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Sep 24 2017
by Elizabeth Robinson

9 Steps to Customizing a Degree at UT Austin

By Elizabeth Robinson - Sep 24 2017
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Many colleges have some sort of create-your-own-degree program or simply allow students lots of freedom in their choice of classes. But choosing classes requires knowing the right resources to consult in order to balance professor quality, fulfill prerequisites and excite your mind. In my time at UT, I've mapped out both a highly-customizable biology degree and a create-your-own liberal arts degree. Here, I'll show you ambitious young longhorns how to compile a list of classes and narrow down the most worthwhile ones to take during your time here at the 40 acres.

But first things first. Here's a list of resources you'll need to design your degree.

1. Gather your resources.

Elizabeth Robinson

UT's recent course catalogs: Fall 2017, Summer 2017, Spring 2017, Fall 2016 and Spring 2016. Yes, you'll likely need all of them. 

UT's compiled syllabus database

The place where UT stores all those instructor surveys students fill out at the end of the year.

UT's free online degree audit (It'll tell you what classes you still need to take to complete your degree). Note: They've moved this one around so it may be hard to find, but trust me it's there somewhere.

UT's compiled grade distribution for each professor.

An appointment with your academic or faculty adviser. As a backup, finding a good upperclassman never hurts. 

2. Identify required classes.

This is by far the easiest step because you have the least responsibility and choice; if your degree requires a certain class, that's one less slot you need to look for. If you think you may also need some classes in order to get into a good graduate or medical school, now is the time to pick those out and add them to the list of classes you want to take. In this step, you should also choose classes from short lists of possible, required classes. For instance, I had to choose between taking physics-major physics, engineering physics or life sciences physics. If your list is more than a handful of classes to choose from, save that for a later step.

You should not be worried about getting your flags at this point. A VAPA or required Texas Government class, sure, but not flags. Most of your flags will automatically fill in later and can help you narrow down the list of classes you're about to compile. 

3. Identify interesting or useful classes by name.

Elizabeth Robinson

If you're a traditional major, you've likely got a lengthy list of upper-division classes to choose from on the back of your degree plan. If so, go to the course catalogs you've set aside and search up every class listed by course number (ex. PSY301). Yep, EVERY class. Make note of what they are, even if you don't think you'll be taking them (trust me, you don't want to have to look them all up a second time). 

If you're creating your own major, you likely know at least what types of courses you'll want to take. On the course catalogs, you can search by department and level (ex. upper-division anthropology). For my humanities degree, I went into the spring 2017, fall 2017 and fall 2016 catalogs and searched for upper-division courses in every department. I only marked down the ones with interesting-sounded titles as potential candidates. 

Elizabeth Robinson

Why do you need multiple catalogs? Not every class is offered every semester and so may not be listed on every catalog. Some are, for example, only offered every spring. Some are offered sporadically or only when enough students happen to sign up that semester. To find out how often a class is offered, an easy trick is to search the syllabus website for the course's number (ex. PSY301. Not the unique number!). Every syllabus ever offered for that class will show up, along with its instructor and semester taught. 

By the end of this step, you've probably got dozens of classes lined up and only eight class slots available. Don't panic! That list is about to dwindle down at break-neck speed.

4. Look up prerequisites.

At one point, I found myself with six open class slots and, after hours of careful consideration, managed to choose the most interesting classes to fill them. Then I found out that one class I desperately wanted to take had a prerequisite...which also had a prerequisite. Make that four class slots.

So right now you need to figure out, from that list of classes you've compiled, which ones have prerequisites (it should say on the course catalog if you click on the unique number). You may not be happy with the results, but if you really want to take those classes you'll have to fill part of your time with prereqs. 

Elizabeth Robinson

5. Look up syllabi.

Elizabeth Robinson

This is where you stop judging a book by its cover. The class titles may be interesting, but the class could be completely different from what you're imagining. My advice here is to not get too attached to a class' name. If the name is so you and it's what you've been searching for your whole life, but the syllabus foretells a living nightmare, just let it go. The class you thought you wanted doesn't exist. 

On the plus side, I found that many classes I was on the fence about sounded far more interesting after reading the syllabus. The babies you have to let go will get replaced by new ones. 

6. Look up professors.

More narrowing down! This step shouldn't be too hard because bad professors often have bad syllabi. But just in case they don't, there are quite a few resources to consult to evaluate whether the professor is a Snape or a Lupin:

UT's Course Instructor Survey website shows the professor's average score in several categories from up to hundreds of students. You can even see their scores over the years or from different classes they've taught!

RateMyProfessor. Be sure to see how old the reviews are, how many other students have agreed with them and what class each review is for! 

The UT Professor/Class Reviews Facebook group. Just one quick post and plenty of students should respond saying whether to take the class or not.

7. Look up flags and grades.


Elizabeth Robinson

Still can't choose between some of your classes? Using the course catalogs, you can see what flags are offered in each class by looking at the little yellow boxes to the right of each class' name. This could be the deciding factor between two really amazing classes you've found.

You can also use this nifty website to look up the normal grade distributions for almost every professor.

Elizabeth Robinson

8. Examine how often your remaining classes are offered.

If you're on this step and your degree plan isn't done, you're really in a pickle. All of your classes are equally amazing, have outstanding teachers and they all fulfill your requirements. Tough decision. Well, now's the time to leave things up to fate. Sometimes, your class just won't be offered during a semester when you have time. I have a few amazing classes on standby because they're offered infrequently and unpredictably. If they're offered within the next three years when I have an open slot, so be it. If not, so be it. To look up how often a class is offered, you can use UT's syllabus website, search the class name (ex. PSY301) and see which semesters it's been offered by which professors. You can't predict the future, so be sure to leave a few rarer classes on the back-burner in case they turn up in the future.  

9. Keep your options open.

Maybe you don't know which classes you want to take. Maybe after your first physical chemistry class with Dr. Webb, you'll see the light and decide to follow a chemistry-intensive track. Or maybe you'll take an anatomy class and decide all those health science classes you planned make you sick to your stomach. Professors may appear or disappear, classes may lose demand or change structure. Or worst of all: you tried to register, but the class filled up too quickly. It happens. Good thing you compiled that gigantic list of potential classes, right? Try to keep a prioritized list of courses you'll want to take if a slot opens. 

Because no plan survives contact with the enemy (In this metaphor, the enemy is life).

Elizabeth Robinson

So now that you're no longer taking FIG classes and you've gotten your VAPA and history classes out of the way, you may feel like you're in free fall. But after you've spent a grueling weekend designing the perfect degree plan (and all its backups), that's one less headache you'll have every semester. And now, whenever you feel overwhelmed or down about your classes, you can look at your beautiful master plan and rest assured that you've got some absolutely awesome years ahead of you.

Lead Image Credit: Elizabeth Robinson 

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Elizabeth Robinson - University of Texas at Austin

I'm a sophomore at UT Austin majoring in Dean's Biology. I've loved writing since elementary school and published my first novel in high school. I love reading, writing (obviously), foreign languages, doggos, martial arts, anthropology, theater, and watching far too much YouTube. I dream of being a fiction author and geneticist after graduate school, hopefully combining my two loves to change the world. Follow me on Twitter @MetokaPublishi1, Instagram as BlackPage13, or (best option) visit my website, www.MetokaBooks.com!

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