03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

No Room at College: What to do When You're Closed Out of Your Courses


Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece, "Students Face a Class Struggle at State Colleges," describing the dramatic shortage of places in classes at California state colleges. The crisis is nationwide: Public universities in economically-distressed states (not only California, but Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio come to mind) simply don't have enough available spots in many classes to accommodate a student population growing at 4 1/2 percent each year. What should students do? Here are our ten best tips for finding places in closed courses:


1. Try an off-peak time. Consider taking the sections that meet at times students find most undesirable. Think late afternoons and evenings, 7 A.M, and Fridays. You know, the times that your cohorts would rather be doing anything else than going to class.

2. Come up with a really good reason you need the course. Hoof on over to the professor's office - during posted office hours - and explain your reasons for needing in to the course. Focus on academic reasons: You're a graduating senior, the course is a pre-requisite for something you want to take next semester, your transfer from community college to state university would be held up without this course, or your senior thesis would benefit, immeasurably, from this course.

3. Consider waiting 'til summer. Many of the very same courses, often taught in smaller sections, are taught during (in some schools, two) summer session(s). Check at the university Web site to see if your full course is one of them.

4. Try a nearby school. If your course is full at that 4-year state university, consider taking an equivalent course at a nearby community or city college. Just be sure the course is substantially similar in content, and, more important, that the credits can transfer to your home institution. One thing that's very useful to check out are your state's "articulation agreements," that is, pre-negotiated agreements for seamless transfer of certain lower-division or introductory courses.

5. Look for an online substitution. At some high tech, and overloaded, schools, there are online versions - with potentially unlimited number of places - of popular courses (especially math courses). See if your college has any of these.

6. Find another course to satisfy the requirement. At many schools, distribution requirements are disjunctive - that is, you can choose any of a number of courses. For example, at the University of Arkansas, the fine arts requirement of the liberal arts college can be satisfied by art history, art studio, dance, drama, film, architecture, or landscape architecture. You can bet that, while people are sitting on the floor in the art history and music lectures, there isn't a line around the block for landscape architecture.

7. Appeal with a higher level course. Some schools allow you to substitute a higher-level course for an introductory or general education requirement. Talk to a departmental adviser to see if you can replace the closed-out course with something more advanced - say, America in the 60's for American History 1865-2000. In times of stress, advisers often have special discretion to make such substitutions.

8. Wait it out. Virtually all schools have wait lists, and many experience surprising drop-rates in the first week or two - especially if the professor is bad, or announces that the course will be curved or graded really hard. Even if you're fiftieth on the list, you can sometimes get in. You can check the real-time, online wait-list every half an hour (pretend it's Twitter: you're used to tweeting every eight seconds).

9. Look in your vault. Sometimes, you've already taken a course somewhere that could satisfy some requirement. Could be some AP course in which you got a "3," but only recently has the university relaxed the standard to take 3's for credit. Or maybe you have some roughly equivalent course from community college that you didn't know was now acceptable for transfer credit. Or, at some schools, maybe even a "life experience credit" for some previous experiences or accomplishments outside the normal college setting (inquire about standardized examination programs (e.g., CLEP, DANTES, APP), the credit recommendations of the American Council of Education, and/or an evaluation of an individual portfolio or examination by an academic department of the College). Hey, an ace in the hole is an ace in the hole.

10. Beg (or, at least, cajole). College professors and departmental advisers sometimes have considerable discretion in giving "overrides" to deserving - or sometimes just nice - students. Think about what things you'd like to hear from a student wanting in to your class (which you can grant with the swing of your pen). Then, go lay those things on the prof - only about three times as thick.

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