An Insider’s Guide to Choosing Courses on Exchange

Well, it actually happened. Real life is back: school started again after the winter break, classes are in full swing, and assignment deadlines are looming again. All of that fun academic stuff – classes, assignments, readings and lectures – might not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about exchange, but they do form a big part of your experience. So I thought the time was probably right to write a post about choosing your courses while you’re studying abroad.

It’s easy to write off the importance of the courses you take on exchange, since chances are that academics weren’t at the very top of your list when you decided to study abroad. But take my word for it: you do not want to write off the courses you take!

A sad exchange reality: spending all day on readings and coursework

The reason course selection matters is this sad exchange reality…spending all day on readings and coursework.


Last semester, for example, I enrolled in a course that I thought would be interesting and useful, but I didn’t read the course description carefully before signing up. Predictably, that was a minor disaster, since it turned out that the course required advanced computer skills (which I definitely don’t have!). Luckily I could drop the course, but not before I spent a few weeks feeling miserable and stressed out – not the exchange experience I had imagined at all!

So the point is, the courses you take are more important than you might think. So I thought I’d compile a list of things you can do to avoid ending up in a soul destroying course like I did.

  1. Get informed. This seems obvious, but it’s easy to skimp on your research about courses when you have so many other things to figure out and get organized before going on exchange. The information is out there though, and it’s usually pretty easy to find course descriptions, syllabi, and course reviews from former students. Find out what you’re in for so you don’t end up with an unpleasant surprise.
Your course selection best friend! Find your university's version and use it

Your course selection best friend! Find your university’s version and use it.

  1. Don’t make assumptions. This is related to being informed, but I think it’s still worth pointing out. When I signed up for courses in Edinburgh, I took the aforementioned horrible course because it sounded similar to one that U of T offered that I had heard great things about. I really shouldn’t have assumed that it would be so similar at Edinburgh – different schools teach very differently, and at Edinburgh the course was much more intense and difficult.
  1. Find out how course selection works. This is something I hadn’t given any thought to before going to Edinburgh, but different schools do course selection very differently. At Edinburgh, there is no student web service like ROSI, so you have to do everything through student advisors who enrol you in courses themselves. You don’t have much control over the process, and there are no waiting lists for full classes, so it’s important that you get your course selection right early on. It also means that it’s a very slow process to change courses – there’s no switching on a whim like you can do at U of T. I never through I would miss ROSI, but I really do.
  1. Find out how to drop a course. Chances are, you might want to drop or change a course while you’re on exchange, even if you did your research. That shouldn’t be a huge problem, but you should try to find out what the drop deadline is at your university, and what the process for dropping a course looks like. At Edinburgh, for example, the deadline to drop a course is much earlier than U of T and it is a much slower process because you need to get staff approval. Keep these things in mind and try to make your mind up early!

Other big things, like the transfer credit process, are important to keep in mind when you’re choosing courses, but the CIE does a great job preparing you for that. This list is more of a first-hand experience guide to not making yourself miserable with your course selections, with tips gathered from a semester’s worth of mistake-making on my end. Don’t worry though – even if you’re courses don’t work out perfectly, you’ll still have an awesome time. Classes that make you crazy is all part of the experience, after all!