Picking a college schedule can be overwhelming if you don't find a balance. (Image via ThoughtCo)

Balancing Interest & Intensity: A Guide to Creating the Perfect Course Schedule

Take it from me: it’s not easy.

In my experience, pre-registration for college classes is a nightmare. As a student at a liberal arts school college, I have to somehow juggle course availability, workload, requirements and my own academic interests. I’ll spend weeks poring over course descriptions and emailing professors, searching for that ultimate combination of college classes that makes me feel the most at ease for the semester to come. With my college’s high level of difficulty, I’m often torn between taking courses I am genuinely excited about or classes that may be more manageable with my workload. Ultimately it comes down to interest versus intensity.

When I first started college, I made the mistake of thinking my interest in courses would somehow make up for how extremely demanding they were. I took four courses with immense amounts of reading and writing: Intro to Political Philosophy, Intro to Peace, Justice and Human Rights, On (Non)Violence and Basic Intermediate Spanish. Don’t let the “intro” fool you, those are some of the hardest college classes I’ve ever taken. I sometimes drowned in hundreds of pages of reading on top of complex content and lengthy essays.

While I was initially eager to be in these intellectually challenging courses, throughout the semester that interest began to dry up in the face of overwhelming stress. Showing up to class donning the “college-chic” look of messy hair, sweatpants and increasing amounts of despair became my reality. I dreaded reading books and articles I normally would have found fascinating, knowing I would be up until 3 or 4 a.m. trying to power through them as I did almost every night that semester.

I thankfully got through the semester, but wow had my perspective changed. I didn’t have much say in my college classes the following spring due to their availability, my schedule and requirements, but sophomore year I got a chance to make a change.

I vowed to take the easiest classes I could possibly find to fulfill the distribution requirements of three social science, humanities and natural science classes, which were each in two different departments for each area of study. Regardless of whether I cared about the topic or not, I was going to finally have a semester that felt manageable without extraordinary amounts of work.

I signed up for Comparative Politics, Race, Realism and Photography, Geology 101 and Intro to Syntax. I took the latter two courses, Syntax and Geology, with no interest in their content at all, believing they were the easiest college classes that would fulfill some of my requirements. I anticipated Comparative Politics and Race, Realism and Photography to be the hardest of the bunch, but enrolled anyway as they both fulfilled requirements and were some of the few that fit my schedule that semester.

As it turns out, my “easy classes” ended up being the most frustrating. I struggled through the mires of syntax trees and the intricacies of volcano formations. Even though I was able to get great grades, I spent the entire semester simultaneously embittered and intellectually unfilled in both Syntax and Geology. I loathed every day I was trapped in the two college classes. I preferred washing the grease-covered dishes at my job in the campus cafe over completing the homework for those courses. While on paper, Syntax and Geology should have been smooth sailing because of their lighter workload (less reading and writing), I realized my aversion to their respective topics made the work feel much more arduous than any of the other college classes I’d taken in the past.

Ironically, it was my “difficult” classes that I had the best time in. A prospective political science major at the time, I found the Comparative Politics class intriguing.  Even though I thought my main interest was in political philosophy — inspired by the class I took my first-year — I had enough interest in political science on a whole to be fully engaged. Readings came easier and were finished much faster than my work for Syntax and Geology.

Race, Realism and Photography surprised me as well, which became my favorite class that semester. I needed to fulfill a humanities requirement and while at the time I did not have a strong interest in taking English courses, I was intellectually curious about race in the context of my studies, being a potential African studies minor. I had never really considered English as a major before this course, foreseeing too much work with not enough payoff, but my mind was completely changed. These two college classes made Tuesdays and Thursdays my least stressful and most intellectually rewarding days of the week.

I finally had discovered the best balance between interest and intensity. What had worked with my politics and English classes was not just that I was interested in them, but that they were also not the hardest courses in those areas I could have taken. While having significantly more work than Syntax and Geology, Comparative Politics and Race and Realism and Photography covered topics I was interested in, even if they were not the most aligned with my current academic interests. Interest does not completely counteract intensity, but it is essential to find a balance between the two in both your individual college classes and course makeup on a whole.

So that’s what I attempted to do. In the spring semester of my sophomore year, I matched classes that I was the most interested in, but were a bit heavy workload-wise, with classes that were less intense but I still had a base interest in.

A newly minted English major, 10-page essays in African American Poetry and Contemporary Poetry felt well-balanced with short problem sets in Case Studies of Chemistry and brief Moodle posts in Political Behavior. At last, I had a course load that felt both manageable and intellectually compelling. While I did not wish to pursue an academic career in chemistry or political behavior, they were stimulating enough for me to not feel thoroughly bored and frustrated in each class as I had in Syntax and Geology.

I also had the two poetry classes that allowed me to directly study my interests. By pairing the more intense poetry classes with the less heavy chemistry and political science classes, I was able to devote myself more fully to the poetry courses than I had been able to do my first semester of college. I didn’t spread myself too thin, but I also didn’t ignore my own need to be intellectually keen on the courses I take, resulting in a semester that felt healthy, productive and engaging.

Picking college classes is no easy task. The ideal courses on your favorite topics with just the right amount of coursework will not always be offered. Sometimes you will have to make sacrifices and not take your perfect class that semester because you know the workload will just be too much, but instead take a course you’re less interested in but still get somewhat excited about. You have to find the balance that works best for you, but know this: interest never makes up for intensity, and lack of intensity on paper never makes up for interest.

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