9 Classes Every Student Should Take Essential Courses Outside Your Major

College students should take classes outside of their degree requirements whenever possible during their college careers. Not only does this ensure that they become well-rounded members of the workforce and balanced citizens, it also provides opportunities to learn additional life skills.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Kevin Howley Professor of Media Studies
Dr. Erin Goodnow Co-Founder and CEO of Going Ivy
Dr. Ellen Foster English Professor, Clarion University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Josie Urbistondo College Professor, College Application Essay Expert

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“I believe these types of courses allow for a greater engagement within all aspects of the students’ life, making learning available to them beyond the classroom,” says Dr. Josie Urbistondo, English Professor at University of Miami. “Ideally, their entire life becomes their learning laboratory and they acknowledge how they critically function within their communities.” 

Read on for our list of nine advantageous courses that students should consider taking.

1. Public Speaking

Public speaking courses focus on providing students with the skills to engage in public discourse. Whether it’s forming and defending an opinion on a given topic, being able to present oneself with confidence in a public forum or learning interview skills, these courses give students valuable tools to use in real life.

“Public speaking is a must. Regardless of your major area of study, students will be required to present their work in some kind of public forum: a business meeting, research presentation, job talk, etc. A course in public speaking offers students strategies and tactics to gain confidence, connect with audiences, make persuasive and compelling presentations, and, most important, perhaps, develop an altogether different skill set: critical listening. “While not all public speaking courses are created equal, those that have a dual emphasis on speaking and listening are most beneficial.”
Dr. Kevin Howley Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University.
“Public speaking might be offered from the communications department,” she says. “Take it! It will help you communicate to sell yourself, to connect with others, to persuade and to be a leader.”
Dr. Erin Goodnow college admissions consultant
  • At your college or university

    Most college campuses offer a public speaking or communications course with this emphasis. For instance, COMM 113 at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a three-credit Public Speaking course that covers “theory and extensive practice in various types of speaking.”

  • Online

    MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) sites like Coursera offer classes in many fields for lower prices, like this Introduction to Public Speaking course developed out of the University of Washington. In many cases, the classes are taught by reputable instructors and are self-paced. Potential registrants should be mindful of the courses’ reputations, whether or not certificates are issued (or if that’s necessary), or if there’s accreditation.

Those that can’t pay for or commit time to a class are fortunate as there are many ways to gain valuable experience and knowledge in public speaking. “Public speaking experience is easily accomplished through groups like Toastmasters or even volunteer work at a church or school,” Goodnow says. “Just make sure you get feedback to make improvements.”

2. Media Literacy

We are consuming information constantly, and sometimes we don’t even know it. We’re hit continually with advertisements and messaging from every angle—television, radio, our handheld devices, social media…the list truly goes on and on.

“Regardless of a student's major area of study, they all inhabit a complex media ecosystem. Learning fundamentals about the media system, how it is organized, financed and structured are key for enhancing comprehension of all manner of mediated messages, from advertisements and political campaign rhetoric to social media and news and public affairs reporting. “In the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘augmented/virtual reality’ media literacy has never been more important.”
Dr. Howley
  • At your college or university

    Students should be able to find a Media Literacy course, or equivalent on campus. The University of Northern Iowa’s course teaches “a way of deconstructing media messages to gain more control over them.” These courses might be in communications, journalism, or sociology departments on campus.

  • Online

    Coursera, PBS Teacherline, and edX, are a couple of lower-cost options from reputable sources.

3. Cross-Cultural Communication

With technology and globalization shrinking our world and pushing us all together, learning to communicate with people from backgrounds different from our own is critical. College students might come across people of other ethnicities and cultures for the first time when they get to campus and learning to communicate effectively is important.

Students must also be able to relate to and communicate with others as they enter the workforce; however, gaining competencies in public speaking and cross-cultural communication has benefits far beyond the classroom and the workplace.

