A Beginner’s Guide to Picking Your First-year Courses at University

Congratulations, you got into university! Amidst the first-year preparation, campus tours, and packing, the task of course selection looms overhead. As I finish up my second year at university, I remember how confusing and daunting it was to select first-year courses. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started! 

Start Early!

Universities have a LOT of courses to offer, and browsing through the academic calendar and course lists a day before course selection is not ideal. The earlier you start, the more time you have to familiarize yourself with the websites, courses, course codes, etc so that you aren’t overwhelmed with jargon at the last minute. I recommend browsing your university’s course list, academic calendar, and course selection resources at least a month in advance of your course selection date (the earlier, the better). Resources specific to your university, such as instructions, blogs, and videos, can usually be found with a Google search of ‘your university’s name’ and ‘course selection’. Once you’ve browsed these resources, you should be familiar with the following:

  • How to read course codes
  • Full course loads vs part-time course loads
  • What are prerequisite and corequisite courses
  • How many courses to take in a semester
  • Degree requirements: what are the requirements for graduation
  • When and where to enrol in courses 
  • Important dates and deadlines (course enrolment, course drop dates, deadline to pay fees or defer payment)

I know that it’s a long list but don’t worry if you’re still confused. That’s normal! Be sure to reach out to your registrar, academic advisor, or any contact in the university, and they will be able to answer your questions and point you in the right direction!

University of Toronto - Academic Calendar Homepage (2023)

Choosing Courses

Students are generally admitted to university under a broad study category (eg: Life Sciences, Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Social Sciences, Humanities, etc) and later choose to focus on programs within that category (eg: astrophysics, biochemistry, political science, international relations, etc). These programs each have their own specific requisite courses. While you are not expected to know exactly what program you will choose in the future, it is helpful to explore program options and look at their requirements. Most programs under a study category have common first-year introductory courses that most students take to familiarize themselves with the topic. For example, if you are admitted into the Life Science category, you will probably take courses such as cell and molecular biology, evolutionary biology, general and organic chemistry, calculus, and physics since most of these courses are requisites for programs such as biochemistry, molecular genetics, immunology, ecology, and human biology which fall within the Life Sciences category. (Note that these are not rigid requirements, they are just examples, please refer to your university’s resources for the exact information). Thus, browsing through potential programs will give you an idea of the common first-year course requirements for these programs. 


Once you have identified the core courses for potential programs, don’t hesitate to branch out and explore subjects that you think are interesting. If you are passionate about human rights and their connections with health, take a global health course! Learn some introductory astronomy, delve into the world of Shakespeare in an introductory literature class, or explore women and gender studies. Your first year is an opportunity to dabble in a bit of everything and try out new things – who knows, you might uncover a hidden passion and change the course of your degree! Try and maintain a balance between courses you are taking to meet your program requirements and courses you take to explore your passions- it’ll keep things interesting and provide you with variety in your education. Remember to have an open mind and be open to change, as you never know what will spark your interest! 

Ask a lot of Questions!

Remember that every single university student was in your shoes, and they’ve been through the process of browsing through a gazillion courses, scrolling through Reddit, and looking for advice themselves. Thus, talking to previous students to gain their perspectives on course selection is very helpful. Your faculty’s academic advisors are another great resource to ask questions. You can generally find their contact information by searching for ‘your university’s name’ and ‘academic advisor’ on Google. Here are a couple of questions you can keep in mind while chatting with previous students or academic advisors:

  • What are your thoughts on this course? How hard was it and what content was covered when you took the course?
  • If multiple professors teach a course, which professor do you recommend taking the course with?
  • What was the marking scheme like for this course?
  • What does the course selection process look like? How do I enrol in courses? How do I log in to the course enrollment portal?
  • What are the differences between ‘x’ and ‘y’ courses?

It’s always valuable to hear from multiple perspectives before you decide. Additionally, talking to other first-year students who are in your shoes is a great way to learn new things and make friends.


To sum up, course selection is a time-consuming task that is understandably accompanied by a lot of confusion and worry. Remember to start early and look at past student testimonials to learn from their experiences. Lastly, don’t worry about ‘choosing wrong’ because there is no right way to do this, and everyone’s schedules are bound to look different! Even if you miss taking a particular requisite course, you can make up for it by taking the course in the summer term or moving your schedule around, and your academic advisor is always there to assist you. Stay calm and never hesitate to ask for help when you need it. 

I will leave you with the wise words of Mrs. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

Author: Sharanya Shankar
Celina MacLeod
Editor: Celina MacLeod

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