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Molecular Biology - Immunology & Diseases: Student Testimonials

Anum Ahmed

Majors: Molecular Biology, Immunology and Disease and Psychology

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)?
 
I actually started off my first year aiming for the Human Biology Specialist. But after exploring first year life science courses, I wanted to study Psychology as well. I was also interested in pathobiology and disease transmissions but there was no direct major/specialist for it at that time. By my second year, the Molecular Biology, Immunology, Disease was formed and I immediately picked it along with Psychology. I have to admit that having majors instead of specialist has its perks and flexibilities. I got to explore and learn more of what I like, instead of focusing on just one: which was both the fields of Immunology and Psychology. After I graduate, I have a diverse range of courses in my transcript which allows me to go in a different direction if I want (career-wise).
 
Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?
 
Molecular Biology and Immunology major is not very different from the Human Biology major except for a couple of courses based on immunology. I really got to learn a lot about the immune system, pathobiology, human anatomy, body functions. The holistic concept of the human body is coupled with learning about the smallest parts that make it, which is cell systems and microbiology. The courses required do not delve deep into plant systems. The Psychology major was definitely an interesting experience. UTSC is definitely proud of its Psychology program because of the most wide range of interesting courses, professors and even research opportunities. Within a Psychology specialist/major one can pick stream of studying human behavior, culture and social environment or studying human brain, mental disabilities and mental health. Beyond these two specialties there are even more courses in Psychology one can explore.
 
What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?

  1. Keep in mind of Carpe Diem- Seize opportunities that come your way. Apply for international volunteer positions, explore clubs, and attend recreational outdoor trips. University will be 4 of the most memorable years of your life and you cannot relive it again.
  2. Networking is KEY. Network. Network. Network. Attend department mix and mingles. Talk to your professors and TAs. Get to know them. This is one tip I really wish I was told in first year. Having connections really helps you get jobs and volunteer positions throughout your years on campus.
  3. Focus, Organize, Plan- Focus on the certain jobs or volunteer positions you want, and tailor your resume to get those positions. Organize what courses you will take each year. Plan your time to juggle your social life, work schedule, lectures, study time, and leisure time appropriately. 

What will you do with your degree after graduation? (Future plans?)
 
There are many ways I can go with my degree. Medical school and pharmacy are always obvious options for life science students. But with Psychology I could do a Masters in Counseling, Clinical Psychology, Teaching, etc. This could lead to careers in counseling, teaching or a further PhD to become a professor. I could even head into Masters of Biology, Immunology, Molecular Biology etc. and head into research, or a further PhD to become a professor. There are also post-graduate diploma programs in colleges that vary from 1-3 years that train you into specific careers like Research Assistant, Lab Technician, etc. There are programs that come up every year, like Masters in Science Management or Translational Sciences at UofT. My point is that medical school and pharmacy are not the only ways to go, there is a lot more to the field of life sciences. My current plan is to take a year off, get more work experience and head to grad school in the field of Psychology.
 
What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?
 
First year- Getting to know the whole concept of "university life". Understanding how course enrolment works, resources on campus and the difficulty level of courses. I really took my time to get to know UTSC so I could exploit all resources to my advantage. You have to do some basic life science courses like biology, chemistry, psychology, statistics/math, physics etc. which will be very similar to high school concepts. Second Year- Slightly higher B level courses specific to the major/specialist. For Immunology, concepts of human physiology, human anatomy, cell systems and many lab courses. For Psychology, more specific courses in human behavior, social theory, prejudice and stereotypes, etc. Third year- Higher level of C courses along with B level courses. But there is more flexibility in choosing what C levels you want to choose. More lab opportunities available due to experience. Fourth year- By now, most requirements for the program will be complete, so taking electives to complete degree requirements as well as D level courses that involve presentations, debates, more participation, research papers as well as research-thesis courses.


Caroline Watling

Majors: Molecular Biology, Immunology, and Disease and Theatre and Performance Studies

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)?
 
