Getting Your Course Load Right

By Danika

Hallie Brodie
Sep 10, 2018 · 4 min read

Learning how to find the right course load for you can take some time. When I first entered university, I started out taking 5 courses each semester, plus chemistry labs. But by my fourth year, I was down to just 3 courses per semester — mostly because of the way scheduling worked out (and lack of required prerequisites…). Looking back on it now, I’m not sure how I did 5 courses, plus my chem labs, and all of my extracurricular commitments that first year. But I did do it.

Note: to clarify, if you take 3 courses or 9 credits in the Fall or Winter semester you are still considered a full time student.

Based on that experience, here are my tips for finding the right course load for you:

It’s always a good idea to talk to an advisor and/or to do a program check before changing your schedule. Faculty advisors can help you work out possible course load options based on your needs and the availability of classes in your program. Program checks will allow you to see how many and which required courses you still need to check-off your list. Plus, a talk with an advisor might take 30–60 minutes, but could save you lots of time in the long run if they help you plan the best schedule for you.

In my opinion, the course load you take on partly depends on your priorities; when I had a full course load, school was my priority — I had a few extracurricular commitments but would sacrifice hanging out with friends in order to focus on my schoolwork to maintain my grades to my somewhat-high standards.

A lower course load, such as 3 courses per semester, may allow you to get more involved on campus, such as with student groups or volunteer commitments, spend more time with friends, and experience less stress from juggling so many courses and exams. On the other hand, with a lower course load you have to be careful not to take on too many commitments and overestimate your free time, and you may be more prone to procrastination because it feels like there’s more time/less pressure to get things done.

I found that taking 4 courses was definitely a happy medium. However, anyone considering this option should keep in mind the extra time and money it will add on to your degree–taking 4 courses per semester will generally mean a fifth year to finish your undergrad.

If you aren’t a fan of taking a fifth (or maybe even sixth year), but still want to have a reduced course load during the Fall and Winter terms, there is also the option of taking spring/summer courses to help speed things along. Just remember that this might be a little more expensive, given that you’ll be paying term fees (things like your SU, gym, and U-Pass fees, etc.) for more than two semesters each year.

The courses that you sign-up for before classes start, aren’t written in stone. It is okay to change your schedule after the semester starts. For example, if you start out with 5 classes, you can always drop a class before the add/drop deadline. The costs for courses that you drop before the add/drop deadline will be removed from your tuition. Doing this will have no impact on your academic record; you won’t even see it on your transcript.

If you miss the add/drop deadline, you can still withdraw from a class (especially if it’s just not working out for you). In this case, if you withdraw after the add/drop deadline, but before the Refund Deadline (October 2, 2020), you’ll get a “W” on your transcript, and you will be refunded for half of the instructional fees for that course. Doing this will have no impact on your academic record — you’ll simply receive a “W” on your transcript.

Note: “W” just stands for “Withdrawal” it’s not an F or anything like that — it just signals that you left the course without a grade.

If you miss the Refund Deadline, you have one more chance to pull out of a course that isn’t going well (or that might not fit with your schedule needs any more). The final drop date of each semester is the withdrawal deadline (November 30, 2020). Dropping a class at this point will still give you a “W” on your transcript, but in this case, you’ll have to pay the full fees for the course. If you were to try to drop a class after this final deadline, you wouldn’t be able to, and could risk receiving a failing grade.

If you’re thinking about withdrawing (especially after the Add/Drop deadline), it’s always best to talk to an advisor first. (Just in case.)

When I was in my fifth year, I was looking forward to a very chill course load, volunteer involvements, part-time blogging, extracurricular activities, and hanging out with friends… which might be starting to sound less chill than I thought! But it was a year filled with meaningful ways to spend my time, and a valuable way to soak up my last year while I complete my last few course requirements. So while the idea of taking a lighter course load (i.e. fewer than 5 courses) might sound enticing, especially if you’re working part-time or have lots of extracurricular activities, remember that in the end it still all comes down to how you manage your time. Try things out, and see what works best for you!


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