6 Classes I Would Force Every College Student To Take

Over the years, I’ve heard people spout tons of pretentious statements like,

“Oh my god, the Analysis of Native American Women Who’ve Fallen Off The Eiffel Tower class I’m taking is just amazingEveryone should be required to take it.”

I’ve always scoffed at statements like this; for most of my high school and college career, the idea that any class should be universally required seemed stupid to me.

Different people have different learning styles, different interests, and different abilities. Some people are best suited to go through a series of classes, while others do best experimenting and learning on their own.

Some compulsory education is good – reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, all that jazz – but the whole practice of making everyone take largely the same classes for years on end always left a sour taste in my mouth.

It’s as Einstein said:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

However, in the course of running this blog, I’ve received lots of emails from students asking about classes they should take.

Some ask about majors in general, and while I have some ideas on which majors might be more useful than certain others, I don’t have a “go-to” major that I’d recommend to everyone. That wouldn’t make any sense.

Others, however, simply ask about the classes they should take to fill their general education requirements. These questions got me thinking: What classes would I require students to take, given the opportunity?

In the end, I came up with six. Here they are in all their glory, along with my justifications as to why I think they should be compulsory. I’ve also included some links to resources for each topic, so you can learn on your own if you’re interested. Do you agree with my picks?

Logic and Reasoning

Here’s the foundation. While some might see Speech class below and place more importance on it, I think it’s essential to ensure the ideas in your head actually make sense before you let them come out of your mouth.

Now, when I say I’d force students to take a logic course, you might think I’m talking about symbolic logic. Stuff like this:

Logic

This isn’t really what I’m talking about. I do believe symbolic logic is useful, as it helps people to learn how to correctly form logical statements in their heads. It’s good practice.

However, I’ve seen logic classes that have students doing symbolic logic problems for weeks. I would only spend a day or two on it, as that’s all most people will probably ever need. The rest of the time would be spent on practical logic and reasoning.

Left untrained, the human mind is frighteningly susceptible to all manner of logical fallacies, harmful heuristics and biases, and other mental bugs  (example: the Halo Effect). My goal with this class would be to train students to recognize these bad ways of thinking, and to start thinking rationally.

Resources for learning Logic and Reasoning

  • Introduction to Logic – Standford course, free on Coursera
  • The LessWrong Sequences – the foundation of my rationality knowledge. These are vast and a bit dense; I’ll be doing a series on rationality soon to introduce those of you who are interested to the topic.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow a wonderful book by Daniel Kahneman, who is one of the foremost researchers in the field of heuristics and biases

Speech

They say speaking publicly is the #1 fear in the world. They say it’s even more feared than death.

Never mind that we don’t know who “they” are. Never mind that people who say this usually fail to clarify that it’s the most commonly stated fear in the world – people wouldn’t actually rather die than give a speech. And never mind that what should be the #1 fear in the world is hippos.

Put all those objections aside, because chances are that you’re a scaredy-cat when it comes to public speaking as well. Take a look at that statistic. Take comfort in it. Everyone else is scared as well.

However, recruiters consistently say that what they want most out of new grads are communication skills.

Jennifer Floren, the Founder and CEO of Experience, Inc., had this to say:

“Of all the things employers look for when hiring entry-level talent, it’s the so-called ‘soft skills’ that are valued most:  communication, teamwork, flexibility and positive attitude are by far the most sought-after skills.  Employers understand that everything else can be taught, so they look for the most promising raw material to work with.”

I added the bolding, but the order was not changed. The writing’s on the wall, friend; employers want you to be a good communicator!

Taking a speech class will help you immensely in this area. A few benefits:

  • You’ll learn how to use the fundamental components of persuasion – ethos, pathos, and logos
  • You’ll gain experience in putting together compelling presentations
  • You’ll gain confidence

At one point or another in your career, you’ll probably be asked to give a presentation. It’s much better to get all the nervous floundering out of the way now, while you’re in a classroom full of other nervous flounderers.

As an additional benefit, taking a speech class will help you with one-on-one conversations as well. Ever since I took my speech classes, my ability to keep a conversation flowing between myself and a new person has improved dramatically. Running the CIG podcast has been a big help as well, as it’s weekly practice speaking for an audience (and often with a guest I don’t know very well).

Resources for learning Speech

English Composition

It’s no secret that a good percentage of college students can’t write their way out of a cellophane cookie wrapper. Here are a couple supporting facts for this claim that come from my own experience:

  • I took, a 300-level business writing class during my sophomore year, everyone else in the class was a senior, and getting ready to graduate. We had to peer review other students papers, their writing would often look just like this.
  • One of my friends thought college was spelled “coladge”. It’s not as if all his orientation papers said “College of Engineering” in the header or anything…

Plus, we’ve got people like this guy:

get-a-brain-morans

In 11th grade, I took an advanced English Composition class. It turned out to be a boot camp; on the first day of class, our teacher assigned six essays, all due within a week.