“In business, economics, and social settings, attentiveness to cultural differences and sensibilities is vital for developing transferable interpersonal skills. What's more, these competencies are essential for creating a more just and equitable society. They are increasingly critical life skills for navigating and contributing to multicultural societies with grace, respect, and wisdom. “In short, students must understand and appreciate that we can learn an awful lot from ‘other’ people, culture and traditions.”
Dr. Howley
  • At your college or university

    According to Dr. Howley, most universities offer these courses, either as course work in a communication studies program or as part of general education requirements. Many are also offered at the community college level.

    UC Berkeley’s version of it is Soc 169, which “is designed to interrogate different aspects of cross-cultural communication and cultural differences: family life, social relationships, the workplace, government, education, gender, romance, and religion.”

  • Online

    Coursera offers several options, including Understanding Russians: Contexts of Intercultural Communication and Intercultural Communication and Conflict Resolution. MOOC List can help students identify additional options.

“As with most subject areas these days, online resources abound. But as media literacy teaches us, not all online sources are credible or trustworthy,” Howley says. “One site that stands out is Openculture.com. The website features free educational videos covering most every area of a university curriculum. “

4. Human Health Science

While many prospective students may have taken a brief Health class in high school, learning about bodies and healthy habits in college is more timely and prevalent for students who are learning skills and habits to make it on their own. As college students navigate adult life, they may struggle to find balance with at-risk behavior like alcohol and drug use and safe sex habits. Taking a course can help students develop balanced and safe practices early that will set them up for success for the rest of their lives. Students also need good reminders about nutrition, disease, and general biology.

“This is a wonderful class for young people to be reminded of healthy behaviors and choices, and, as morbid as it may sound, that life isn’t forever, so you actually have to take care of your body. College students who like to tan might think twice after the class.”
Dr. Goodnow
  • At your college or university

    According to Dr. Goodnow, some biology departments will offer a human health class for non-majors. This 2017 syllabus from USC includes learning objectives like understanding basic biology, knowing how the body maintains balance, getting familiar with contemporary issues that affect health, and being able to make rational regarding their health.

    “Human Health can easily be taken online,” Goodnow says, “but the content can be more fun in a room full of other students getting grossed out with you over pictures of STDs and black lungs.”

  • Online

    The typical MOOC hubs offer Human Health classes in different contexts, like this one from Coursera, developed out of Stanford, that is based on Food and Health.

People who can’t take a course in health don’t need to look far to find tools to help them monitor their behavior. This Feb. 2018 Popular Science article lists several applications that can help you monitor your food and alcohol consumption, exercise/step count, heart rate, sleep patterns, even meditation and mindfulness. Women can also track fertility and ovulation with apps like Conceivable. Prices for apps like these range from dollars a month to hundreds of dollars a year. Access requires a computer or a smart phone.

Other places to learn about Human Health might include churches or fitness centers. Prospective students of the field should always evaluate the source of the information as well as any agendas that might be present in its delivery.

5. Physical Education or Self-Defense

In line with developing healthy habits discussed above, students should consider a recreation or physical education course. This is especially true for students who don’t have an athletic background. It’s possible that one might discover a passion or hidden talent, be it kickboxing, pilates or running.

Students can find additional benefits from taking self-defense courses, too. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 11.2 percent of all college students are sexually assaulted through force, violence or incapacitation. While no one wants to face that situation, it is helpful for students to be aware of the risk and to arm themselves with information on how to combat those odds.

“Self-defense is a kick-ass class that can help students learn confidence, discipline, focus and how to get out of a bad situation.”
Dr. Goodnow
  • At your college or university

    Self Defense is best taken in person, as are other phys-ed courses. Many of them can be found through the recreation departments on campus. The University of Nevada’s Police Services Department offers Women’s Self Defense classes on campus. Other options can be found through student services and health centers.

  • In your community

    Communities offer recreation sports leagues and self defense classes through rec centers, churches, and community centers.

  • Private lessons

    Students that are able to pay for instruction can find private training facilities like Tucson Krav Maga or Assert Empowerment and Self Defense in Nashville.

6. Personal Finance & Business

Financial situations can be very intimidating for college students. Understanding budgets, loans, leases, and taxes is scary, and our students aren’t prepared with the skills to handle these things as they enter into college.

