Bluebooking for happiness

Note: I last made a significant update to this in 2021, the year I graduated. Some facts about Yale course selection has changed, but I still stand by my general point.

Every semester Yale begins with shopping period. You can go to any class, and at the end of two weeks, turn in your final schedule. It’s different from other shopping-period-like systems where you sign up for more classes than you intend to take and then drop them. I usually have no idea what I’ll actually end up taking when the semester begins.

There’s a lot of classes to choose from. Most of the time the first meeting of a class isn’t as good as you thought it would be based on the description. Reality is often disappointing. It’s time-prohibitive to seriously consider every class, and at best you’ll only get through a quarter of the list before getting lazy.

I came up with these rules for myself to instantly cut out over half of my options. There’s probably some gems in there. But I save so much mental energy!

Will these rules be any use to you? Here’s some—



*eye roll* Oh my god Zhengdong.



First-year I FroCo’ed:

You know the longer I’m at Yale the more I realize you’re right about everything.

Friend and FroCo colleague:

Honestly though, section does suck.

You decide.

Only the professor matters

You can make up your own criteria for what a good professor is. Obviously they should have experience in what they’re teaching. You can easily verify this online. Also, tenure-track positions are hard to get, so prefer ladder faculty.

Even better (but harder to determine) is if they’re good at teaching undergraduates. I don’t know a good way of verifying this other than to attend the class itself. Course reviews are an okay approxmation at best:

Just to be clear, what doesn’t matter at all?

Do you think it matters whether you learn this course content instead of that course content? Sir, do not kid yourself. You are an undergraduate at an American liberal arts college.

I’m serious. Don’t read the course descriptions. Cover up the titles in the catalog if they distract you. Only research professors. A bad professor will make you dread going to a class on a subject you love. A good professor will inspire enthusiasm in a topic you previously didn’t care about. I’m willing to bet that you agree with me if you’ve had either experience.

Winnow your list, then, using:

Just to reiterate. I’m so serious about this rule that I think you should drop a major entirely to avoid taking a class with a bad professor. This is the most important rule. It supercedes the other rules. If you want, you can ignore everything else on this list.

Take easy classes

Specifically, take at most two high-workload classes per semester.

Here’s Andrej Karpathy to motivate why:

Undergrads tend to have tunnel vision about their classes. They want to get good grades, etc. The crucial fact to realize is that no one will care about your grades, unless they are bad. For example, I always used to say that the smartest student will get 85% in all of his courses. This way, you end up with somewhere around 4.0 score, but you did not over-study, and you did not under-study.

Your time is a precious, limited resource. Get to a point where you don’t screw up on a test and then switch your attention to much more important endeavors. What are they?

Getting actual, real-world experience, working on real code base, projects or problems outside of silly course exercises is extremely imporant. Professors/People who know you and can write you a good reference letter saying that you have initiative, passion and drive are extremely important. Are you thinking of applying to jobs? Get a summer internship. Are you thinking of pursuing graduate school? Get research experience! Sign up for whatever programs your school offers. Or reach out to a professor/graduate student asking to get involved on a research project you like. This might work if they think you’re driven and motivated enough. Do not underestimate the importance of this: A well-known professor who writes in their recommendation letter that you are driven, motivated and independent thinker completely dwarfs anything else, especially petty things like grades.

He wrote this for computer scientists, but you can generalize this to any postgraduate goal.

One goal, by the way, is making memories with friends.

Pick high-workload classes that teach you something you won’t get anywhere else. For me this was learning to write proofs and to write well.

Your other classes should be low-workload but still serious. This excludes traditional “guts”—classes people take because they are easy.

What’s wrong with the usual guts?

Find classes other people are taking for the material (or even better, the professor), that also happen to be low-workload. Okay, but these classes sound like unicorns, you say. Where am I supposed to find these magical low-workload but also serious classes? Serious professors rarely give little work, and work trades off with what you get out of the class.

