A Strategic Approach to Undergraduate Electives in STEM

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about undergraduate electives. By definition, an elective is non-compulsory. You may choose to take it, or not. Requiring a course seems to confer value. If a course is an elective, there is no explicit suggestion that there might be a downside to not taking it, or conversely, that there might be an important upside to taking it.

The impression that electives are akin to empty calories leads many students to take a haphazard approach to their selection – sometimes choosing an elective because it sounds interesting, at other times choosing an elective because it sounds easy. In reality, electives can have an impact on eligibility for certain programs, academic success in certain courses, opportunities for summer research or coop jobs, and options post graduation. And while students are guaranteed a seat in a required course, they are not guaranteed a seat in an elective course, which means they have to be proactive about registering for electives early, before seats fill up. For all of these reasons, it is worth taking a closer look at electives and a much more strategic approach to their selection.

Most students are admitted to a first year program as a gateway to discipline-specific programs that actually begin in second year. To illustrate the impact of elective choices in first year, consider the following standard first year gateway programs in Science. Life Sciences I requires students to take one semester of calculus, while Physical Sciences I requires students to take two semesters of calculus. In Life Sciences I, Calculus 2: Integration, is an elective. Yet an understanding of integration is necessary for the study of statistics, which all science students, including those in life science disciplines, need to master to some degree before they graduate. In both programs, Linear Algebra 1 and Computer Programming 1 are electives. Yet Linear Algebra 1 is an important foundational course (required by the end of level 2 in many honours science programs, but difficult to schedule in level 2), and computer programming is a necessary skill in all STEM fields.

Students in first year should use electives to build a solid foundation and increase options going forward by acquiring important prerequisites for admission to discipline-specific programs and second year courses. Beyond that, a facility with one or more computer programming languages makes students more efficient and effective in their course and lab work and also gives them an advantage in terms of summer research and coop jobs in STEM.

Students generally have fewer electives in second year as they begin honours programs in their chosen disciplines. At this level, using electives to take extra math, statistics, or computer programming courses is a good strategy in any STEM discipline.

In third and fourth year, students need to consider whether it is more important to build depth within their disciplines (in preparation for graduate school), breadth beyond their major (in preparation for professional schools), or to acquire specific skills (in preparation for the work force).

Core courses are the minimum requirement of any degree program. They are selected by committee and may reflect an agenda that favours, among other things, accessibility. Thus, it is possible to graduate with degrees in certain STEM programs without having taken a single course in computer programming or higher-level mathematics even though these skills are highly valued (and necessary!) throughout the economy. Electives provide you with an opportunity to enhance your degree beyond the basic core requirements and to greatly increase your options going forward. Be strategic and make them count!

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