Many Undergrads Should Take Light Courseloads

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.