Students need to be armed with the skills to take on financial decisions as they enter adulthood. These things include buying a car, negotiating a salary at a job, and understanding interest rates on loans.

“This type of class would be great for not only getting a great starting salary or making business or legal deals, but also when you’re buying a house or moving in with a significant other. Plus, these skills include parenting a preteen or walking onto a used car lot.” 
Dr. Goodnow

According to Goodnow, students will find that Personal Finance and Business courses are great online or on-site, and one could find them through extension business schools or at community colleges. Many MOOC-style courses are offered online as well for a variety of prices.

  • At your college or university

    This online syllabus for Personal Finance FIN 369 at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas is a good example of what one can expect. It lists some of its learning outcomes as: student will be prepared for constantly changing economies, will learn to understand basic planning techniques, will develop analytical skills for financial decision-making, and will understand budgets, investment, insurance, and retirement.

  • Online

    If a prospective student is able to commit to some online-time but not a lot of money, Forbes suggests these five free personal finance courses.

Many non-profit and debt-relief organizations are committed to helping people understand financial education and literacy. InCharge.org is one of these, and like many others, its committed to providing education to clients so that they don’t get to the point where they need debt relief aid.

“Students can and should avail themselves of resources that are otherwise overlooked: public libraries and used book stores,” Howley adds. “With guidance from parents, teachers, mentors and others, students could build their own curriculum using these free and low-cost resources. What can't be purchased, at any price, is the self-motivation to make the most of these and other resources.”

7. Professional Writing

Written communication is critical to most professions. Students must learn to think clearly in order to write clearly, and students that take these courses can expect to learn both.

“Every profession relies on an understanding of a network of other professions. For example, the scientist needs to know something about how to communicate to the public, the educator needs to understand how policies are developed and implemented, and the business person needs to negotiate with a long chain of producers, suppliers, and consumers. Each of these situations requires skill in explaining ideas to novices as well as experts and everyone in between.”
Dr. Ellen Foster Professor at Clarion University
  • At your college or university

    Your school’s English department is a good place to start, but Foster notes that other departments shouldn’t be discounted as good sources of writing instruction. “Of course, students can find writing courses within English departments, but also in the sciences, education, and business,” she says. “Learning how writing is used in other disciplines can really boost a student's skills and broaden perspectives.

    Courses with strong writing components might include laboratory classes or upper-division courses that include case studies as well as courses emphasizing workplace writing. Check out this syllabus for University of Pennsylvania’s CAMB 695: Scientific Writing course as an example.

Students can find many resources on writing — even writing in specific fields — on the web, according to Dr. Foster. “The key is to evaluate websites to make sure that the information offered is reputable and grounded in solid knowledge from experts in the field,” she says.

Additional information is available for field-specific writing through associations of those fields. For example, the continuing education arm of the American Medical Writers Association provides classes for students in the field.

8. Inter-Disciplinary Capstones

Classes in this arena range across all different types of subjects. An example is the group of freshman seminars at the University of Miami, that include Aesthetics and Meaning in African Art and Cultures, Reconsidering the ‘Selfie’, and The Politics of Pain.

“There’s a concerted effort in higher education now to teach across the disciplines- so a Biology major should take a literature, philosophy or history course beyond the requirements. An interesting trend now is a seminar course where 2-4 professors co-teach. That way the students get exposure to a literature, history, and STEM professor in one course.”
Dr. Josie Urbistondo
  • At your college or university

    Colleges offer multi- or cross-discipline courses. Course titles and subjects are not the same from campus to campus, especially since many of them depend on the research focus of their specific faculty.

  • Online

    There are some MOOC-style courses that cover similar topics, and certainly Tedx programs that cover “ideas worth spreading.” To get the most out of classes like these, be sure to have an in-person or online forum for dialog about the subject. That’s where the ideas get the most interesting.

Check out Tedx programs, 99U (an online forum that encourages creativity and conversation), Ignite (condensed and efficient presentations), and BigThink (features educational videos across myriad subjects from experts like Bill Nye and Neal degrasse Tyson).

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