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What are Elective Courses?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Elective courses are classes that a student can take which are not specifically required to graduate or to fulfill a degree. They are generally seen as the opposite of core requirements, which are classes that all students must take unless they have special dispensation. Some of the most common electives are those that are chosen from a small list, which relate to a student's major focus but allow for some flexibility. There are also electives that can be taken, which have little to do with a student's major, instead allowing him or her to study a different subject.

The Purpose of Electives

In both college and high school, elective courses give students the chance to take classes outside of a prescribed plan of coursework. This lets students pursue other interests they may have, giving them a more "well-rounded" education. These electives also let students find subjects that might interest them and change the direction they wish to take with their education. A student who takes an elective class in drafting, for example, might discover a love of design and engineering that leads to a career he or she might not otherwise have found.

Core Classes

Some elective courses can be chosen based on the core classes a student focuses on for his or her education. Students majoring in linguistics, for example, are typically required to take a number of core classes. These core classes are those specific courses that every student completing a program has to take. They might include classes on the foundations of language, phonetics, and syntax, as well as an analytical class involving a chosen language.

Electives Tied to a Major

In addition to these core requirements, however, students may be asked to take a set number of elective courses within their major. Students more interested in the hard science of linguistics might focus on classes on neurology and linguistics. Those students more interested in cultural anthropology, however, can take elective courses on social aspects of language, cultural language acquisition, and language extinction. Students choose these classes from a pre-approved list, but they have a choice regarding the area of interest they wish to pursue within their field of study.

Free Electives

There are also elective courses that students can choose from that are not connected to their major focus of study. For example, a student pursuing a degree in English might have a few classes that can be taken in any other field. This lets students take classes in subjects like art history or religious studies, to better expand their educations.

Electives in High School

At the high school level, the majority of classes taken are generally core requirements. As a result, any degree of specialization a student wants must be achieved through elective courses. Additionally, these electives tend to be much more free form and entertaining than other classes, and may allow students a chance to "play" while being educated. In this sense, elective courses at high school are often seen as a way to give students a bit of a break, while still keeping them engaged.

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Discussion Comments
By anon166665 — On Apr 09, 2011

To Anon123841: I've always thought the reason for such requirements is that institutions want to produce well rounded students, not ones with a one-track mind. Elective courses allow you to expand your boundaries in learn in areas other than your designated major.

While you can always take elective courses relating to your major, it might be beneficial to take ones you know nothing about. It could open new opportunities and you might find something you really enjoy. Hope this helps.

By anon165345 — On Apr 04, 2011

i just think it's a good idea. I'm a management student, and i work with an audit firm. It's just good to take elective courses in accounting. It's part of the whole. To me, it pays.

By anon123841 — On Nov 03, 2010

So, basically, I have to pay for "fun" courses designed to fill in the gaps in my required credit hours, thus stretching my higher education out to its current span of six years, even though they have nothing to do with my desired career. If I wanted to branch out and explore other subjects and job opportunities, I'd try google.

Sorry for this frustrated student's rant. I just don't see the point in taking anything other than what I need to get my degree(s). In first and second year, at least in my English program, all I will be taking are electives which I care little about, as they are not English courses. I see no point in the credit hours that will be need to be filled with courses that do not relate to the degree.

By Georgesplane — On Sep 04, 2010

Many interdisciplinary degrees often require a student to take elective courses within their chosen track. I am a B.S. sustainability major, which draws form economics, technology, environmental sciences, and engineering. I have the option of choosing one of three main learning tracks, and a complimenting minor. The track I have chosen is energy, technology, and materials science. I am planning to add a minor in materials science and engineering.

This degree has very few school and university requirements, and almost all of the remaining courses are electives. They are not electives in the sense that I can choose any course; rather there is a set of approved courses I can register for that compliment my learning track.

This type of interdisciplinary program involves understanding a broad set of topics, but specializing in a specific area.

By CopperPipe — On Sep 03, 2010

@galen84basc -- Before I say anything else, I think it's great that you and your son are thinking so far ahead. However, I don't think it's really necessary to plan his entire high school course selection around his potential future undergrad courses.

In fact, many business schools actually like their candidates to be more well-rounded. So why not have him do one of those more art-based electives? He may find out that he's really good at painting or something, which can not only boost his confidence, but also is a nice way to relax.

Besides, it's better to have a broader experience, in my opinion, because who knows what he's going to want to do when he actually gets to college.

If he's just totally into business though, then why not see if his school has a volunteer program where he could use business-y skills to help a charity or something? Or you could contact local businesses and see if anybody needs an intern.

But overall, I would say, don't take it too seriously just yet. Let your son choose what he wants to do, and let the future take care of itself.

By galen84basc — On Sep 03, 2010

Can anybody tell me what some high school elective courses would be for a student who wants to later get a degree in business, and maybe an MBA?

My son is going into his junior year in high school, and it seems like all the electives are more art-based. Can anybody give me some advice?

Thank you.

By rallenwriter — On Sep 03, 2010

Electives can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's one more thing you have to do. On the other hand, choosing a fun elective can be relaxing and exciting.

And there are a ton of different kinds of elective courses out there. For instance, many colleges still require their students to do physical education as an elective, but this can show up as anything from polo to hip hop dancing!

I know when I was in college my favorite elective was yoga. It was nice and peaceful, but counted as a phys ed course too.

I know a lot of people who take serious courses, like finance courses or MBA courses often look for less stressful electives. It can be a good way of killing stress while still getting school credit.

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