How to Know if a Class is an Elective

When attending school, there’s a lot of classes that you’re required to take if you want to graduate. However, every once in a while, there’s a blessed time when you get to choose what class you’re going to take. We refer fondly to these blessed classes as electives.

A class counts as an elective if it is not required for graduation, completion of a program, or as a prerequisite for other classes, certificates, or degrees. Required classes include general education requirements, pre-requisite classes, and major/minor classes. Some of these may still be electives if they offer options.

In this article, we explore what it means if a class is an elective, how to find out what your options are, and tips for choosing good electives.

How do I Know if a Given Class is an Elective?

Let’s say that there’s a specific class that’s caught your eye, and you’re wondering whether or not this class is an elective.

First, you should check the university’s academic catalog again. A good academic catalog will show you whether a course is an elective or not, in addition to showing you what GE and major requirements it would count towards. Using it this way, the academic catalog could be helpful in finding a major based on which classes you’ve taken and enjoyed so far as well!

Second, check your own major/minor and GE requirements. A lot of majors require similar courses (like writing, math, or stats), and so what may appear as an elective may actually count as a GE and vice-versa. Additionally, what would be an elective for one major may actually be required for another. Having a good understanding of your own major and GE requirements is a good pre-requisite for knowing which classes are electives.

Third, talk with an academic advisor. If there’s a class that you want to take, but you’re not sure how it would fit into your plans, an academic advisor can help you see if the class is worth actually taking, how it might benefit you, and more. They’ll know everything there is to know about requirements and electives.

What is an Elective?

In general, there are three types of classes: 1) classes that are required, with few to no exceptions, 2) classes that are not required, but still count for credits, and 3) classes that are required, but that offer you options for what class to take. Splitting classes in this way makes type 1 a general education (GE or general) course, 2 a pure elective course, and 3 somewhere in between a general and an elective.

The reason that 3 falls somewhere in between is because it is still required. As an example of this, most universities require a “Civilization GE.” This is a general education requirement, because you have to take it to graduate; however, the exact class doesn’t matter so long as you choose from a list of options. You could potentially cover that GE with a philosophy class, a history class, a geography class, a literature class, or others. However, you still have to take a “Civilization GE” class. It’s for this reason that category 3 falls in between a true GE and a true elective.

A true elective means that the only requirement it covers is credit hours. However, even here, you can have general electives and major electives, as most universities require you to take upper-division electives in addition to major requirements. However, even though these are necessary to graduate, they are still considered electives because you get to choose from a large list of options within your major.

Aside from major electives, there are general electives that truly only cover credit hours. These can range from classes you take because of an external interest (e.g., taking a philosophy course when it’s not required for your major, minor, or generals), to “fun” classes, like sport/exercise classes taken through the university.

However you define it, students love electives because they love the opportunity to choose what they get to study.

How do I Know My Options for Electives?

Knowing your options for electives can be the difference between a class that you love and a class that you hate. There are a few ways to better understand your options for elective classes.

First off is to understand what requirements offer options and what requirements require specific classes. The example above of a “Civilization GE” is a good example, as most universities will not require specific classes for many generals. Whether you take History 101, Philosophy 101, or something else, a range of classes can cover that requirement. However, if Calculus is required, there is likely no way to substitute it or choose a different class, because it is a required class. This distinction is important because there are some requirements that appear to be required classes, when really there are other options to cover that requirement.

Your best option for knowing which classes are required and which have options is by talking to a guidance counselor or academic advisor. Most high schools will have a designated advisor for each student, while universities may have advisors for each department or college. Advisors will be helpful in determining what requirements offer electives.

Another good option is to check out your university’s academic catalog. These catalogs can go by many names, such as a “degree index” or a “degree finder.” Whatever the name, it is likely that the university has all of the requirements for each major, minor, and GEs. This catalog should also be helpful in identifying which requirements have necessary courses and which requirements offer elective options.


When it comes to choosing classes, whether it be for high school or for college, choosing electives is important for both your future plans and your personal enjoyment. When you have to take GEs, keep in mind that there’s a reason that GEs are required, and there’s a reason that they make GE classes GEs! Lean into those and what they’re trying to teach you and you’ll have a better overall experience as well.

Choosing electives is an opportunity to control your own destiny, so make the most of it! The fact that you’re here reading this article says something about your dedication. Do your research, and you’ll have a great experience.