Should You Take a Full Course Load?

At most Canadian universities and colleges a full course load is five courses per semester. Last year I took five courses each semester and my roommate took three courses the first semester and five the second. I can say that he was much more relaxed first semester than me and more relaxed than he was in second semester. When I was picking courses for first year I never considered taking anything less than five courses, but I realize now that it can be a very effective tool for some. As a student you will have to decide what is right for you. Here is a breakdown of the benefits and downsides.

The Pros

The first and most obvious pro of taking more classes each semester is that you will be able to graduate sooner. This means fewer years of paying tuition, sooner to join the work force/real world. You should love your post-secondary experience but four years is plenty, which does not even include any graduate school you might require. There are also numerous fees that you have to pay each semester you are enrolled, so the fewer semesters you are at the school, the less money you will have to pay for these (why am I paying a “pool improvement fee” five years after the pool was improved?).

Last year I paid $9,600 of fees in relation to school that was not tuition. And this does not include such things as eating out, entertainment, transportation, etc. The number of credits required to graduate stays the same so you can assume tuition cost stays the same, regardless of how many years you take. This assumption depends on no tuition hikes, something we can’t count on, can we Quebec? So if you include that approximately $10,000 of extra costs per year of school and add in the opportunity cost of missing a year of full time work, not taking five courses will end up costing you a lot of money and lost income.

There is another consideration you need to have in mind when picking courses. There are lots of graduate schools and programs that require you to take a full course load every year, as a sign that you can handle graduate school. In the view of these schools, if you can’t handle five undergraduate courses per semester, you likely can’t handle the rigors of what you will face in graduate school. The University of Western Ontario’s School of Medicine is one such school, and there are many other examples. Talking to an academic advisor before deciding your course load might be in your best interest if you have graduate school aspirations.

The Cons of Taking a Full Course Load

While taking as many classes as you can will spare you from paying a copyright agreement fee twelve times, you pay tuition on a per class basis. This means taking three classes in a semester is more affordable than taking five. If you are paying your way through school it might be better to spread the cost out over more years so you are not overwhelmed by how much school costs. It will be more expensive overall, but $90,000 over five years ($18,000 per year) might be more appealing to you than $80,000 over four years ($20,000/year). That is a question you will have to weigh.

The biggest argument for taking fewer classes than you can is that you will obviously have more time. You probably save at least three hours per week of lectures and any time you would spend studying for each class you don’t take. That time can then be used to study more for your other courses. People who take fewer classes often say that they will be able to get better marks in the classes they do have. If you are using this to rationalize the decision then make sure you are using your extra time to study more. Your extra time can also be used to devote more time to work. Less time in class means you should be able to work an extra shift or two each week. Every student knows any money helps.

While not taking a full course load may exclude you from some graduate schools, a low GPA will exclude you from next to all schools. Your marks are the big determinant people look to when deciding your academic acumen. There are lots of people who will not be able to pull down A’s when they are in a maxed out schedule. If you need to pare down on your classes in order to maximize your marks then that is what you are best off doing. It is better to be of interest to a few grad schools that do not request you take a full schedule by getting top marks than try to be on the list of those schools but miss out on the GPA requirements because you couldn’t find enough hours in the week to study and work on your assignments.

A major thing you should know is that loans do not require you to have five courses. To be considered a full time student you do not need to have a full course load. You are a full time student by taking a 60% course load. So you are eligible for all financial aid by taking just three courses in a semester. However there may be some scholarships or bursaries you will not be considered for without taking five courses. If you are not taking a full course load you will need to look at scholarships terms and requirements closely to see if you are indeed eligible.

Another small matter I have come across is that the fewer classes you have, the easier it is to make your schedule work. As a science student I have a lot of lectures and labs to fit into a five day week. It is often tough to make the schedule work without any schedule conflicts. But it is always the first three courses that are easily registered for. The last two courses are very tough to squeeze in. I haven’t had an experience yet where I registered for the five courses I wanted and made a clean, tidy time table. There is registering for a course and lab, being unable to get another course so you have to drop out of the first and get a different lecture time, etc. It seems like a small issue and it is, but not taking a full course load will save you frustration at course registration time (school still manages to stress students during the summer in university).

It’s a Personal Thing

There is no one correct answer. For me, taking as many courses as I can makes sense, because I have grad school ambitions and I feel I can manage my time well enough to handle it. Someone who has a tougher time with studying, or has to work a lot of hours, or who is more into the socializing of school is better off by taking just three (to be eligible for loans) or four courses. You need to weigh the time you free up with fewer classes against the extra months or years getting your degree. You need to be confident you will use your extra time productively, and sure that it does not close any possible doors to graduate school. I am of the opinion that you should at least try a full schedule. First year is the time to do it; the courses are the easiest you will have. If you are just entering post-secondary education, give it the old college try. If it is not for you, fair enough. You can drop one or two courses prior to a certain date and get your tuition back and the class will not go on your records. I have laid out the argument for both the full course load and not, but it really is up to you.

Tyler is a student at Wilfrid Laurier University and is trying to graduate debt free. He writes at Poor Student

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It absolutely depends on person to person. All it needs here is time management. If one wants to have no socializing aspects they can go for as many as they like to.But if you want to enjoy every part then you have take a number that you can manage.

Very true Neel. I think that a full course load leaves adequate time for socialization, but the more the better. And the next guy might think he is drowning with five courses so he would never be able to leave his room.

It seems like such a simple concept, yet it’s so hard for many students to master eh?

An interesting look into Canadian tuition rules! Semesters when I’ve had a lot going on in my life I haven’t taken a full course load. The human body can only take so much stress. But I allowed myself to do this by having a lot of my requisites covered by my previous studies. My last semester this year is going to be killer, but I’ll be a graduate when it’s over!

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