The winter break between the fall and spring semesters has traditionally been celebrated as a welcome respite from the continual pressure of the academic work load. It was a time when students turned off their minds for a few weeks, relaxed with their families, and reconnected with their friends.
That view of the semester break does not reflect the reality of today’s college experience, however-and there are many indications that it is significantly out of date. Millions of students are enrolled in online college programs, which operate on a different schedule and do not even include breaks over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Similarly, the financial realities of today’s high college costs forces many students to work part or even full time to support themselves and finance their higher education. Time off from classes, then, is less than a “break” in the traditional sense than an opportunity to clock in more working hours and earn more money.
Those high college costs also mean that other students try to take advantage of any break from traditional semesters to shorten their time to graduation by taking a course to fulfill a program requirement. Enrolling in a short-term, concentrated course over the winter semester break, either at your home institution or another school, can be a productive way to earn credit toward your degree, focus on one topic that may be too challenging to master while taking a full course load during the regular semester, or simply save money at a less expensive institution.
There are many options for students who wish to take advantage of the semester break in this way:
- Sign up for a course offered by your own college: These days, just about every college or university offers short-term concentrated courses that range from intensive 1-week to 3-week classes. Peruse your college catalog or website, or contact your adviser, to learn what courses may be available, both online and in person. If you know which department you want to take a course in, such as Biology, Marketing, or English, you can call the department and find out if any courses have been added at the last minute and might not appear in the catalog.
- Take a course at a college near your home: Students who live in dorms at traditional colleges often have to vacate their dorms over the winter break and head home to their families. If you are one of those temporarily displaced students, that doesn’t mean you have to take a break from your studies, too. You can take a course offered by a college located near your home, including lower-cost community colleges.
- Enroll in an online course: Your own college may offer online courses during the semester break, or you can search or a course offered online by another college or university. This offers the convenience and flexibility that you may need when you are living in a temporary situation or location or traveling between locations.
- Take an intensive course abroad: Take advantage of your break to get in a little bit of overseas travel while learning at the same time. Many schools such as Goucher College offer 3-week intensive courses in foreign countries such as Spain, South Africa, and Honduras.
No matter what option you choose, there are a few administrative details that you must pay attention to if you want your intensive course to count toward your degree:
- Check the accreditation: If you take a winter intensive course at your own college, you won’t need to worry about this. However, if you decide to take a course at another school, make sure you can transfer the credits. The best way to do this is to first make sure that the college is accredited. You can access the U.S. Department of Education’s database of accredited colleges and universities to check out the school offering your intensive course. Call your school’s registrar to make sure it will accept transfer courses from the institution from which you plan to take the winter course.
- Make sure the course will fulfill a requirement: If you take a winter course to shorten your graduation time, before you enroll in anything, contact your adviser and make sure that the course you plan to take will actually help you graduate by fulfilling a requirement. When students “self-advise,” they often end up taking courses they don’t actually need. As a faculty adviser, I spend a great deal of time helping students figure out how they can use the courses they took to fulfill any requirement at all, let alone requirements they actually need.
- Contact your school’s financial aid office: Make sure any intensive course you sign up for will be eligible for financial aid and won’t affect your aid in the future. For example, students who need to maintain a full-time schedule in order to qualify for the full amount of financial aid could discover that any extra courses they take will reduce the number of courses they can take in future semesters, which can reduce their aid amounts. Use your school’s financial aid office as a valuable resource that can help you maintain the crucial balance between course load and financial aid eligibility.
If you pay attention to the suggestions I’ve made above, there’s no reason you can’t use the winter break as a productive way to further your education goals. Many colleges and universities have begun to realize how useful the period between the semesters can be, and now employ innovative programs to provide for their students’ needs. Open your eyes to some of the new opportunities available!