Many Undergrads Should Take Light Courseloads

by Mauricio4 min read25th Oct 202129 comments

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Career advisingCollege advice
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Thanks to Kuhan Jeyapragasan for comments and relevant/motivating conversation. In the spirit of saving time, I wrote this one relatively quickly.

Summary / Introduction

When I started undergrad, I decided to take almost as many classes as I could that term—wouldn’t want to miss out on limited opportunities to learn, right? I spent that whole term hunched over books and stressing over how behind I was (so, not meeting people, not getting research or job experience, not figuring out what problems to prioritize, not getting others into high-impact careers), only to later realize my classes had taught me little of value.

That doesn’t seem to have been a unique experience; many impact-driven undergrads fill their schedule with many classes (often, time-consuming ones). Consider not doing that—I think taking many classes each term is one of the most costly, easily avoidable mistakes that impact-driven undergrads tend to make. After all, it seems that, for most promising career goals:

  • Extra classes are not that valuable.
  • Some things you could be doing with that time instead are extremely valuable.

If you spend much unnecessary time on classes (e.g. get more than one degree in undergrad, take almost as many classes as you’re allowed to take each term, take especially time-consuming classes, etc), please at least have it be an intentional choice—one in which you recognize the opportunity cost. The opportunity cost is too massive to accept on the basis of the high school mindset that the most important choices we make are our curricula—there are so many other ways we can pursue our goals.

Caveats

  • This is written in the context of US universities, where students tend to have substantial flexibility to choose their courseloads. It may be much less applicable to other contexts.
  • No, I’m not saying you should let your grades plummet or drop out of college.
  • Some people’s productivity benefits a lot from oversight/accountability/deadlines. If that’s the case for you, consider alternatives to classes which provide that structure, e.g. part-time supervised work or collaborations.

Related/supporting thoughts

  • If you want to go into research, research experience / track record and good grades (e.g. GPA of ~3.8+ for CS) on classes you took are major assets; having taken extra classes won’t be as noticed (and will burn time that, if spent differently, could better prepare you for graduate school / research).
    • At least Dan Hendrycks (CS PhD student researching ML safety at UC Berkeley) agrees this strongly applies to AI safety technical research / CS grad school. He advises: "Avoid tough needless courses and take easy courses... [Unnecessary, tough classes are] the easiest way people burn time. [...] for CS grad school, research is what matters. [...] I can’t see much reason for a double or triple major since those will force you to take many more courses." [Edited to add details]
  • There’s a ton of low-hanging fruit you could be taking for getting other undergrads to strategically dedicate their careers to highly pressing problems.
  • Extra classes have very little value for going into policy or many industry jobs (from two policy professionals’ advice in conversation).
  • Classes are very unlikely to teach you much about a bunch of very important things, like what you value and what cause prioritization / career paths will best allow you to realize those values.
  • Taking more classes trades off against your ability to deeply understand and/or get good grades in the classes you do take.
  • Being very stressed and sad over a packed courseload doesn’t just suck—it also probably makes you less productive and less charismatic (which, editing to clarify, seems useful for building connections and getting people into high-impact careers).
  • If you’re already doing lots of some type of work, doing even more often takes extra long (e.g. because you’re tired of it). When this is true, it means coursework has increasing marginal costs—your fourth class is more costly than your second one.
    • [Edit] Another, perhaps bigger reason why coursework has increasing marginal costs is that things you could be doing instead often have diminishing marginal returns—the last class that fills your schedule prevents you from doing the most valuable alternative things you could be doing.
  • For credentials, coursework has diminishing marginal returns—your first bachelor’s degree will take you much further than a second one.
  • Thinking deeply and creatively seems useful, and it requires having slack in your schedule.
  • For the above reasons, relatively light courseloads seem close to being pareto improvements—they can easily advance a bunch of your goals without significant costs.

Conclusion

Bottom line: please be wiser than freshman me was, drop some classes (or don’t sign up in the first place!), and do more useful stuff instead. (Uh, unless taking lots of classes makes sense for your career goals, which seems true occasionally.) Depending on your situation, there’s a good chance that a light courseload is a win-win-win for your career prospects, happiness, and impact.

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I endorse this advice as helping me to get to where I am. I learned far more in extracurriculars than in class - getting the opportunity to be in clubs, manage club operations, manage club budgets, manage people, etc. This helped me learn how to lead real organizations.

