Free Electives – Now You’re Talking!

When you take a look at any recommended schedule for a degree program, you’ll often see several slots marked for free or general electives. This doesn’t mean that those classes won’t cost you anything – quite the opposite, in fact. You’ll be paying the same amount for those credit hours no matter which class you take (assuming that the classes are covered by your full-time tuition rate).

Here, the word “free” means you’re free to choose. You can literally take almost any class you want and it will count toward your degree. It could be an additional course in your major area of study, a class on a topic you’ve always wanted to know more about, or an offbeat class that sounds like it would be a lot of fun and wouldn’t require too much work. The choice is yours.

The number of free electives that you’ll have to take will depend on what type of degree you’re pursuing. Every university requires a certain minimum of credits to attain a bachelor’s degree, but each field of study has its own core requirements. One degree program may be so packed with these core classes that there’s only room for one or two free electives in the recommended schedule. Other programs may be more flexible. Of course, if you’re pursuing a double major or some other combination-degree program, your options will be far more limited.

What Should You Take?

Many full-time students think of free electives as opportunities to pad their schedules with interesting classes that will provide a break from the more difficult courses that make up the rest of their schedule. Others look for “easy A” classes that will boost their GPA or classes that are offered at a certain time of day to better fit their schedules. And, unfortunately, others end up browsing through the leftover list of courses that haven’t filled up yet and try to make the best decision based on what’s available.

In this day and age, are any of these approaches the best one to take?

College degrees are expensive, and it’s important to get as much value as you can out of them. Plus, the current economic situation and competitive job market make it more important than ever to be as attractive to potential employers as you can. One way to do this is to choose electives that teach skills which will make hiring managers sit up and take notice.

A Few General Recommendations

No matter what your major is, it will never hurt to take a good statistics class or two. Many universities even offer specialized stats classes tailored for your major, like Business Statistics or Statistics for the Social Sciences. While a lot of math haters may be cringing at this suggestion, it’s important to remember that 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.

Similar things can be said about computer programming classes. You don’t need to master the art of programming to gain an advantage. But, if your transcript reflects that you have more familiarity with programming than the average applicant, potential employers will notice.

On the other hand, if you’re a math or computer science major, you may want to use your free electives to take a couple psychology, communication or social science classes. These types of classes can help you develop better soft skills, which are extremely important when working in collaborative environments. Math and programming majors are often accused of being so independent that they don’t work well with others. Whether or not this is true, it’s a perception held by many employers so it’s worth putting in a little extra effort to show that you understand the importance of collaboration.

Even if you’re not a business major, consider taking a few basic classes such as Business Finance, Economics or Project Management. If you’re not sure which ones will complement your major the best, make an appointment to talk with a professor in the business area. He or she will generally be more than happy to discuss your career goals and make suggestions.

Does This Mean You Can’t Take Any Classes Just for Fun?

While college is supposed to help prepare you for your future career, it’s also a place where you can broaden your horizons by being exposed to new thoughts and ideas. You may never get that chance again, so make the most of it. Just be sure to find the right balance, and remember that balance is going to be different for each individual.

By now, you’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to fit all of this in along with your major coursework in just four years. Here are a few suggestions.

1. If you can handle the extra work, take an additional class each semester.

Many universities that operate on semester schedules require a minimum of 120 credit hours to obtain a degree – that’s an average of 15 credit hours per semester. However, full-time tuition costs the same for any course load between 12 and 18 credits.This means that in addition to the free electives that have already been included in your recommended schedule, you could potentially take an extra class each semester without having to fork over any more money. When you add all those additional classes up over a period of four years, it’s almost like getting an extra year’s worth of classes free.

2. If you’re worried about not being able to handle the extra work, consider taking additional classes as Pass/Fail. 

If you take a class as Pass/Fail, it may not count toward your degree but it will still show up on your transcript. You’ll have fewer worries about your GPA suffering from the extra class, but a “Pass” grade will show that you’ve still managed to learn the basics about the subject.

3. Audit classes – either formally or informally.

If you’re concerned that you may not have enough time to devote to the class for even the Pass/Fail option, consider auditing instead. When you formally audit a course, it will generally show up on your transcript but the amount of effort you spend on the subject is up to you. If you don’t have the option to formally audit a course, talk to the professor privately and ask if he or she would mind if you just “sat in.” Most will be quite happy to accommodate you as long as the class isn’t full.

4. Ask professors for copies of the course syllabus, reading list and assignment schedule.

Then study on your own. This is an ideal option for students who have the time to take a class or two during the summer, but don’t have the money to pay for summer tuition. Also, the professor of the course may be willing to write a letter or provide a reference, backing up the fact that you mastered the material for the course even if it doesn’t show up on your transcript.

5. Whenever you need advice, don’t be shy about talking to a professor.

They may seem like they’re always extremely busy – and they probably are. However, most professors will be thrilled that you are taking such an active role in your education and will gladly take time out to help you in whatever way they can. If one professor brushes you off for some reason, ask another.

Above all else, remember that this is your education. Don’t hesitate to tailor it so that it helps you achieve both your personal and professional goals.

Have you picked your major yet?