How to Avoid Course Overload

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When I was a college student, I got myself into a couple of jams where my eyes were bigger than my brain. In the first instance, I was a fresh-faced frosh who didn’t really understand the college experience. So, too smart by half, I decided to sign up for 18 hours of courses in my first semester at school.

Now, this might have been acceptable load for some students, but at that point in my academic career, it was definitely a bad move. Within my first couple of weeks, I was already burned out on coursework.

I quickly realized this schedule was untenable, so I re-evaluated the classes I was taking. I figured out I was in a calculus course I didn’t need because of my choice of major and my score on the math portion of an aptitude test prior to college.

Fortunately, it was still early enough in the semester to drop the course. I contacted Student Services and managed to get out of it.

In the second instance, I was a more seasoned junior and thought that by this point, I really knew how to set up a good semester. So, I signed up for a seemingly safe 15 hours of classes.

The problem was, I had just started to get into the harder 300- and 400-level courses for my major. Because I was studying history, this meant a great deal more research and writing than I was used to. But an extra elective didn’t seem like it would add too much more to my burden — for reasons I still can’t quite explain, I signed up for a low-level German class.

Once again, I found myself overwhelmed. I couldn’t focus on both the in-depth content of all the advanced courses I was taking and the basics of the German language, and something had to give.

Unfortunately, by this point, it was too late to drop the meaningless elective without some sort of excuse along the lines of a major medical or personal crisis.

Instead, I decided to stop going altogether, take the “F” for that one and concentrate all my efforts in the courses related to my major. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I was able to minimize my losses.

Based on these and other experiences, I would offer college-bound students the following tips to prevent similar overload:


  • Location and scheduling count. As you browse the course catalog, have a map of the campus handy. When you find classes you might be interested in, write down their location and time. After you’ve compiled all the courses you want to take, consider the logistics — you don’t want to pick something that’s going require you to run from one end of campus to the other in 15 minutes.
  • Know thyself. In this case, the famous Socratic saying refers not only to your intellectual pursuits but also to your attitude toward work and life. If you’re a morning person, you might not mind a two-hour chemistry lab that starts at 8 a.m. On the other hand, if you like to party, then it might not be a good idea to schedule classes during the late afternoon on a Friday. Also, most professors will outline the work in a syllabus that students receive on the first day of the course. If a particular class seems like it might be more than you can handle, you’ll probably be able to get out of it in the first week or two without any kind of penalization.
  • It’s not a race — it’s a marathon. Some of the more ambitious students out there might feel compelled to take as many courses as possible, so they can get through college as quickly as they can. In this case, though, less is more. If you’re really interesting in learning and understanding the subject matter, you should take fewer classes so you can better focus your mental energy. And besides, what’s the hurry? These are some of the best years of your life. Savor the experience!

– Brian Summerfield,

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Brian Summerfield


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