I spent a lot of time doing self-study learning outside of class (>200hrs). I ended up getting a job in software engineering and data science despite having only taken two formal CS classes.

I think a lot of people in college overrate how important their major will be for getting a job. Getting a good summer internship and doing very well at it seems much more important, both for EA and non-EA careers.

Note that I went to a US liberal arts school that seemed unusually well set up for this. I also pursued a career (first software and later EA) that is unusually flexible in considering credentials.

I find it quite ironic that I might have missed this post because of a high workload in school, dropping a class next term thanks to this post, so very much appreciated!

+1. I did two majors and a minor, and probably could have done a lot more good with my time doing some subset of that that bought me both more academic flexibility and lighter overall courseloads.

(I was not an EA at the time, and so EA considerations did not enter this calculus.)

However, there are probably certain grad school programs (including law school) for which undergrad academic rigor matters to your application. E.g., it was very helpful to my law school app that I did both a STEM and a Humanities major, since it showed interdisciplinary capabilities. When selecting a major(s), people should consider how it will affect their grad school prospects if that's something they care about.

(Overall I still agree withe the OP though)

This jibes with Brian Caplan's theory that education is primarily about signalling. You can usually enter lectures (or view them on youtube) for free, unlike movies, or gyms, for example. What you're paying for is primarily the certificate, not the experience. And secondarily, the contacts, research experience, and references. The certificate doesn't benefit much from including more classes (possible exception being if it gets you a second major). But the research experience and references do benefit from fewer classes. So doing fewer classes is often a big win. My impression of stats grad school totally matches Dan's assessment.

Rare voice of disagreement here, or at least an alternative perspective. I agree with basic idea, but it's too specific.

My motto: One should not let school get in the way of one's education. Sometimes that means taking fewer classes... Usually it means not wasting time in other ways, though. You shouldn't cut classes until you've already cut out many other non-educational low impact things. Classes are usually the most valuable thing offered by a university - finding the good ones pays dividends longer than most other things one does in college.

After freshman year, I quit video games: a kind of sad but important decision. By senior year, I committed myself to hosting study parties on Friday nights instead of carousing - graduating a semester early.

I did one major, two minors, worked a tech job 12 - 15 hours a week, and was part of and eventual leader of several clubs, including one as a magazine editor. But I also knew my GPA was going to be lower as a result, and I didn't care. Sometimes I would sacrifice school for long conversations on philosophy or reading a text in the arboretum... And I called that in 'true education.'

I only took classes I wanted to take. I only studied under professors with good reputations for teaching. I joined organizations which I could learn from and make a difference.

Otoh, I also created more animosity between my vision of education and the university than was necessary.

The boring truth about these decisions is that there is a Production Possiblity Curve available to you, and you should get on it so that you can gain the most skills, taking the best classes, while crafting the best social system possible at a personally sustainable and efficient use of your time and resources.

Thanks for this! I might be more optimistic about how compatible our advice is--I'd say students should cut out both class and non-class activities that don't go far toward advancing their goals. I'd also be curious to hear:

  • It sounds like maybe you consider the credential, networking, or research opportunities offered by universities to be significantly less valuable than classes ("Classes are usually the most valuable thing offered by a university "). If so, what's the thinking behind that?
  • You write: "You shouldn't cut classes until you've already cut out many other non-educational low impact things. " I'm not sure I follow--wouldn't it be better to cut out both at the same time? 
    • Maybe the worry is that low-impact activities like video games will expand to fill spare time? But for people who struggle with that, this caveat from the post seems applicable: "Some people’s productivity benefits a lot from oversight/accountability/deadlines. If that’s the case for you, consider alternatives to classes which provide that structure, e.g. part-time supervised work or collaborations."

Great post Mauricio! I'm a senior undergrad this year and this is the first semester I have deliberately taken fewer classes and focussed on things I find more important/interesting (mostly EA organizing). Best decision I've made in a while, and I'm getting much more out of my college experience now than before. 

In regard to caveat 3 and people who benefit from structure/oversight, I would suggest the following:

Participate in or facilitate fellowships/reading groups for EA if EA is something you want to do. Having other people depend on you or expect things from you can be really motivating. 

Thanks, Aaron! I've felt similarly--crazy how much time (and effort/attention/stress) that frees up :)

Participate in or facilitate fellowships/reading groups for EA if EA is something you want to do. Having other people depend on you or expect things from you can be really motivating. 

