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Course selection

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Some considerations to keep in mind when you select courses are:

  • Human capital — What employable skills will you build by taking a given course?
  • Consumption — How much will you enjoy the course?
  • Signaling — What impact will taking the course have on your college or graduate school admission prospects, or on your employment prospects?
  • Networking with teachers — How will you benefit from your relationship with the teacher of the course?
  • Networking with students — How will you benefit from your relationships with the students who you meet in the course?
  • Opportunity cost — How much time and energy will the course take away from other things?


Human capital

Some things that courses can teach you that build your human capital are

  • Knowledge of your strengths, weaknesses and interests that helps you decide what jobs you're most suited for. For example, if you take a course in chemistry and really enjoy it, that might help you determine whether you want to be a chemist.
  • Subject matter knowledge that's directly relevant to your future work. For example, if you're going to be a biomedical researcher, a biology course might teach you prerequisite knowledge for your future work.
  • General skills that you’ll use in your future work. For example, if you’re going to be a lawyer, a philosophy course might teach you how to analyze arguments — a skill that many lawyers use on a regular basis

It's important to note that appearances can be deceiving here:

  • Courses in a given subject can be unrepresentative of what professional practice involving the subject is like. For example, high school science courses often don't include lab work that's representative of experimental science.
  • The material taught in courses that are required to get a given job is often not used on the job. For example, many jobs with title "engineer" are actually managerial jobs that don't use coursework in calculus and physics.
  • Sometimes courses with course descriptions claiming that they teach a given skill don't actually teach that skill. For example, a course that's described as teaching critical thinking might be taught by a professor who has strong opinions and encourages students to agree with him or her rather than to engage in critical thinking. In the other direction, sometimes courses with course descriptions that don't claim to teach a given skill actually do teach that skill. For example, a course in the mathematical subject called real analysis may not be described as teaching you how to analyze arguments, while in practice teaching this skill.

Consumption

Courses can be enjoyable and personally enriching, even when they don't teach employable skills, help you get a job, or help you network. If you love music, you might consider taking a course in music, even if it doesn't have professional or social benefits.

Among those courses that do help you with these things, some may be more enjoyable and personally enriching than others. For example, a course in physics taught by one professor may involve interesting historical digressions that other physics professors don't include in their courses.

Signaling

Direct signaling

Colleges, graduate and professional schools, and employers often select candidates based on the courses that they've taken, and the grades that they've gotten in them. In order to achieve your goals, you'll have to give some attention to these criteria.

  • Required coursework — Most colleges require that applicants have taken certain courses. For example, University of California requires that students take 15 courses in 6 disciplines. Similarly, professional often require that applicants take certain courses. For example, the Association of American Medical Colleges has created a list of courses that every medical school applicant must take to be considered for admission to medical school.
  • Recommended coursework — Colleges, graduate and professional schools, and employers often give preference to applicants who have taken courses beyond those that are required. For example, Stanford University's undergraduate admissions page says "We expect applicants to pursue a reasonably challenging curriculum, choosing courses from among the most demanding courses available at your school."
  • Grades — Colleges, graduate and professional schools, and sometimes employers take an applicant's grades into account when deciding who to select. Indeed, grades may be the most important criterion for college admissions beyond required coursework.

When you select courses, you should consider how well they fit the requirements and recommendations of colleges, graduate and professional schools, and employers that you would like to be selected by. You should also consider how likely you are to get a high grade in a given course.

Building knowledge and skills in order to signal later on

Another important signaling-related consideration to weigh when choosing courses is that courses can offer the opportunity to build knowledge and skills that can help with signaling later on. For example, taking demanding science courses in high school might prepare you to do well in college science courses, which could help you get into medical school later on.

Networking with teachers

Teachers and professors can be good sources of advice, letters of recommendation, and professional connections. Taking a class with a teacher or professor gives you the opportunity to get to know him or her better, and demonstrate your ability and interest.

Taking a course with a high status, well connected teacher may be better for getting influential recommendations and making connections than taking a course with a lower status, less well connected teacher. But it's also important to note that such teachers may have less time to get to know you, or may be harder to impress favorably.

Taking a course with a teacher who you connect with unusually well (e.g. on account of sharing an interest) is a good way of securing a good recommendation and other professional help.

Networking with students

The students who you take classes with are potential friends, romantic partners, study partners and future professional connections. The sorts of students who you're exposed to depends on the classes that you take.

Opportunity cost

Courses vary a great deal in the number of hours that they require outside of class, ranging from ~2 hours/week to 15+ hours/week. Taking a course with a heavy workload reduces the time you have to study for other classes, socialize, work, and pursue extracurricular interests.