I hated that class at first, as the workload was quite a bit higher than what most other classes I had taken up to that point had given me. However, it worked. 

By the end of the semester, I knew several things. Commas are not grass seed; you can’t simply throw them around at random. Semicolons are a thing. It’s ≠ its.

I knew these things in my bones. I gained the kind of knowledge you can only get by doing a ton of writing and having it graded harshly – and yes, I’d put everyone through that if I could.

Some might say I’m biased, as I make my living mostly through writing. I’m not biased. We get things done these days by doing a lot of communicating with people we aren’t speaking to. Written communication is important, and every time it’s unclear, badly formed, or hard to read, it wastes valuable time and resources.

This is the world we live in, as Phil Collins says, so you’d better learn to write well in it.

Resources for learning English Composition

Personal Finance

Well, ok – maybe I lied a bit. I would not force students to take this type of class during college. I’d make them take it in high school – before they can go take on a ton of crushing student loans so they can get into the “dream school” that’s their “perfect fit”.

Every semester, I’d start my personal finance class by bringing in a college grad to speak to the class:

“Hey guys, I’m Chad and I graduated with an awesome degree in Philosophy from By-The-Beach-&-10,000-Miles-Away-From-Your-Parents-University back in 2012! Unfortunately I had to borrow $50,000 to do it. Now I have to come up with $575 every month for 20 years to pay it back.

My kickass philosophy job pays me $2500 a month, but rent out here in the Bay is $1500, and I’ve got a car and cell phone to pay for as well. I guess what I’m trying to say is… can anyone spare change for a cheeseburger?”

Next, I’d bring in another college grad with a different experience:

“Hey guys, I’m Stephanie and I graduated from my home state’s university back in 2010 with a degree in Economics. I didn’t want to take on too much debt, so I did my first two years at a community college to get all my gen. eds out of the way.

Tuition was still like $5,000 per semester at the university, but I worked to get some scholarships and saved money from the part-time job I worked at the community college to pay for most of it. I also hustled to make connections and attended conferences to get my name out there, so I was able to find a good job right out of college, even though my school isn’t that prestigious.

Best of all, I don’t have any student debt – so I’m able to put about $300 a month into savings! And $200 into my Dragon Ball Z figurine collection.

From there we’d launch into the basics: how to open a bank account, do your taxes, compute compound interest, set a budget, etc. You’d be surprised at the number of college students who don’t even know the URL to the FAFSA website. Or maybe you wouldn’t be.

I’d probably also beg Zac Bissonnette to come yell at the class for a while, and then force everyone to read his books Debt-Free U and How to be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents.

Resources for learning Personal Finance

  • The books I mentioned in the paragraph above would be perfect starting points.
  • A couple of my favorite personal finance blogs are I Will Teach You To Be Rich and Man vs. Debt.
  • Expect more personal finance and debt-obliteration content on CIG in the near future.

Solution Finding

Caught amongst the mundane, like a gem trapped under a sifting desert of sand, lies a fact that never ceases to astonish me when I think about it. It is this:

Almost every person in this country possesses a small object made of plastic, metal, and glass. They carry this object with them almost all the time.

This object is a portal to all the knowledge mankind has ever created.

Viewed in relation to the rest of human history, possession of this type of object tantamount to having a superpower.

So why does the following situation occur so often?

  1. Person wants to do something
  2. Person doesn’t immediately know how to do it
  3. Person immediately gives up or asks friend to help them do it

I’m all for helping people, but seriously, we have infinite knowledge devices in our pockets. And on our desks. And in our backpacks. You should be able to figure out pretty much anything on your own.

I was going to name this class “data sharking”, in honor of Seth Godin’s future library concept. However, that didn’t seem to encompass the mindset I’m striving to teach quite well enough. What I want each student to learn is how to become a Solution Finder.

A Solution Finder is someone who:

  • Is willing to be self-reliant when faced with a problem or unknown fact
  • Knows how to use technology and other tools to find solutions
  • Can be innovative when a solution isn’t obvious
  • Knows when to ask for help (hint: it isn’t right away)

Matt Ringel’s article “You Must Try, and then You Must Ask” is a perfect example of how a Solution Finder should operate. Solution Finders are willing to put in the effort to try to solve non-obvious problems, but they’re not so bull-headed that they’ll avoid asking for help to the point where they’re wasting time.

I became a first-rate Solution Finder when I worked at my school’s tech support center. I had to be. My job was to fix computer problems over the phone – often problems that I’d never encountered. It wasn’t a rare occurrence that a problem’s solution wasn’t in the database, so I’d often have to quickly Google around to find the fix.

