I Overloaded Every Semester and It Was Worth It

Guo Zhenhao
7 min readJan 12, 2021

Six. That was the number of classes I took every semester, except for the first semester where overloading isn’t permitted. The norm for students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is to take four to five classes per semester on route to a typical honours degree. Of course, for students in double degree programmes, six classes per semester might be their typical workload. But in my case, I did the extra workload while on a regular degree programme to fully explore my areas of interest, which led to a couple more doors opening up for me.

Part of my reasoning was that if other students were also taking six classes on top of co-cirricular activities (CCAs), part-time jobs, or internships, adding one more class to my schedule couldn’t hurt that much. That being said, let me preface this by saying that nobody should feel pressured to take on more than they believe they can handle. The last thing that I want for anyone reading this article is to feel like they have to take on extra credit to feel validated. These are just the reasons why I decided that overloading was right for me, and the things that I’ve learned from doing so.

I Got My Money’s Worth

External classes and extra degrees are expensive. Why not take as many classes as you can to save money? | Photo by Fabian Blank @ Unsplash

Students at NUS pay the same amount of tuition fees whether they take four or eight classes. By taking six modules, I was able to explore subjects I was interested in, such as Psychology, and take up classes that I thought might be useful to learn like Python and Graphic Design. Of course, there were times when NUS’ Satisfactory/Dissatisfactory policy saved me from bad grades, but maintaining a high GPA was never really a priority for me. Taking these classes also made up for the compulsory General Education Modules that every NUS student has to take. In total, we have to take five General Education Modules, or GEMs as they are ironically called. When I first found out about GEMs, my first reaction was:

“Huh? Isn’t that a whole semester of modules? Why am I wasting one entire semester on classes that I’m not even interested in?”

Granted, you can select GEMs that align with your interests, but there are compulsory GEMs as well. Not only is there always a chance that you might pick wrongly and end up not enjoying a GEM, compulsory GEMs are often watered down so much to accommodate students from every single major that nothing substantial gets taught in them. I must say that I did enjoy learning about Islam and Contemporary Malay Society in GES1014, and probably would not taken it if GEMs weren’t a requirement. Even so, that left me with four out of five wasted module slots that I wanted to take back to try out more useful and interesting.

I Got a Peace of Mind Knowing I Could Graduate on Time

If you thought GEMs were a pain, wait until you look at the graduation requirements of multidisciplinary degree such as Global Studies. In fact, any graduation requirement page is written in such mind-boggling code that is indecipherable upon your first read. (We only figure them out by obsessively visiting them again and again throughout our four years in university). Even if you do manage to keep track of things accurately, expect the school’s algorithm or overworked staff members to make mistakes when categorising your modules.

I’ve lost count of the number of times when I thought that I had fulfilled a requirement, only to be told that it couldn’t be double-counted or classified under a particular requirement. And yes, I had done prior research. A quick email will sometimes rectify classification issues really quickly, but there have been instances where students had to scramble in their last semester to get a module classified under their major, or worse, had their graduation date extended. Extending graduation is not fun especially for Singaporean students who have to pay unsubsidised fees for semesters beyond the allowed candidature. In my opinion, it’s better to take too many classes than to find yourself one or two classes short in your final semester.

I Got To Do Two Minors

Photo of the Korean word for ‘dream’ by insung yoon @ Unsplash

This was arguably the main reason why I decided to overload every semester — to minor in Korean and Japanese. Some people are skeptical of the usefulness of minors, but I’m definitely way more fluent in both languages now than during my freshman year. People say that languages can be learned outside of university, which is true. But classes are also super expensive and I knew nothing else was going to keep me more accountable and consistent with language learning than graded, intensive classes within university itself.

So while minors will probably not be enough if you’re looking to go into fields like Psychology that have more formal barriers to entry, minors still give you substantial exposure to your fields of interest. Through NUS’ language programmes, I got to experience homestay in Hiroshima and an internship where I was required to do Korean to English translation. So don’t underestimate how much minors can do for you in terms of providing connections and opportunities.

I Got to Go on Exchange — and Evade Certain Disaster

When I went to Korea University for exchange, I only managed to secure two modules by the second week of school. Thankfully, extra classes I had taken prior to the exchange semester kept me on the path to graduation. I would have had to take only major related classes from then on to graduate on time, but that outcome was still better than delaying graduation because of an exchange semester. Luckily, everything sorted itself out and I managed to clear six modules at Korea University and escape by the skin of my teeth.

The thing is that no university can guarantee that you’ll have the opportunity to fulfil graduation requirements overseas. Even if the partner university offers modules similar to the ones back home, their local students will always receive priority. It’s also up to your local university to decide if they wish to recognise the modules you’ve taken overseas. They might reject classes you’ve taken on grounds that the scopes are too different, or that the classes are not rigorous enough (even if these claims are unfounded). With so many risks involved, universities always stress that students should try their best to fulfil their graduation requirements at home, so that they have a wider pool of electives to choose from overseas.

I Had Lots of Room to Make Missteps — and Even Change Majors

If you had two ice cream cones, you won’t be too disappointed if one drops | Photo by Sarah Kilian @ Unsplash

My original plan was to do an English Linguistics major with a Psychology minor. By the time I switched over to Global Studies in my third semester, most of my peers had already moved onto higher level modules. Luckily for me, most of what I covered in freshman year were foundation modules. But more critically, taking six modules from my second semester onward helped me to catch up with everyone else in no time.

If you’re someone who still hasn’t settled on a particular major, taking extra classes will allow you to explore your interests while still keeping you on the path to graduation. That was what I had in mind in my second semester. I wanted to venture out of linguistics, but still have the option to return. In other words, overloading broadens your academic options. You may decide to downgrade a second major to a minor, or give up a minor altogether. But overloading gives you those possibilities in the beginning, instead of locking you into a fixed plan.

I Could Have Graduated Early

Still waiting for the day I can say what’s written on this cap | Photo by Nicoletta Freer @ Unsplash

This wasn’t an option that I settled with, especially because Global Studies has two honours modules that have to be taken one after another. However, financial limitations are a very real reality for some people and I wanted to highlight this to conclude the article. I was privileged enough to take extra credits out of choice, meaning that I could back out of the path that I had set for myself whenever I wanted to. For some people with debts to pay off or other financial struggles, graduating early would potentially provide them with several more months of extra salary plus savings from one semester’s worth of tuition fees. That can easily total up to around $20,000, which is a lot of money. So definitely consider taking the plunge if your situation warrants it, or if getting a head start on your financial goals sounds appealing to you.

It Gave Me Perspective

Of all the things I’ve learned from overloading every semester, I think the biggest takeaway for me is the fact that there are literally a million ways to do university. Any time you decide to sign up for a programme, job, or CCA, it means that you have less time to commit to other things, and that’s ok. It’s easy to feel FOMO watching everyone less do a bunch of other things that you are not, but always remember why you made your initial decision.

Originally published at http://guozhenhao.wordpress.com on January 12, 2021.