Your college's course catalog lists dozens of classes that look really cool. You also need what seems like a million credits to graduate. So you should take as many classes as you possibly can every semester, right? Wrong!
While some maxed-out semesters might be unavoidable, you'll be much happier—and less stressed —if you can keep your course load in the light-to-medium range (around 15 hours per semester). You'll also learn more, since you'll be able to spend a decent amount of time with each subject you're studying. And learning more usually means better grades.
How can you keep your schedule manageable and still graduate on time? Explore your options. Maybe you can "test out" of some basic classes with competency exams or CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) tests. Maybe you can take some courses over the summer or during breaks. Or maybe your summer job can count toward internship credit.
One rookie mistake you'll definitely want to avoid is overlooking "hidden" course requirements. The big offenders are labs. A lab science class might only register as four credit hours, but you'll be required to spend two to three hours per week doing experiments, plus whatever time you need to prepare your lab report. If at all possible, take only one lab class per semester.
Don't skip the planning.
When you first sit down with a course catalog, you won't be able to accurately map out your schedule for all four years at college. But there are a lot of benefits to looking ahead and sketching out a plan.
What does a smart plan look like? Freshman semesters should be heavy on core (or "gen-ed") classes. If you're leaning toward a certain major, mix in one or two classes from that area, too. A schedule like this allows you to investigate several different subjects—any of which might become your major, since most students change their major at least once. And no matter what your major turns out to be, those core classes will count toward your graduation requirements.
When scheduling deadlines roll around your sophomore and junior years, spend some quality time with your academic adviser. Plan out your remaining years on campus as accurately as possible. Be extra careful about courses that are only offered on alternating years or must be taken in sequence.
As you become more familiar with your campus, try to take classes from profs who have been recommended by upperclassmen. Once you find a prof you really like, take two or three classes from him or her. You'll take some of the guesswork out of scheduling, and you'll also have an opportunity to build a relationship with this person. When it comes time to collect references for a job or graduate school, you'll know who to ask.
Don't fall behind.
What's the difference between high school homework and college homework? You usually don't hand in the college stuff. Some classes might only have one paper or exam that counts for your entire grade.
Does this mean homework is optional? Not really. When a professor types up a syllabus, every reading assignment, every list of problems, every journal suggestion is on there for a reason. Every class session is important, too, even though profs rarely take attendance. These things give you a chance to participate in discussion, prepare you for the final, and make sure you actually learn something in class. Also, spreading the work out over a semester will save you from a finals week meltdown.
Besides encouraging you not to fall behind, syllabi have the amazing power to help you work ahead. Not too many students do this, but those who do find that life becomes a whole lot easier. For example, let's say you've signed up for a European literature class. You know you'll have to read War and Peace by week 12. Just because the book doesn't appear on the syllabus until week 10 doesn't mean you'll want to start reading it then. It's a long book. Start early.
Don't be shy.