How to pick the perfect freshman college course schedule for you  

Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach
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If you're stressed about selecting your college schedule, you're not alone. Deciding which classes to take can be a confusing and overwhelming task.

You'll have more courses to consider than ever before and with soaring college costs, mistakes will be pricey. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 40 percent of first-time full-time students earn a bachelor's degree in four years, and only 59 percent earn their bachelor's in six years. This means that millions of Americans end up paying for extra years of tuition, with some taking on thousands of dollars in debt without a diploma to show for it.

Students should avoid wasting money on extra years of college by planning their path to graduation early, starting with that very first semester. The following four steps can help you pick the freshman college schedule that fits your needs.

Know who you are

The first step of picking the perfect college schedule is understanding that there isn't one perfect schedule for all students. What may be a great schedule for your roommate or your older brother or your parents' friend's super smart former babysitter may not be right for you. According to Liz Sutton, senior associate director of first-year academic initiatives at Wharton, the key to picking the perfect schedule is finding what works best for you.

"Some students will ask me 'what the ideal schedule?' and I say 'well it doesn't really exist,' because it so depends on each student," Sutton tells CNBC Make It. "Some students may love having long seminar classes, but for some students sitting there for more than 50 minutes may sound like torture. Some students are morning people. Some students want to have all of their classes on a couple of days so they have free days to work."

Understanding what kind of learner you are and how you best perform is key to creating a college schedule that will allow you to excel. "I encourage students to self-reflect on their preferences," says Sutton. "I think a student's own preferences have a huge role to play in creating their 'perfect' schedule."

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Balance requirements and passions

During your first semester of college, strike a balance between meeting basic graduation requirements and exploring passions, says Sutton. Getting requirements out of the way early ensures you'll be on-track to graduate, saving you money, time and hassle. Still, you'll want to be sure to explore your interests. Check out a course in something you'd like to understand more in-depth or topics you're curious about, such as anthropology, that you've never had the chance to study before. Take advantage of everything that college has to offer.

Move toward a major

Choosing a major is one of the most important parts of a student's academic journey but according to Sutton, this is not the only factor that students need to consider.

"I wouldn't worry about the major so much at first," she says. I think students have a tendency to really focus on that decision but they're really putting the cart before the horse in that they are not experiencing any new classes and may not understand what certain fields actually are before they make a decision."

Instead of having your sights set on a specific major, instead weigh your strengths, weaknesses and interests and begin to narrow in. If you know you like quantitative reasoning, consider fields like engineering, computer science and physics. If you have great reading comprehension, think about taking a course in political science, history or philosophy. This way, you can explore new fields while using your instincts to steadily move toward a major.

Once you have an idea of a potential major, reach out to people you can pepper with questions. This might be a professor you admire or even an adviser in your department you're interested in. "Advisers are very aware of every course [on] offer, the typical pacing sequence of courses you should take freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year and all the qualifications you need to graduate," says Mark Beal, Rutgers Professor and author of 101 Lessons They Never Taught You In College. "Meet them early on."

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Map it out

Once you've considered how you learn, what requirements you need and the field you might pursue, start mapping things out.

Draft out what kind of requirements you might need to earn your diploma on time. This process will raise important questions that you can get answered by working with someone on-campus, such as an undergraduate or departmental adviser, who can guide you and make sure you're understanding what you need. "You truly need to sit down with someone on-campus and map out your four-year plan because what you do freshman year will influence your senior year," stresses Beal. "Truly understand the road-map to graduation and also the road-map for your major."

Of course, students will undoubtedly face twists and turns throughout their college careers and this initial road-map may need to be adapted and altered. But by constantly keeping an eye on what steps you need to take to graduate on time and focusing on your goals, you can make sure that you make the most of your time in school.

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