Do-It-Yourself Education at Chapel Hill

My mother often told me “college is what you make of it.” When I arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill from Cullowhee, a small town in western North Carolina, I intended to do just that. But my first efforts were disastrous—trying to get at least a C in a very hard course brought down my other grades. Over the past year, however, I have learned that I must plan my courses strategically to get a solid education and good grades.

I have been asked to share the tools I use and, in the process, perhaps to shed some light on what other students are doing as well.

My first semester at UNC-Chapel Hill was quite a wake-up call. While I knew that UNC courses would be challenging, very early on I noticed that I was lacking a solid foundation of fundamental skills and knowledge in many of my classes. This, coupled with a relatively rigorous course load, made it difficult to juggle my workload.

I had gone from being one of the top students in my high school class, with little effort, to barely getting by at UNC. In addition to being ill-prepared for coursework, I also noticed that many of my classmates’ accomplishments greatly exceeded those of my own. Most of them had already participated in internships at large companies, or were involved in undergraduate research as soon as they started school, or had even created their own startup company or charitable organization.

Although the start of my college experience was the opposite of ideal, rather than becoming discouraged by the challenges I faced, I pushed forward.

Heading into my second semester, I began to plan my courses with a deliberate effort to solidify my future success. The first decision I had to make was to choose my major. Knowing that double majoring is common at UNC (and looks good on a resume), I chose to double-major in Public Policy and Economics with a potential Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) minor.

While double majoring (and adding a minor) is reasonably doable, fitting all the required classes into the four-year period does require additional planning.

I want my classes to be taught by professors who employ strong teaching skills and emphasize their students’ success, rather than classes that are said to be “easy As.” My strategic course planning involved choosing educators who challenged me.

However, having heard that employers are likely to focus on major-specific GPAs as well as the overall GPA, I had to make sure that I would do well in my major courses. Thus, general education courses became secondary to the courses in my majors, and I used somewhat easier GenEd courses as fillers to balance out a difficult semester.

I have also found that initially registering for 18 credit hours (rather than the recommended 15) gives me the flexibility to drop a difficult course, if necessary, while still remaining on track to graduate.

Information about courses, professors, and even grade distribution has become widely accessible to students (and the general public) through online websites. Those I currently use are Rate My Professors, UNC Blinkness, Koofers (UNC), and MyEdu.

The first three sites are similar. Each provides feedback from previous students on individual professors and the classes they teach. Each delivers the content in a slightly different manner, and some sites include additional tools designed to promote student “success.” My go-to source for student-written evaluations is Rate My Professors; however, I do use UNC Blinkness and Koofers as comparative sources if I feel that I need further reviews.

Rate My Professors: The Rate My Professors site is easy to navigate. To get started one only needs to select the state and school of interest. From there it becomes as simple as searching by the professor’s last name or department to access comments and ratings left by other users.

Rate My Professors uses a numerical rating system (1-5, one being the lowest and 5 being the highest) to rate professors on overall quality, helpfulness, clarity, easiness, and even “hotness.” These ratings are accompanied by reviewers’ comments about specific courses. I enjoy this site because the content is displayed in an extremely user-friendly layout. Because Rate My Professors is one of the more well-known professor review sites, has multiple ratings on most professors, making it easy to compare student experiences and discern serious reviews from those which are pointless.

UNC Blinkness: This site is less easy to read. It can be useful in the few instances when Rate My Professors does not provide enough (or good enough) reviews on a professor. Other useful features provided by Blinkness include average class size and the “overall grading history” of each course. The overall grading history is displayed by a grade distribution chart, which purports to give the percentage of each letter grade given by that professor.

Going a step further, Blinkness also provides students with a list entitled “Most A’s Classes at UNC.” This list details the course name, percentage of As given in the past for that course, and the average class size. The list currently contains 195 courses, with the percentage of As being at least 95 percent.

Koofers (UNC): The reviews on Koofers are also a helpful supplement to those provided on Rate My Professor. In addition to general comments on courses and professors, it provides details on grade distribution, the difficulty and number of exams, quizzes, projects, and homework assigned, as well as any textbooks used and whether or not the professor chooses to curve final grades.

The fourth site I use is MyEdu:

MyEdu is a wonderful tool when it comes to planning class schedules. I can create a calendar that allows me to see if the classes I want fit into my schedule and make changes if they don’t. It also provides the average GPA grade that previous students received from the course. After a student creates a schedule on MyEdu, the website automatically generates an estimated average overall semester GPA based on the data collected from previous years.

I personally use GPA information to indicate how well-balanced my schedule is. If the estimated GPA is too high, then the courses I would be taking would neither challenge me nor adequately teach me. Conversely, too low an estimation likely means that the combination of courses would be too difficult and the coursework overwhelming.

When I schedule my courses I am looking to make the most out of my college education by taking as many challenging courses as feasible. However, to maintain a strong GPA, I have found it necessary to balance harder courses with some that are less difficult. Creating a balanced course load requires strategic planning that can be done using the websites and tools mentioned above.

That being said, it is also incredibly easy for students to use those resources to build their schedules entirely around “easy A” courses to inflate their GPA.  If they do, they may get a diploma without really learning anything of value. As my mother said, “college is what you make of it,” and I hope that the pressure to get good grades does not end up compromising my education.