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It's not easy to select a college major, especially when the choices include subjects outside the core curriculum of primary and secondary schooling. Programming, web design or entrepreneurship, for example, might sound appealing to students who've built a homebrew app or read Steve Jobs' biography. But how can students tell the difference between dipping into a subject in their free time and studying it at the college level without the academic equivalent of a preview button?

Education Teaching

Enter Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free Internet-delivered programs offered by some of the world's better-known colleges and universities that provide students the opportunity to experience college-level learning before committing to a major.

Given that many schools allow students to choose a major at the halfway point in their college career, or to switch majors (sometimes more than once), previewing a major might not be a pressing concern for everyone. But with many schools and fields requiring earlier major commitments or prerequisites, MOOCs can provide a cost- and risk-free way to determine if you love (or hate) that "life's dream" subject before tying the academic knot.

MOOCing your major

Using MOOCsEven people who knew what they wanted to major in since grade school can benefit from participating in free courses offered by MOOC providers like Coursera and edX. While the options for turning participation in a MOOC into actual college credit are still limited, successfully passing a Stanford or MIT MOOC in computer science or artificial intelligence could provide students the chance to dedicate precious college credit slots to more advanced electives. Additionally, studying the Iliad and the Odyssey through a Harvard MOOC can give a budding literature major the chance to explore themes and ideas they might encounter again and again in their reading.

As an added thought, college admissions officers warn students that declaring interest in a specific major on your college application invites closer scrutiny of performance in courses related to that discipline. But if mediocre math grades might downgrade admission chances for a student who declares his or her intention to study engineering, voluntary participation in MOOC engineering classes while in high school might demonstrate to admissions professionals a student's readiness to go beyond what high school has to offer.

What to know before taking that MOOC

But before enrolling in a MOOC as a pre-flight for college, there are a few needs to keep in mind:

  1. Understand your goals for engaging in this type of independent course work. Do you just want a taste of what a discipline includes, or are you interested in accelerated learning in order to study at a more advanced level in college? Are you hoping to impress admissions officers with your zeal for learning and resourcefulness? Knowing in advance what you want to get out of a MOOC will help you reflect on what you are ready to put into one.
  2. Carefully review your course options. In some fields (like computer science) you might be spoiled for choice. But not all MOOCs demand the same level of rigor or deliver the same amount of learning. Are you ready to commit 12-15 hours per week to the problem sets for that advanced computer science MOOC? The class might look great on your college application, but you might not have the time or commitment to finish. If not, find a different class that better fits your level of interest and commitment.
  3. Check out course prerequisites, syllabi, preview videos and student reviews to make sure a particular course fits your goals and your personality. And there's no shame in enrolling just to check out the first week of lectures and assignments to see if a particular course (and professor) is a good match for you.
  4. Most importantly, only commit to taking a MOOC to completion if you are ready to treat the course with the same level of seriousness you would a residential college course on the same subject. This means giving lectures your full attention (no multitasking), taking notes, putting yourself on a schedule so that assignments get completed on time and treating exams and other assignments as genuine (and honest) tests of your ability.

The only exception to #4 is if you decide you are going to audit a MOOC, rather than earn a certificate of completion. But, even then, you need to commit to giving class lectures your undivided attention (not just listen to them while on the treadmill).

On top of the utility MOOCs can provide students exploring a major, the skills and discipline needed to succeed in a MOOC are the same ones a student will need to succeed in college. With younger students currently making up the smallest percentage of MOOC enrollees, involvement in massive online courses might be the very thing that allows one's application to stand out from the crowd.

For more information on specific online courses and programs available, check out some of the schools listed below.

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