One of the most exciting parts of the academic experience at Princeton is undoubtedly getting to take advanced (3-400 level) elective classes in your concentration. While all classes at Princeton are valuable, elective classes can provide a unique opportunity to have a more personalized learning experience – the classes are often much smaller, with some classes having as few as 5 students – while getting to learn about somewhat more niche disciplines that professors are both specialized in and are more passionate about. However, sometimes the embarrassment of riches can be a problem. The sheer number of truly incredible and interesting advanced courses that are offered at Princeton can make it difficult to choose which courses to take, especially when your course slots are taken up by concentration and certificate requirements as well as either the AB or BSE general requirements. I went through such an exercise myself, and in this post, I hope to offer some insight on how to choose courses based on my experiences at Princeton.
Start looking at courses and their prerequisites early. My first piece of advice is to look at courses early and make plans for them based on when they seem to be offered and – crucially – their prerequisites. In my experience, a good place to start looking for courses is the Princeton University Academics website which provides a list of courses by department, a brief description, the instructors who teach them, and their prerequisites. However, while this list is helpful, I often found that it is by no means complete or up to date. The website will often not list all courses that are currently offered at Princeton or will list courses that have not been offered for several years. Thus I highly suggest that you supplement this list by using the Princeton Course Offerings – which is somewhat more cumbersome but is more complete.
Create a flowchart. Once you have looked through these resources and found courses that interest you, I then suggest noting down when the courses are offered (is it generally during spring or fall or both semesters, or does it seem somewhat random?) and their prerequisites in some sort of a flowchart or table – this can either be handwritten, such as many of my early attempts, or you can use an online tool like Tigerpath. This will help you get a rough understanding of what courses you can take and when. For instance, you may find that some courses have only some basic department prerequisites to take and as a result, you decide to take them during your sophomore year. For some other courses, you may find that they are only offered during the spring semester – and will require some higher-level prerequisites. For the latter category of courses, you might come to realize that the only feasible time to take them is in your senior spring semester – which in turn might lead to an especially challenging final semester. By the way, when taking notes about courses that are going to be offered in future semesters, you might want to reach out to the Professor to ask if they intend on teaching the course a year from now or so, if you are really set on taking it. This is especially true for courses with (historically) very limited enrollments or those on special topics. This particular piece of advice comes from a friend: it turned out that they wanted to take an upper-level graduate course but found out only later that the professor who usually teaches this course was going on sabbatical during that year when they – my friend – would become eligible to take it.
Discover yourself. All these considerations will lead you through various permutations and combinations of which set of courses you might want to take. This is exciting – and sometimes bewildering. But it is an important process – as you answer the various questions, the choice of courses that you finally decide on will reveal to you what you want to achieve academically in your junior and senior years. Do you take a course that might, for example, be helpful towards your graduate studies? Or do you take another that might help you get a certificate that you were wondering about? Whatever the answers to these questions are, they will ultimately help you narrow down your options and make a plan for the courses that you want to take. The end result might not look very elegant with all your scribblings and cross-outs, but that is perfectly fine!
(Sometimes,) take similar courses. Another piece of advice that I have is to not be afraid to take multiple courses that cover similar topics. While this may seem counterproductive and counterintuitive – there are so many interesting topics to learn about and so it may seem like a waste to take two courses that, on the face of it, cover similar ground – I have personally found that this has been really helpful for my understanding of advanced course material and techniques. For instance, this semester I am taking both ECO 317 (The Economics of Uncertainty) and ECO 418 (Strategy and Information). While each one of them covers distinct topics, there is also a fair bit of overlap: topics such as expected utility theory, auctions, and asymmetric information are covered in both courses. Ultimately, however, despite this overlap, I have found these courses to be quite complementary as they typically tackle the topics from different angles. Moreover, since the professors who teach these courses are well-known experts in their areas, both of them have added their own unique spin when it comes to learning the material. For example, professor Yariv (who teaches ECO 317) often has us understand game theory problems by having us play the games ourselves in class with different groups of classmates acting as different agents in the game. That results in an understanding of the material from an application perspective. Meanwhile, professor Gul (who teaches ECO 418) typically teaches the material with a distinct mathematical rigor and a proof-based approach combined with graphical representation as needed – and that enhances my theoretical understanding of the material. I have found that attempting to synthesize what I have learned from these two differing approaches is often invaluable in reinforcing my learning of some of the more challenging topics in economics.
Get your professors’ advice. My next piece of advice when selecting elective classes is to talk to your professors as you take their classes – especially if you are really enjoying their class and/or the course material. Oftentimes, they will be able to point you to other classes that they are going to be teaching or even just other courses that they think are a good complement to their own. In my case, during my sophomore fall semester, I took ECO 372 (The Economics of Europe) with Professor Weyerbrock, which I greatly enjoyed. During one of her office hours, she suggested to me that I should consider taking ECO 353 (on International Monetary Economics) with Professor Zaidi – which I subsequently did, and also ended up enjoying greatly. Near the end of that course, Professor Zaidi suggested that those of us who want to delve into the more rigorous mathematical approaches in international monetary economics might want to take ECO 322 (Econometric Tools for Research in Macroeconomics) with him, which I am taking this semester. It was in this way that I was introduced to two of my favorite classes that I have taken at Princeton so far!
Be flexible. Finally, I have now come to realize that flexibility is an important part of finding some of our favorite classes at Princeton. Many of us come to Princeton with different ideas about how we want to make the best of the resources that we are so lucky to have. As we go through our initial semesters, sometimes our interests change. Sometimes, we even end up changing our career plans. And then there are times when the change comes from outside, when you find that the courses that were supposed to be offered in a particular semester has now changed – and this change might occur much later than you might have anticipated. So, while you are making a plan of the courses, I would advise that some flexibility can – and should – be built into the plan. In order to take ECO 322 this semester, I had to make changes to the courses that I will be taking during the next semester and my senior year. And that is a good thing! Some of the best academic decisions that you will make at Princeton can come from serendipitous experiences, like a recommendation from a professor when you are chatting with them at the end of a class or during their office hours.
Princeton’s wide course offering can be a little overwhelming – especially when you have the chance to take so many different courses on more advanced subjects with some of the greatest experts in those fields. I hope that my experience and pieces of advice will help you figure out the ones that enable you to get the most out of your academic explorations at Princeton.
– Abhimanyu Banerjee, Social Sciences Correspondent