I'm into the general point here. I'd also encourage people to be much more ambitious in applying this advice--anecdotally, a significantly lighter courseload leaves enough time to e.g. organize whole fellowships (although facilitation/participation can definitely be a good starting point).

+1 to this advice. I agree with many other commenters that I learned more in activities like extracurriculars, co-op semesters, and volunteer gigs than I did from the extra classes I took. The post that most improved my attitude towards my classes in school was Half-assing it with everything you've got.

Despite that, I don't regret taking ~1 extra class per semester in my undergrad. Reasons why:

  • My degree (Canadian engineering program) was very inflexible (I had only 2 elective classes before my 3rd year)
  • I wanted to take advanced courses outside that degree (some interesting 3rd-year biology courses which have been relevant to me later)
  • My extra courses were always easy, and "coursework has increasing marginal costs" didn't feel that true given my high default courseload; I was already in a state of being constantly busy with schoolwork and adding one (relatively easy) course on top of that didn't change my quality of life much (i.e. there was already minimal slack in my schedule)
  • I'm not great at general academic self-study and happen to like learning from in-person lectures (though volunteer/work projects are even better)

Even in this scenario, there was some high-achiever-ego-bait that I'm glad I didn't go for (e.g. trying to get a minor in biology would have involved taking some courses I didn't care about, while sacrificing others that I did). So even if you read this and think "nah, I like my heavy courseload", you may want to reflect on how well your academic plans connect with your overall goals.

Thank you, I found myself agreeing with most of this post and reflecting on how I might have optimised during my undergrad experience. On the other hand, I note that neither the post nor any comments yet contains what I consider an important caveat:

Taking extra classes is a great way to explore in the sense of dissolving known- and unknown-unknowns (what fits me? what problem-framings am I missing? what tools do other disciplines have? what concerns to people interested in X have? what even is there if I look further?)

Extra-curricular activities also enable some of this sort of exploration. But I'd emphasise that for a competent young person, appropriate exploration, one way or another, is a really key aspect of impact.

For my personal experience (UK) I blended music (!) and mathematics with later explorations in philosophy and computer science, each of which is responsible in one way or another for opening doors to impactful, challenging, rewarding, and lucrative possibilities.

Thanks! Good caveat. I'd add a caveat to the caveat: I'd still caution people from taking very heavy courseloads, because exploring (e.g. asking and reflecting on the questions in your second paragraph) seems hard when all of your time and attention goes to meeting deadlines.

Yes! I'm glad the OP was written and I agree with many of its points. But if I hadn't taken extra classes, I wouldn't have taken CS, which I now (because I took extra classes) know is something that I am interested in — and might develop enough knowledge in to be useful (I'm still an undergraduate), from the point of view of the universe.

Thanks for the article, I've added a link to our page:

https://80000hours.org/articles/advice-for-undergraduates/

 

I'd be curious for thoughts on when you should  take more courses. The main situations that came to mind for me were: (i) you're learning something you might actually use (e.g. programming) or (ii) you want to open up extra grad school options (e.g. taking extra math courses to open up economics).

Thanks! My initial guess is those are situations when it's good to take specific / high-workload classes--but I'm not sure they're always situations when it's good to take more classes (since people can sometimes take those kinds of classes as parts of meeting their graduation requirements).

I agree with this advice in general. I'd add a caveat that it might be a good idea to prioritize taking courses where you can make smart, like-minded friends. For example, a Computer Science class with a lab component where you work in small groups to get assignments done. 

Yesss this is very aligned with what I have come to recognize as I've gotten more engaged with EA.

Worth mentioning: this can be hard

Many EAs come from high-achieving/ academically ambitious backgrounds. Pre-EA, that often means orienting towards the best grades and generally acting in a way that fulfills this high-achieving self-perception (which can entail taking more goals). As one hopefully reflects on goals upon encountering, EA there's a conflict between this residual self-perception and trying to help save or improve the lives of as many people as you can. 

I still notice this conflict in my felt-aversion towards skipping classes because they're not the best use of my time and I can consume the info covered elsewhere faster. I'm also having a hard time putting less time into assignments and exams that I know I could get an A on even though just taking a slightly worse grade would free up valuable time. (+1 for Half-Assing it with Everything You've Got).

