8 college classes everyone should take—and why

After much discussion, the verdict is in: Going to college makes you poorer, not smarter-unless you're really ready to go, and you take advantage of everything you can while you're there.

"When I graduated high school, I was expected to go to college right away, so I gave into the pressure and went," Shine reader Owlish wrote. "I'm not really happy about it because I ended up at a school that's further away than necessary and now my GPAs too low to transfer. Moral of the story: don't go until you're ready. Get a job and figure out what you want to do first.

"Education is what you make it," Tim commented. "I have a learning disability and I am doing very well."

We asked several experts, professionals, and academics which courses every college student should take, regardless of their major. Their responses touched off quite a debate.

"I think the list is geared towards skills needed to be an entrepreneur," Raven 117 pointed out. "If you want to be an engineer or a lawyer or a brain surgeon than you need college, pure and simple. But most of us go for soft science or liberal artsy stuff that teaches very little in the long run and costs a bundle."

One reader, John M, read the list and commented: "Wow, not a single recommendation for any hard science or prep for graduate school. No pre-law, no pre-med, no engineering or math. Nice job 'experts'."

There's a reason why those specialized courses were left off the list: People who are planning to major in maths or sciences will already be taking those types of courses, and people who are majoring in, say, art history, probably already know enough math to cover any math-related situations that will come up in their work. But marketing is a skill most students don't think to take, and what you learn can be applied to almost any career. The skills gained by taking a chemical engineering course are very specific; an English major probably wouldn't apply what he learned in a chemistry class to his job. But both an English major and a chemistry major can put public speaking skills to good use (presenting a paper at a conference, conducting a meeting, or teaching a class, for example). In general, a course with a very broad application will serve more people in different ways than one that teaches skills that pertain only to a few fields.

Here are the eight courses the experts, professionals, and academics we talked to picked, and the reasons why they're worthwhile.

  1. Public speaking. "The fact is that no matter what you do in life, everything is about working well with and through others," says Deborah A. Osgood, cofounder of Knowledge Institute in Exeter, New Hampshire. Public speaking can "help you to formulate communications and develop the courage to stand up and communicate. The more you can influence others with your ideas, the more you get the job, close the sale, build collaboration and enjoy meaningful relationships."
  2. Sales. A sales class can teach you "all those soft skills people need in order to sell themselves at an interview, which many college students do not know how to do," says Jack Liu, the chief community officer at Teen Business Forum. "Myself included," he adds.
  3. Marketing and Public Relations. Marketing and sales aren't the same thing. "Marketing is everything that you do to reach and persuade prospects," points out Laura Lake at About.com. "The sales process is everything that you do to close the sale and get a signed agreement or contract." A marketing course can teach you how to promote yourself, build your brand, and expand your network, no matter what field you end up in. "The info gleaned is priceless," says Tiffany Victoria Bradshaw, a publicist, marketing brand strategist, and business coach.
  4. Computer literacy. "People who are not able to fully take advantage of the Internet will either get left behind or have to pay someone a lot of money to do their web work for them," points out Candy Keane, the owner of Three Muses Inspired Clothing, who earned a bachelor's degree in Magazine journalism before opening her store. "Because of the magazine concentration, I learned graphic design, layout, photography, Photoshop, PR, writing, web design-all the things that I was able to use and build on to start my business myself. I didn't have to hire a web designer or someone to do ads. I learned it all in school. It has saved me tons of money over the years."
  5. Introduction to Psychology. Learn about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, classical conditioning, and other basic psychology concepts, suggests Ryan G. Van Cleave , author of Unplugged.Recent college grads "don't understand how people 'work'," he points out. "Or why."
  6. Introduction to Economics or Business. An economics course that explains the basics, like inflation, supply and demand, and the differences between micro and macro economics, can also come in handy, says Van Cleave. Why? "Money, money, money," he says. "The idea of large economic forces and implications is beyond them."
  7. Communications and Writing. People need English, grammar, and communication skills regardless of their majors, says Sharon Buchbinder, a higher-education and health-care consultant. "Undergraduate and graduate students struggle with basic writing skills."
  8. Internships. OK, so this isn't technically a class, though many schools do offer credit for internships. "The most important courses I was required to take at Butler were my two internship courses," says Klint Briney of West Palm Beach, Florida-based BRANDed, a marketing and management firm. "The internships were with MTV Networks and Just Marketing International. I would have never been where I am today without those internships." Hands-on experience can be helpful even before you get to college, says Joann Perahia, director of Systemic Solutions, Inc. "I will always recommend to students (even High School students) that they should always do an unpaid internship in the area they feel is where they want to be. It's not worth the college investment to then find out it's not what you want." And when you're an intern, pay attention to the people you work with, not just to the work that you do. "I suggest to my interns that you pay attention to building relationships with the future co-workers, entrepreneurs, and decision makers that you'll need to work with in the next 10 to 20 years," says Lijah R. Young, co-founder of Social Talk Live. "Students will be infinitely more successful than those who focus on any particular course load or major"

Keep in mind that these classes are ones experts suggest college students take in addition to, not instead of, their majors-you don't necessarily need to take all 10. And, to really get the most out of your education, don't forget the importance of some of the more traditional courses, like literature, math, and science.

"The range of more vocational university courses that prepare you for a specific career path is growing all the time, which is great news for those whose main motivation for going to college is to break into a specific industry," says Danny Byrne, and undergraduate specialist and content manager for TopUniversities.com "However, don't underestimate the long-term benefits of a more traditional major such as literature, the sciences or mathematics. It may not teach you office skills, but studying a traditional academic course will equip you with intellectual skills and knowledge that you will appreciate for the rest of your life".

"The professional related courses will get a student an interview," says Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University in New York and the author of The Secret to Getting a Job After College."But the courses that teach a student to think and communicate will better assist them in acing the interview!"

That said, what do you think? Are there any classes you took in high school or college that helped you in an unexpected way?

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