My class would operate in pretty much the same way. Every day, my students would be given non-obvious problems, and they’d have to figure out how to solve them on their own.

While this isn’t usually thought of as a “school subject”, I believe learning this skill is immensely beneficial, both for the student and for the sap who eventually hires him.

Resources for learning Solution Finding

  • You learn Solution Finding by challenging yourself to find solutions to problems. It’s kind of a skill you have to learn on your own.
  • Google is always your friend.
  • A good Solution Finder is always on the lookout for tools and resources that can help them do better work. You can check out my Resources page to see some of my favorite tools.

Professional Skills

Finally, I’d force each and every student to take a professional skills class. Maybe I’d call it a “how to find a job” class. I’d include all the good stuff:

  • How to write a resume and avoid making stupid mistakes
  • Networking and building relationships – in a non-boring, non-fake way
  • How to create a personal website to show off your resume, portfolio, and maybe a relevant blog
  • How to interview well – best practices, common questions, etc
  • Creating a cohesive social media presence that benefits you
  • Dressing well for professional events (this includes visiting a tailor)

All of my classes would be focused on doing, and this one would be no different. At the very least, I’d require each student to set up an informational interview with a local professional.

Resources for learning Professional Skills

  • I’ve written quite a bit on professional skills and personal branding – it’s one of my main focuses here at CIG. Perhaps the best place to start would be the Personal Branding Checklist, which is a comprehensive guide on all the personal branding components that can help you get the jobs you want. It’s part of the toolkit that every CIG newsletter subscriber gets access to, so sign up in the orange box below this post to get access.

And finally, I have one last decree before my time as an imaginary, all-powerful university president is over: Students can test out of all my classes.

I think that’s where the best compromise between compulsory education and self-directed learning lies. “Here are the classes I think you should take; now, show me you know enough of one and I’ll let you out of it.”

So, what’s your opinion of my class picks? What classes would you force every student to take? Let me know in the comments.

Images: Symbolic Logic, Morans

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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23 Comments:
  1. Are you still keeping up the page, “CollegeInfoGeek?” Maybe you were part of Experimental College. (Colleges “without walls” were very hip in the 60s & 70s, but the further we get from Grass Roots anything, the more universities would like to compete with them.) At least it appears the UWs second attempt to end the EC was the goal, under the guise, “temporary hiatus.” ‘Don’t know for sure.

  2. Hey Thomas, in regards to public speaking/reading/writing, do you have any recommendations for increasing vocabulary? I went to a private school from kindergarten till sixth grade, and honestly I’ve been at a 12+ reading level since then (by the public school test standards). I know a lot of vocabulary can be learned by reading books, but the process is too slow and I don’t have a lot of time to read right now. I’ve tried searching around and using a couple of apps but most of what I can find is too limited, I need something more challenging. Of course, I could just read a dictionary… but I’m wondering if you’ve found anything useful for higher level vocabulary.

  3. Hey, Bro I just finished High School.I just wanted to ask Whether i should go to a private college or a community college.

  4. I’m finding your blog very interesting but I just wanted to say that your demeaning attitude towards private schools is turn- off. I want to point out the difference between debt as the enemy and private or out of state schools as the enemy. With hard work, scholarships can make any school plausible and, honestly, name does matter.

    • Katie,

      Honestly, this is a problem I still struggle with a lot. There are so many competing voices and opinions out there on both sides of the issue, so naturally there’s going to be disagreement – and I welcome it.

      This is what I know from personal experience, however:

      Not every student will win scholarships. Sure, there are scholarships available, but I’m not going to take that at face value and tell the girl who emails me about her $30K/year tuition (after financial aid) that a silver-bullet scholarship is just around the corner.

      I’ve also talked to dozens of recruiters, entrepreneurs, employers, authors, and successful employees. What I’ve learned from them – and my own experiences – is that the name of the school matters far less than the work you put in yourself to gain experience and build relationships.

      So, in the general case, is a prestigious school’s name on your resume a good thing? Sure – but you’ll have a tough time convincing me it’s worth the debt that often comes with it. I look at data – and an inspirational, “Work hard and win scholarships!” quip isn’t going to cover up the fact that the average student graduates with $30K in debt today – and many leave school with far, far more.

      Does the value of a prestigious school’s network make up for that? Maybe – but I contend that you can build a killer network even if you never set foot on a campus. With all the conferences, meetups, workshops, maker spaces, and other groups available in most cities, there’s usually not a day that goes by where you couldn’t find an event to attend and new people to meet.

      Even without those events, it’s very easy to meet with someone you admire and build a relationship with them. All it takes is a free email and some courage.