I've always loved theatre, but knew I wanted to pursue a BSc. I originally applied for biochemistry, however after second year I realized that wasn't the direction where I wanted to focus. In my third year I took the b levels and requirements for both Human Biology and my current program. I love that I'm able to have such different majors.

Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?
 
Theatre studies at UTSC is a very demanding but fulfilling program, which explores performance, history, theatre in Canada, possibly technical theatre. I've developed not only as an actor, but have also learned how to hang a light, and historical events that shaped gender roles in contemporary society. Theatre is wonderful because of the small class sizes and ability to explore yourself. Biology offers many hands on learning experiences through labs. The first two years offer education in all areas of biology; however, as you move into upper year courses there is an ability to specialize.
 
What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?
 
1. Look at upper year courses that your program offers or requires. Upper year courses ought to appeal to you. They become more demanding, so it is important that you enjoy the material.
2. Hard work is more important than anything. You've made it this far; you've proven your intelligence; it's time for your work ethic to shine.
 
What will you do with your degree after graduation?
 
I'm interested in becoming a naturopath, blending my interests in biology, and arts.
 
What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?

I found first year was an adjustment to the system of university. Second year I struggled academically because I was not in the right courses. It wasn't until I was in third year and found courses that really interested me. I'm now into my fourth year, I'm enjoying all of my courses and have earned almost straight A's in the past year.


Aisha Ahmad

Majors: Molecular Biology, Immunology and Disease & French

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)?
 
I started my First Year as a French Specialist but felt a little adrift studying only in the Arts. There seemed that there was a part of myself that I was neglecting. So, in the second semester of my First Year, I had started to search through other Major options in the UTSC database that were in line with my preferences. I came across the Immunology and Disease Major option in one of my searches and did a thorough overview of the course requirements. I found them intriguing and so, from then on, I started to find methods to tweak my schedule in a way that enabled me to pursue both my Biology and French Requirements in parallel measures for my degree.
 
Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?
 
Studying in Arts and Science side by side is no easy task. I will say that any degree requires that you put sincere effort and hard work into whatever it is you pursue. However, I feel that studying French and Biology en par with one another has been a most interesting challenge. Many a time, I have found myself stumbling in the process to balance the two course loads of very distinctive natures. Biology awakes the curiosity in me and prompts me to realize the mechanics of the world as far as our Modern Research has allowed us to know while French permits me to understand a language and a culture that I was unaware of before my academic pursuits here at UTSC. In terms of my French Major--- I have pursued Grammar, Literature, Cultural and Phonetic courses that have given me an ability to communicate in the language to a rather agreeable degree as well as an understanding of the workings of France and Quebec in terms of their culture and history in such a manner that has increased my understanding of some of the inner workings of the French World. In terms of my Immunology Major---I have had the chance to get a glimpse into understandings of Ecological, Evolutionary, Cellular, and Molecular components of Biology that, on my own, I would have never been able to draw connections between. Pursuing this degree has really helped me explore the varying aspects of Biology and thoroughly understand that they are all interminably interconnected.
 
What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?
 
1) Explore your options in First Year, no matter what degree you enter University with the intention of pursuing----Branch out and see what complements your skills and talents. Figure out who you are as an Individual (it’s an ongoing process so, don't worry).
2) Hard Work, Effort and Perseverance always pay off. Don't ever abandon these three traits through your academic battles/pursuits because despite a few mishaps and hurdles, you'll always come through if you adhere to these principles.
3) Ask for help when you need it. There are so many resources offered by the University and the varying Campus Groups on Campus that are instated for your benefit and to help you succeed. So, although somewhat frightening, take that step and ask for help because if you are struggling with a concept then, I assure you--others are as well and working in a group to help one another out is very conducive to learning.

What will you do with your degree after graduation? (Future plans?)
 
I plan to pursue Higher Studies to become a Teacher.

What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?
 
