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How to Make the Most of Summer College Courses

There is something magical about college campuses during the summer months. The physical space is unchanged from the traditional academic year, but a feeling of quiet possibility infiltrates the empty lawns and unused classrooms. There are, of course, a hardy few who brave the summer term, and perhaps you are among them. If so, here are several basic considerations to help you maximize your summer college courses:

Remember that the summer term is compressed

Most American schools utilize the semester system, where each class you take is typically 15 weeks in length. Summer classes, however, are much shorter – often just four or six weeks long. This compressed schedule is ideal for introductory courses, so if you need to complete a prerequisite class or a general education requirement, the summer term can be an excellent opportunity to do so. For those courses that develop a theme over a period of weeks, and that benefit from in-depth discussion and writing, a shortened summer semester can sometimes be harmful.

Ultimately, learning takes time and practice. Before you register for a class, consider the course content, and decide whether you can master it at an accelerated pace. Remember that one effect of this compressed schedule is that falling behind in class becomes even more problematic. For example, in the summer microbiology courses that I teach, we still meet twice per week, but we cover 18 chapters of the textbook in 16 class sessions, rather than in 26. Begin studying on the first day of the semester, and stay current with your homework and reading.

Also be aware that this shortened schedule makes multitasking more difficult. Take a college where 15 semester hours is normally a full course load. During the summer, a 15-hour load might mean meeting for 22 hours, with all the extra work that entails outside of the classroom. My advice? Take a lighter course load during the summer.

Research possible instructors

Many summer classes are taught by adjuncts on short-term contracts. Most adjuncts love to teach, and they typically know their subjects very well. However, some adjuncts are hired mere days before the semester begins, and they are forced to make do with just a textbook and a copy of last summer’s syllabus. Before you enroll in a course, check the department website to see if the instructor is a full or associate professor. If the instructor is listed as an adjunct – or not listed at all – it is perfectly acceptable to contact the department office to ask about a teacher’s credentials and whether they have taught that class (or one like it) before. You may find that an adjunct with experience teaching a given course is the best possible scenario. Tenured professors are sometimes promoted based on research and publication record, with teaching performance a lesser consideration. Adjuncts, on the other hand, live and die by their abilities in the classroom.

Consider your long-term needs

Most departments schedule their core requirements in a way that encourages students to take them in a certain sequence. You will generally benefit most by following this sequence. If you are pursuing a double major, or if you are interested in a rarely-taught special topics course, summer may be your chance to complete an essential class. To be clear, courses offered in the summer are usually compressed versions of core requirements, but by taking a core requirement during the summer, you may be able to resolve a conflict with a rarely taught or specialized class during the regular school year.

Summer is also an excellent time to repeat a course (if necessary). If you did not do well on your first attempt, you may find that the summer section is taught by a different instructor with a teaching style that better suits your learning needs. The smaller class size, and your familiarity with the material, may also help you improve. Either way, the summer semester can be an important step in graduating on time.

Seek out unusual electives

One of the best uses of the summer semester is taking unusual courses that do not otherwise fit into your schedule. In biology, for example, the summer is an excellent time for classes focusing on ecology and field work. Multi-day expeditions do not work well during the regular school year because they interfere with other academic obligations. The summer session is also a great time for short courses in unusual settings, such as an art class in Rome, a literature course at the University of Oxford, or a science class in Hawaii.

You may find that the best use of your summer is to rest, or to complete an internship, or to work to save money for the regular academic school year. But if you do decide to take summer courses, a little planning can go a long way in maximizing your college experience.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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