      Name might matter in fringe cases – trying to break into investment banking, or getting into prestigious graduate schools. In the second case, you’re going from one “name matters” situation to another, so that’s an obvious one. I doubt that many of my readers fit the first case, so I’ll continue to maintain that they can most likely achieve their goals at a cheaper school as long as they’re willing to put in the work.

      If you still disagree, I would definitely love to hear your arguments. This is pretty controversial topic, and I’d like to write a more in-depth article on it at some point. However, until that time, my goal is to help people minimize their debt. Since I know many goals can be achieved through a diverse array of channels, I’m not about to plant the idea in a reader’s mind that they need a $30k/year school to achieve theirs.

      • Hey, I’m from Denmark so I have no clue other than what I read how it is over there but i can say for sure that it’s completely different over here. First of all, university is free and we get about $1000 a month for the state to study and second of all it really doesn’t matter which university you go to or sometimes if you even went to university at all (at least in the creative field I’m in) so it only makes sense to me that over there, an employer who wants to have a good business wouldn’t care about the name but the actual person and the skills they have.

      • Denmark sounds like a pretty awesome place to be a student! What you said sort of matches the situation over here – more and more business, especially smaller ones, are relying more on past work experience, actual skills, and portfolios to make their hiring decisions. However, a lot of bigger companies still want to see a degree – it’s basically a tool for just getting your foot in the door at those kinds of companies.

  5. For logic, I would really suggest a specialized skill course like Accounting that deals heavily with using logic to get the right answer. Of course, I’m an Accounting major, so this comment could be all hype…

    • Good suggestion, Jess! I took accounting in high school, and it is indeed a good class to get practice in applying practical logic. I’m not sure if I’d include it in my list of required classes for all students, however, as the logic and reasoning I’d like to teach would have more widely applied examples. However, I think a lot of things from Accounting could be applied to the logic, personal finance, and Solution Finding classes!

  6. Basic Life Skills–how to cook, really clean things (I.e. toilets), basic repairs, discuss sensitive topics without sounding like a jerk, etc. Stuff people don’t flat-out tell you but expect you to know anyway.

    • You’d definitely learn the first three if we all had to be in the army for a year or something 😛

      The fourth one is interesting, and I think you’re right about it. A lot of people don’t know how to keep a cool head when talking about difficult subjects, and it’d definitely be beneficial to learn how to see from the other person’s point of view and be emotionally supportive in conversations like that.

  7. Awesome list, Tom!

    I think a lot of us would appreciate if you could list any resources that can help us to learn more.

  8. Brilliant list! If I could add a seventh, it would be something like “Life Skills” – all the vital stuff like how to balance your budget, spot scams (including legal ones, like high-rate credit card offers), cook simple meals, do some form of exercise, prioritise your chores… I don’t really understand why useful stuff like this is not covered in schools, while knowing when Hitler became Chancellor is apparently an essential fact.

    • Great ideas, Andrew! The first two would definitely be in my personal finance class. I’d hope that most people’s parents would teach them the other things (cooking, exercising, work ethic, etc), but a lot of parents don’t make the effort these days.

  9. This post was actually SUPER helpful, since I’m starting college next year. I loved the comment about how “Stephanie” the imaginary example for personal finance (which I took earlier this year) went to a community college for the first two years, since that’s what I’m doing. Totally made me feel like my plans are at least going in the right direction!

    • That’s awesome, JoAnn! It’s totally the truth – the school you go to doesn’t really matter in an age where everyone can be reached in just a few clicks. As long as you put in the work and make an effort to build connections, you’ll do great things 🙂

  10. This is a bit similar to some of your other comments, but I’d definitely teach a class around personal development. You could argue that they do that during freshman orientation – sort of – but I think it would be great for students to have a class on study skills, learning styles, team-building, and emotional health. They’re pretty obvious things, but it can take a while to learn them if you don’t know them right off the bat.

    • Great suggestion, Ivy. With a class like that, personally I’d want to teach students about success-based mindsets. It took me a lot of time to develop the sort of “rational Stoicism” I live by now, and I think I would have been better off had I learned it earlier.

  11. If this was the base of the gen ed/foundational studies programs instead of the crap we have now, I wouldn’t complain nearly as much. I especially like that you would put a focus on doing, and not just learning the theories behind everything. Most anyone can cram for a test and pass it, but actually going and make a kick ass resume or filing your taxes takes a bit more effort and counts for more than just your course grade.

    • Exactly! Simply knowing facts well enough to pass a test doesn’t help you at all once you’ve left school. I’d want to teach skills that students can incorporate into every day life; skills that would actually help them succeed. As awesome as it is to become a “cultured” person by taking a bunch of required classes on religious history and human sexuality, I think there’s an issue of priority here.

    • Yup! That’s the main idea behind the Solution Finding class. Teaching students how to sift through the mountains of information we all have access to, find what they need, and solve problems.

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