But easy, serious classes exist! I don’t know a general rule for finding them. But here are some suggestions:

These classes are easy for you. Not necessarily easy for everyone. The way to think about this is: find the low-workload class you want to take, not the low-workload class other people want to take.

But isn’t college (especially Yale) very expensive? How am I going to get my value taking half easy classes! At most classes count for 20 percent of the value of college. Even there, the better metric is what you get out of them. You’re surrounded by really smart peers and faculty that you’ll stay in touch with for life. If you find an incredible professor, you’ve found an endless pit of wisdom to draw from. I spent a disproportionate amount of time on few classes, getting to know a few professors. Taking too many high-workload classes is detrimental to this.

Notice, this rule of taking easy classes is just a way to optimize the first rule—only the professor matters. This is true for every rule that follows, too.

Don’t take classes with section

If you don’t know, discussion sections for (mostly) humanities classes are small groups that accompany a lecture. The professor teaches the lecture, usually twice a week, and you sign up for a section with a TA that meets once a week. This is in contrast to seminars, which professors lead, are also small, and meet once a week but for longer.

You should immediately be adverse to section because of the professor rule. Yes, you may find a truly amazing TA. They are really nice. But whatever the class is, there’s little chance that it’s exactly this TA’s specialty. I think one of benefits of studying history, for example, that someone who is probably one of the top three scholars in their chosen niche can give you the closest thing possible to a “correct answer” to a question that doesn’t have one. Professors design their classes, TAs do what they have to to graduate, like undergraduates.

Even if you have the perfect TA, section is designed to fail. People don’t take lecture classes because they want discussion. I haven’t met a single person who likes section. No one in section wants to be there, including probably the TA. Sections are like bank runs. Even if you don’t think the economy is going to collapse, if everyone else starts taking their money out, you will too.

There are also section practices that never appear in seminar. TAs don’t have an incentive to tell people if they’re wrong. As long as someone is talking, we can all continue with the collective time wasting that is section without awkward silences. Or, because it’s not the TA’s specialty, they can’t comment on how correct someone’s pet theory that they made up after skimming the reading is anyway. On balance, the professor’s ability to give “correct answers” is better. They’ve read everything.

I also factor in the extra day a week I have to walk to a room. Yale is not that big, so on average I’m not even travelling that much and I’m still complaining. Think about it. The time to get to extra lecture and section. The extra total time that section adds to the class. The overhead associated with context-switching again. You could write a whole paper in that time. Just don’t take section.

One objection to this is if you find a great TA who’s willing to spend more time with you than a professor, who you can relate to better, and who can give you good advice. This is a good reason to take a section. It’s in the spirit of only the professor matters. If this is your goal, though, may I suggest instead just taking a graduate class. See the last rule.

Timing considerations

In college the opportunity cost of everything you do is pretty much infinity. The following rules just save time. They’re also really good at cutting your options down. Follow them to think less.

Don’t take classes because you “have to.”

Listen: there are no rules. Almost all prerequisite rules at Yale are fake. You still need to take required core classes for majors. But a professor listing that you should have taken intro this or two classes in that is fake. Professors put them in to deter random people. No one is checking. I used to ask the professor to make sure, but now I don’t even bother.

I’ll list all the exceptions (the real rules) I can think of: knowing a language, classes limited to / not open to first years. Professors have their own process for selecting people for oversubscribed classes (sometimes by lottery, year, major, application, etc.). If you’re still worried, ask nice professors and upperclassmen which rules are real and which are fake. Don’t ask administration, websites, syllabi, and advisors you are assigned. They will be safe and tell you every rule is real.

Don’t take classes that meet more than twice a week.

A lot of them are introductory classes. You have to travel to class, and more than twice a week is really too much. This scheme of class only meets for fifty minutes each time anyway.

Don’t take classes that meet on Friday.

