Insider Tips

How to Get the Most Out of Coursera and edX Online Courses

We are always fielding questions from blog readers about how to best spend time during their school breaks. Of course, it depends upon the student’s age, and interests, but we always recommend reading, reading, reading… with a side of online courses! The idea is to deepen your love of learning.

Online courses are a great way to take an interest to the next level, whether it’s something that you’ve been meaning to delve into more significantly, or an interest that you’ve been cultivating over many years. The most popular websites that offer a variety of online courses are Coursera and edX. Each site has thousands of courses to choose from, which means that while they most certainly offer something that will increase your expertise in an academic field that you enjoy, it can be intimidating to choose one!


1. Get Specific

When you’re searching for a course, think small and then expand. If you type “Engineering” into the search bar, you’ll get hundreds of results. Instead, think about what field of engineering you’re most interested in. Perhaps solar power and energy particularly intrigues you, so you’d type “Solar engineering” into the search bar and take a look at the courses offered. Toggle with the topics offered and be open to different focuses and courses that might explore different aspects of this subset of engineering. As with anything else, be sure to do your research. This means reading through the description of a few different courses thoroughly to understand the nuances of the content being taught and what the structure of the course is, i.e. the length of the lessons, the frequency of the class, the duration, assignment expectations, etc.

2. Be Realistic

Though choosing an advanced Electric Engineering class might seem appealing because you won’t be in a classroom, we advise that you choose a course that will simultaneously stimulate and challenge you. Make sure that you pay attention to the level of the course and pre-requisites so that you don’t accidentally enroll in an Advanced course when you’re really a beginner. The stimulation component is key, and requires choosing a course that you can actually follow along with. You won’t actually get anything out of the course if you can’t keep up or the content causes your eyes to glaze over. While an online course is a perfect, minimal-stakes forum to up the ante, it doesn’t make sense to go from crawling to sprinting without some solid walking experience first.

3. Maximize Engagement

While there are many wonderful archived courses on Coursera and edX, we find that students are most engaged and get the most out of a course when there is new content produced each week and there are other students participating at the same time. It’s for this reason that we recommend that students enroll in courses that are “Active”—oftentimes there are start dates that begin within the month. This is particularly important if you’re in the Beginner or Intermediate expertise level of your academic focus. The benefit of having a “live” class means that you often get the opportunity to ask questions and get responses in a timely manner and that the course is more dynamic.

Online Courses for college admissions prep FAQS


Online courses offered via websites like OpenCourseWare, Coursera, or edX are a great way to spend your free time. What we stress to students about free time is that it is what you make of it. You can explore an interest while also making it worthwhile. While we always love and encourage students to pick a great new book, online courses are a great way to further craft and hone in on a particular interest. It also demonstrates your academic niche when it comes to college applications and adds depth to your profile. See our FAQ’s on tackling online courses below:

1. Should I pay for a certificate?

Most classes give you the option to pay for a certificate. Now that the Common App explicitly asks students if they have taken a college course with a transcript or certificate (and gives you the ability to upload these certificates), then this is a careful consideration to make. If you’re taking a course in an area where you’re sure of your interest and committed to taking the time to meaningful engage with the material, then yes you should get a certificate. It looks great to complete a course and have a certificate to certify your completion. Additionally, you’ll be able to actually turn in assignments and get feedback from the professor. That said, if you’re sort of dipping your toe in the water of this academic field and aren’t positive you’re going to love it, then we’d say hold off on paying for that certificate. We encourage students to take the opportunity of an online course to dive in and commit a significant portion of time to it.

2. What if I start a course and dislike it? Will it look bad if I drop out?

We touched on this above, but if you’re exploring an academic interest (and if you’re in the 9th or 10th grade, this is a great time to do some exploratory work!) and you truly dislike the course, we don’t advise trudging through and wasting your time. There is a difference, however, between not liking the material and not liking the time commitment. Take note of what you are reacting to—is it the teaching style? The content? Or the fact that you have added another thing to your plate? Taking an online course is a commitment, but one that pays off in the end. This is why we don’t advise paying to receive a certificate for the course if you’re unsure about your interest in the topic.

3. How do I know if a course is reputable?

Just like you would if you were considering taking an in-person class, it’s always good to do some background research on the school that the course is affiliated with. In general, Coursera and edX are great at identifying reputable schools and professors, but everyone’s standards are different. We’d say to hold an online course to the same standard you’d hold an in-person course to. One thing to keep in mind is that Coursera and edX partner with schools internationally based. This doesn’t make them bad or not reputable! It just means you’ll need to do a bit of digging to make sure that a) the course is offered in English, and b) that the coursework makes sense for you. The levels might not be as clear and the content being offered by a U.S. based school.

4. Do we have any suggestions?

Of course! Yale and MIT are just two schools that offer college-specific online courses on OpenCourseWare. OCW is a wonderful platform to explore where you can delve into a subject that you are interested in and display to colleges that you are committed to learning. Some highlights include:

There are hundreds of courses out there, and they are all super easy to download and get started. Take action now to deepen your love of learning!

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