In First Year, I took every breadth requirement I could possibly avail from. I pursued French, Psychology, Political Science, Women and Gender Studies, Statistics and Cultural Studies. I got involved with various Campus groups. In the Summer of my First Year, I started pursuing Biology in earnest In my Second Year, I had a hard time finding an equilibrium between the number of Biology and French Courses I needed to take and I struggled with understanding how to balance between extra-curricular and academic requirements. In my Third Year, I have reached an understanding of my capacities and limitations. I am pursuing 4 courses-----2 in French and 2 in Biology ---that have allowed me to actually come to enjoy my time in University and not Stress to unhealthy degrees while still being actively engaged with on-campus events and groups. I hope to continue on this trajectory that allows me to work at my own pace in a helpful manner for the rest of my time at UTSC.


Eric Lentz

Majors: Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Immunology and Disease

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)? 

I chose my program based on my interests and the post-undergrad programs that it could help prepare me for. Sometimes I found it hard to balance these two factors, and I switched between similar programs and into and out of minors a few times throughout my undergraduate years, before settling on the program I graduated with. For example, the double major I graduated with is fairly similar to the specialist program in molecular biology and biotechnology, and I spent a great amount of time debating between the specialist program and the double major I eventually chose. Ultimately, I chose the double major because it allowed me to pursue a wider range of topics and interests of mine (which could be helpful to my path after undergrad), plus it would give me a bit more room to take additional courses not required by my program since a few of the courses for the two majors overlapped with each other. I knew that I wanted to do a program that was relevant to molecular biology and human health, since those subject areas fascinate me and I was considering applying to medical school and other programs for which a biology major would be useful. I developed a surprising interest for chemistry after first year, an interest that was further magnified when I took organic chemistry in my second year. Taking the biochemistry major required me to take just a bit more chemistry than the molecular biology specialist would, allowing me to pursue my interest in chemistry, develop a greater skill (ex: use of chemistry lab equipment) and knowledge set, and would give me access to a second faculty (ie. DPES) and the opportunities that come along with being part of that faculty. I was also considering applying for some type of Master’s of Science degree after graduation and wanted to keep my options open to the possibility of pursuing some area of research either wholly or partially relevant to chemistry (ex: medicinal chemistry). As a precautionary measure, I always considered the pre-requisites for a wide range of professional programs when making my program and course choices (ex: if I applied to med school and didn’t get in, I wanted to have the courses to be to able apply to programs in pharmacy, dentistry, and optometry, for example). For instance, physical chemistry is required for U of T pharmacy (a backup choice of mine), and is also a course that can be applied towards the biochemistry major, which meant that I did not need to take it as an extra elective course, as I would have to with the specialist. Similarly, combining two programs that shared courses allowed me to have more space for elective courses such as bioethics and English that were pre-requisites for optometry and U of T pharmacy, respectively. Compared to some of the programs mentioned above, the required courses needed to apply for most medical schools in Canada are very few and simple, and I knew I would be able to cover all of them by just completing the courses required by my program. I was in a linguistics minor at one point and then in a statistics minor at another point, and although I had completed some of the courses for both minors, especially the statistics minor (ex: I took STAB27 because it would be useful for applying to some Epidemiology MSc programs), I eventually decided not to do either because trying to complete them while completing my major requirements and pre-requisites for various post-undergraduate programs would be too tough, and having a minor on top of my majors wouldn’t provide me with any big benefits.

Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?