Out of all days, this is by far the easiest to accomplish. Then, you have a three day weekend. Having an entire day with no classes scheduled is huge. You can write a whole paper on a Friday. Note that Yale schedules far fewer classes (and barely any seminars) on Friday knowing that we hate Friday classes. Feel free to switch out Friday for another weekday if that’s easier.

Don’t take labs.

They’re twice the time for half the credit. And do labs even have professors? Sorry if you wanted to be a doctor. These rules are not for you.

Don’t take languages.

Yale language departments are truly very good. But, the most efficient way to learn a language is immersion (citation needed, but just spend a year abroad). It’s harder at Yale, and again, the opportunity cost is infinite. Language classes also tend to meet more than twice a week, so double whammy. I guess you have to meet the language requirement to graduate, but try to do it with as little effort as possible. Sorry if you wanted to learn a language. These rules are not for you.

Don’t double major.

Unless you happen to do it without realizing. Just explore instead. Don’t waste time taking classes you wouldn’t otherwise just because you’re “a few off” from getting another major. No one cares. I doubt that you honestly think the marginal benefit of the 24th class in just two departments is higher than the 1st class in new department. You only have 36 classes, ever. “A few” is a massive waste.


Get good advisors. They can be anyone. Importantly, find people who will give you different extreme opinions. Have each advisor you trust make a strong case for one of the options you’re considering. The idea is different people will tell you different things. Ask yourself what’s convincing and what isn’t. You’ll be swayed in the right direction, even if you don’t do exactly what someone advised. Don’t average the advice you get; be decisive.

Classes I’ve taken

Spring 2021    
CPSC 464 Topics in the Foundations of Machine Learning Nisheeth Vishnoi
HIST 352J Culture and Politics in Lusophone Africa Benedito Machava
HIST 496 The Senior Essay Valerie Hansen
MATH 305 Real Analysis Yair Minsky
Fall 2020    
CPSC 460 Automata Theory Andrew Bridy
HIST 495 The Senior Essay Valerie Hansen
MATH 270 Set Theory Yifeng Liu
MATH 330 Advanced Probability Sekhar Tatikonda
PHIL 719 Faith and the Will John Pittard
Spring 2020    
CPSC 366 Intensive Algorithms Yang Cai
HIST 277J Memory and History in Modern Europe Jennifer Allen
HIST 305J Empire and Identity in Qing China David Porter
PHIL 270 Epistemology Keith DeRose
Fall 2019    
HIST 217 The Roman Republic Andrew Johnston
HIST 972 Freedom and History Timothy Snyder
LING 202 The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript Claire Bowern
PHIL 495 Philosophy of Mind and Artificial Intelligence Daniel Greco
PHYS 439 Basic Quantum Mechanics Robert Schoelkopf
Spring 2019    
EAST 511 Modern Korean Buddhism from Sri Lanka to Japan Hwansoo Kim
HIST 215J The Art of Biography John Gaddis
HUMS 411 Life Worth Living Matthew Croasmun
PHYS 344 Quantum and Nanoscale Physics Sean Barrett
PHYS 470 Independent Research in Physics Nikhil Padmanabhan
Fall 2018    
CPSC 323 Introduction to Systems Programming and Computer Organization Stanley Eisenstat
HIST 221J Russia in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky Sergey Antonov
HIST 290 Russia from the Ninth Century to 1801 Paul Bushkovitch
MATH 244 Discrete Mathematics Ross Berkowitz
Spring 2018    
CHNS 163 Advanced Modern Chinese for Advanced Learners IV Wei Su
CPSC 223 Data Structures and Programming Techniques James Aspnes
CPSC 474 Computational Intelligence for Games James Glenn
HIST 072 The History of World History Valerie Hansen
PHYS 343 Gravity, Astrophysics, and Cosmology Laura Newburgh
Fall 2017    
CPSC 201 Introduction to Computer Science Stephen Slade
ECON 110 Introduction to Microeconomic Analysis Katerina Simons
ENAS 151 Multivariable Calculus for Engineers Vidvuds Ozolins
HIST 032 Shanghai Denise Ho