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Tips for coming to Cal: Befriend upperclassmen, shop classes

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APRIL 16, 2015

Congratulations! You have been admitted to one of the most prestigious schools in the nation — probably as a result of your stellar resume, which highlighted your shining status as the No. 1 valedictorian and revealed your glowing experience in bringing aid to third-world countries while simultaneously interning at the public defender’s office during your first year of elementary school. You are the definition of success. You are just as special as your mother said you were. But here’s a dose of reality I’m going to share with you before your first lecture even begins — everybody else here is special, too. I don’t mean to crush your dreams of getting the next Nobel laureate parking spot or having the new “Evans Hall” named after you whenever that’s finally built, but I am here to give you the truth — something I wish someone else had done for me.

Remember how you thought taking 20 AP courses and online classes at your local community college would prepare you for the blue-and-gold tassel you wanted to wear in 2019? It won’t. Classes here are curved, and more often than not, the colleague sitting to your right also took 20 AP courses, in addition to Stats 2 during the summer, while the person to your left probably took 25 AP courses and founded his or her own company before he or she even knew what puberty was. UC Berkeley is a collection of the best and the brightest, which is why you’re here. We may not have the cushion of inflated grades, but we do have hard-working students who constantly challenge each other and foster an environment that encourages growth. You’ll most likely achieve something more impressive than anything that ran through your head on your first night at Deutsch Hall, surrounded by other overachievers. UC Berkeley is where the thinkers and creators are born, but that can’t happen without constant change.

It’s standard for freshmen to always introduce themselves by saying their first and last names, year, what unit they live in and their major. Don’t worry: You’ll be able to get that down in less than a minute while practicing your firm handshake a lot during your first year, but the last bit of that introduction — your major — will change. Upperclassmen will always tell you that your pre-Haas dreams will probably fizz out after your first calculus course or that your premed goals will wither away after Bio 1B, and they will probably be right, but they don’t say this to be demeaning. They may giggle while you question your entire future, but it is only because they’ve been there, too. Almost every freshman arrives at Sather Gate dead set on calling the Haas School of Business or UC Berkeley School of Law’s Boalt Hall his or her home, and slowly, over the next few months, he or she begins to shudder at the thought of walking through those halls. Look at it this way: Besides the annoying breadth courses you are forced to take, there are no counselors forcing curriculums down your throat. You can decide to take underwater basket weaving, the DeCal on Kanye West or a history course dedicated to learning about the impact of Jack the Ripper. The world is your oyster. And while you may not succeed in the courses you thought were your bread and butter during Cal Day, you will find what’s right for you.

Bug upperclassmen

Though everyone’s learning experience is different and shouldn’t be taken at face value, it is advisable to discuss courses with students who have already undergone the intensive pressure of cramming for their political science midterms the night before. They’ll be able to tell you the rigor of the class, the focus and how true it is to the tiny summary provided on Ninja Courses — which is 50 percent accurate 50 percent of the time. Everyone likes complaining about classes: Just make sure you find students who will complain about your prospective ones.

Rather than asking them the obvious “What’s the class like?” make sure you inquire about the professor’s teaching style in relation to the exams — is it heavily reliant on the course materials or does it follow lectures more, etc. Another helpful question could be inquiring about graduate student instructor biases. Some grades in writing courses can be heavily dependent on the GSI, while other courses tend to have uniform grading across the board. This will help you gauge the amount of time and work you may need to put into the course. Regardless of what you ask, make sure you talk to multiple upperclassmen about their opinion on the course to get a more holistic view of the matter.

“Shop around”

This may be a tedious option and one that only my notorious roommate does for weeks on end, but it’s worked in her favor enough for me to recommend it. Since you have about five weeks to drop a course, consider sitting in and signing up for many lectures. Hopefully, by the end of the first few weeks, you can get a taste for the course and decide if it’s something you want to keep. Though many of the courses don’t really get into the grunt work until after the fifth week, this tactic will help you gauge your interest level and the amount of work you may need to put in outside of class. The ability to drop a class gives you the option to try a lot of different ones.

Audit classes

Auditing classes allows you to take the course without worrying about a grade. With the consent of the professor, you’ll be allowed to attend lectures and discussions without being required to complete the homework or take the exams. It gives you an opportunity to use college for what it was intended to be — a pathway to knowledge. By auditing classes, you can have a feel for different fields without letting your GPA tank, and if you end up disliking it, you can walk out mid-lecture, guilt-free.

Pass/no pass

If you want a little bit more of a challenge than auditing classes, or if you want some kind of reward for spending hours in an overcrowded lecture hall, consider taking classes pass/no pass. This is a lot less stressful than taking a course for a letter grade because C’s and B’s both equate to passing. The best part of this deal is that if you end up liking the course and do well, you can always petition to change the grading option to a letter grade with the permission of your professor.

So before you tell your extended family about your plans to occupy a skyscraper by the age of 25, take a deep breath, and actually try these lifestyles. Step outside of your comfort zone so that you can build a new one. UC Berkeley will be the most rigorous, stressful and enjoyable four years of your life.

Contact Ilaf Esuf at [email protected]

APRIL 18, 2015