earning a bachelor’s degree.

Graduate degree: Any degree requiring study past the point of receiving a bachelor’s degree.

Master’s degree: Typically a six-year degree… meaning that it requires two years of study after earning a bachelor’s degree in that field.

Doctor’s degree: Typically an 8+ year degree… meaning that it requires four or more years of study after earning a bachelor’s degree. There are different kinds of doctor’s degrees (doctorates). For example, the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is a research doctorate that is typically earned by academics and scientists. To earn this degree, the scholar has to make original contributions to the field. The Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) is the doctor’s degree for actual doctors, and the Juris Doctor (J.D.) is the doctor’s degree for lawyers and the like.

Being a first-generation college student, I was pretty fuzzy on some of these terms until I actually enrolled in college and had to figure out what they meant. Click here for lots more college terminology.

Financial Aid

Well now, it seems that I have just run out of literary energy. Isn’t that unfortunate?

More Questions?

After you are accepted at a college, you will likely have to go to an orientation. This is the perfect time and place to have all of your confusions disentangled. Otherwise, call or visit your college and nag various people (not students; they’re just as ignorant as you are) until they de(con)fuse you. You should also be googling prodigiously at this point (I’m not sure if “prodigiously” should be in quotes or not {get it?}).

Note to readers: If at any point you find my use of parentheses on the excessive side of too much, please tell me. Personally, I love using parentheses because it allows me to play with a phenomenon that excites me at a very meta level: recursion.

Image credit: Chimp image copyright (c) 2009 Tambako the Jaguar and made available under Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.

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