Thanks! I see how that applies to the advice of not focusing so much on grades--do you think there's a similar dynamic with the advice of taking fewer classes? Personally, I've felt more nervous about letting grades slip than about taking fewer classes (since the latter doesn't come at the cost of worse grades--if anything, it makes it easier to get good grades on the fewer classes you take). 

I think this is excellent advice. 

Some additional thoughts: 

  • It seems to be the case at many American universities that the deadline for finalizing your schedule is usually a couple weeks into the semester. This gives you time to try out a bunch of classes, and to only keep the ones you think will be most valuable. So, I would always recommend signing up for as many as possible, and then going to all of them for the first couple of weeks to figure out which ones are the best, and then dropping down to only the best opportunities. 
  • Also, if you expect a class to be fabulous, and then the first day is boring, I think it's usually best to drop it. The first day of the class is the professor's one opportunity to really wow students, and if they have no enthusiasm on day 1, I don't think there's hope going forward. I wasted so much time taking classes that I thought would surely "get better once we were talking about real stuff." But that never happened. For all of my favorite classes, I knew they would be great on my first day. And for all of my worst classes: they were bad on the first day. 
  • Lastly, if you're able to sign up to pass/fail classes, I highly recommend that as a not-super-stressful-way to hold you accountable for learning a skill set that you know is important, but which you also know you won't have the dedication to learn on your own. For instance, I took two computer science courses my senior year because I knew if I graduated without having  programming experience, I would never have the drive to learn it myself. It was an incredible experience because I could just do the homework well enough to understand the content at the level I was interested in learning, and then didn't have to spend the extra effort I would have needed in order to get an "A" for my GPA's sake. Those two computer science classes are probably ~20% of the reason I was able to land my research job directly out of college. A lot of students seem to "save" their pass/fail credits in case they do much worse in a class than they expected and want to be able to avoid the negative GPA impacts. But, I think for highly motivated students, they end up never really using those pass/fail credits, and waste an opportunity to take useful classes with really low-stakes. 

Strongly agree. I dropped my double major because I realized I didn't need the extra work to take the classes I wanted (since I'm not pursuing academia). I'm also taking my lightest load ever in order to community-build because I'm confident that's one of the highest-impact things I can do ... And I can't imagine trying to community-build with a full courseload (nor do I really have to, given the lack of capacity my other organizers have)

If you really need to learn something, you can do it in your own time. Of course, there's a balance to this - I accept, sometimes, that I am trading off maximal efficiency/ease for doing something that interests me more - and since you have to be in class anyway, you might as well try to make that time impactful/EA-aligned (e.g. writing a paper in a way that applies EA thinking).

Yeah, this seems like good + important advice (and sufficiently caveated/nuanced), and I expect to refer several people to this post in future. Thanks for writing it!

Thanks for the kind words!

One case where this doesn't seem to apply is an economics Ph.D. For that, it seems taking very difficult classes and doing very well in them is largely a prerequisite for admissions. I am very grateful I took the most difficult classes and spent a large fraction of my time on schoolwork. 

The caveat here is that research experience is very helpful too (working as an RA). 

Good point, thanks! Definitely seems like a case where taking hard classes is useful--do you think this is also a case where taking many classes is useful?

I would say an ideal candidate is a math-econ double major, also taking a few classes in stats and computer science. All put together, that's quite a few classes, but not an unmanageable amount. 

Is your sense that that's better than math major + econ minor + a few classes in stats and computer science + econ research (doing econ research with the time that would have otherwise gone to extra econ classes)? I'd guess this makes sense since I've heard econ grad schools aren't too impressed by econ majors and care a lot about research experience.

I'd say it's close and depends on the courses you are missing from an econ minor instead of a major. If those classes are 'economics of x' classes (such as media or public finance), then your time is better spent on research. If those classes are still in the core (intermediate micro, macro, econometrics, maybe game theory) I'd probably take those before research. 

Of course, you are right that admissions care a lot about research experience - but it seems the very best candidates have all those classes AND a lot of research experience. 

Very cool and good post thank you yum yuml! You briefly mention a loss of charisma as a downside to being stressed by a large workload - in what ways do you think we should be concerned about our charisma levels at college? I suppose it seems especially important for group organisers, just curious on your thoughts.

Thanks! That's right, I was mainly thinking about value for group organizing (although seems generally valuable for making connections).

I'd be curious to hear from someone who knows more about graduate programs (in general or specific ones) to what extent this advice generalizes to those contexts.