On choosing classes

Sept. 23, 2018, 10:29 p.m.

These are four principles on how to choose classes (and your major) at Stanford.

  1. Aim for three and a half classes.

Units don’t matter. You’ll take a three-unit math class that takes 15 hours a week just to do the PSET, or the comparative literature class that assigns a 300-page novel per week. What causes stress isn’t the number of units but rather the number of to-dos you have on the back-burner before you go to sleep Saturday night and wake up hungover for the Sunday grind.

Aiming for three and a half classes seems to be the perfect balance. What does that mean? Think of a full class as a core requirement (CHEM 33, COMPLIT 123), a higher-level class in your department (CS 229) or a studio class (CEE 31Q, ME 102). A half class is an intro-sem or a two-unit seminar series; it’s something you aren’t required to dedicate significant time to but have the opportunity to learn about in a less engaged fashion.

This should land you around 14 to 17 units, but that number doesn’t really matter. Four classes is usually too much. Week 5 will swing around, and you’ll have two midterms and an un-researched paper on top of your two weekly PSETs, and it will suck. Fewer than three and a half, and you’re probably not taking the most advantage of your time here.

  1. Choose classes that force you to double-down on your interests.

Taking a class forces you to allocate a certain number of hours per week to an area of interest. Add on top of that the average Stanford student’s ego, and you’ll have an incentive to push yourself to do an impeccable job. Wish you wrote more? Take ENGLISH 90/91. Disappointed with your drawing skills as an engineer? Take ME 110. Want to read more 19th-century literature to quell your existential angst but can’t find time? Take HUMCORE 13.

And if this short-term optimization concerns you due to a lack of depth or employability, co-terming is easy and incentivized at Stanford. You’ll have a chance to specialize later. In your undergraduate career, look for breadth, and take advantage of the liberal arts education you can get. There is a close-to-zero barrier to entry to taking random classes at Stanford. Now is the time to learn art history with Nemerov, physics with Carl Wieman or economics with Raj Chetty — not when you retire.

  1. Your classes should dictate your major, not vice-versa.

In Steve Jobs’ commencement speech, here at Stanford, he reminisces: “The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.” He didn’t drop out to stop learning but rather to learn more freely. But there’s no reason that can’t be done as a student in a liberal arts institution.

Aim for the minimum spanning set of your interests over your four years here. Dabble in everything that sparks an interest, and don’t prematurely go deep. There is a reason the average major at Stanford is around 80 units out of the 180 required. It’s a major concentration, not the entirety of your education. WAYS are not designed to be a burden; they’re there for you to explore.

Try and keep an updated list of the 15 to 20 classes you want to take before graduating. By pestering your friends about the classes they’re considering and spending a couple of hours lurking around Carta, you can become more aware of the “must-takes.” On that list, one or two departments will likely stand out. That should be your major at Stanford: the one that allows you to take the most classes without which you couldn’t graduate happy.

  1. Don’t lock yourself into a career. Find a lens you want to understand the world through.

Before Stanford, I was uncertain of what path to take in my next four years and wanted some guidance. During a chat with an alum and friend, a subtle remark greatly influenced how I began to look at classes. He said: “I wanted to understand people, so I studied anything and everything that provided insight into how humans work.” Rather than starting with a career, he had focused on a higher-level interest to pursue. The rest, as Steve Jobs goes on to say, is merely connecting the dots.

What is central is that the lens comes first, and not the major. Your career isn’t the end-goal of your education but rather a product of it. First you discover you’re interested in the way government and policy can affect social change. Then, you decide to pursue public policy, with a minor focused on political philosophy. With a guiding star, the classes you take and the jobs you apply to will make much more sense. Answering the dreaded “Why are you interested in working here?” will be much easier when your response won’t have to be contrived.

There is more to your Stanford education than the piece of paper you receive at commencement. Stanford enables you to look beyond the immediate practicality of a class and develop ways of thinking about the world. You just have to dig for the motivation to go further.

Don’t waste your time here: It’s precious.

— Cristobal Sciutto ’20


Contact Cristobal Sciutto at cscuitto ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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