This program provided me with an excellent understanding of the academic and practical skills (ex: lab techniques) knowledge base in the fields of chemistry/biochemistry, molecular biology, and human biology. The subject areas covered in the combination of my programs complemented each other very well and allowed me to use my foundational knowledge in subjects such as chemistry to understand other subjects such as microbiology. For example, learning about chemical reactions and organic molecules in a course such as organic chemistry (CHMB41/42) was very useful for courses like biochemistry (BIOC12/C13), which in turn was useful for understanding subject matter covered in courses such as microbiology (BIOC17) and BIOD23 (topic was virology when I took it). Or it was interesting to take genetics (BIOC15), where I learned about the molecular biology of genetics and then later learn more about the chemistry behind our genetic structure in CHMC47. There were many cases where taking two courses from each major at the same time nicely complemented each other, allowing me to use the what I learned from one course to strengthen my understanding in another. For example, I loved being able to use my knowledge of organic chemistry reactions to understand a field of biology such as immunology or even evolution (ex: learning about how the chemical basis behind genetic mutations which are so important in the discussion of evolution). While academic knowledge is important, it is also crucial to know practical skills if you are to better understand a subject area, and especially crucial if you are interested in pursuing research in that subject area, as I was. Both programs provide many opportunities for lab work, as demonstrated in courses such as BIOB12, CHMB41/42, BIOC23, CHMC47, BIOC15 and BIOC17. Lab work can also be a refreshing way of learning things because it often involves collaboration between your peers (which is something that lectures rarely provide), they provide hands-on learning, and they help you to see/do what you learn in class, which always helped me to learn class material. For example, it is very cool & exciting to learn about infrared spectroscopy (IR) in organic chemistry then have the chance to do IR yourself in the lab with molecules you synthesized or to learn about chromatography in several different courses (ex: CHMB41, BIOB10, BIOB12), then finally have the chance to try it yourself in BIOC23. However, lab work/assignments can also be very intense (ex: 4h labs in most chemistry courses after 1st year), and there can be a huge jump from junior level courses to senior level courses, especially with respect to chemistry. For example, in CHMB41/42 the lab assignments were fairly short and there were only a few of them, but in CHMC47, full lab reports including IR, NMR, and chromatography analysis were due for each lab. It is very important to prepare for labs well in advance so that you are able to work efficiently while in the lab and so that you are able to focus on the aspects of the lab that will be important for post-lab work/assignments. Labs will only be rewarding if you properly prepare and organize yourself for them beforehand - otherwise they will be very stressful – and I have experienced both! In terms of lectures, the majority of my required courses had web option, which was very useful to me. However, I would warn against being completely reliant on web option because many students fall behind on watching the lectures and end up needing to watch many hours of lectures the day before an exam. Being in class also gives you the opportunity to ask questions and interact with your classmates. Many biology exams place heavy emphasis on multiple choice questions, which can work to your advantage or disadvantage depending on your learning style. However, as you move into more advanced courses, multiple choice questions become less common (but not obsolete). Textbooks are also not mandatory for most biology courses, but can be a very helpful resource and sometimes Profs take their exam questions directly from the same textbook that students don’t bother to ever glance at.

What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?

  1. Research each course before taking or choosing it There are plenty of resources that allow you to do this, and I’ll start with one of the most important – LOOK AT PREVIOUS COURSE SYLLABI! Both the Biology and DPES (chemistry, environmental science, physics) department post syllabi each year right on their websites, and these syllabi give you the best understanding of course content, course structure, and course workload (ex: number of assignments, weight of each exam). I used previous course syllabi MANY times to help me gage the intensity of a course and whether it would be interesting to me. However, it is important to note that syllabi can change from year to year, especially if your Prof differs from the previous Prof. Nevertheless, topics covered in each course remain fairly constant from year to year (unless it is a 4th year topics course), so consulting the syllabus is a good way to see if you’d be interested in a particular course you don’t have to take (ex: many programs require you to take just a few courses from a long list of courses, so looking at syllabi can help you choose which of these courses to choose). Knowing the workload and subject matter covered in each course will allow you to plan how you will approach that course and organize yourself around it before you start. Syllabi often also list textbooks and other resources the Prof recommends/requires, so you can even start to do some preliminary reading about certain course topics if you’re really motivated or if you’re unsure whether you’ll enjoy the material (hint: you can usually find the textbooks for each course in the course reserves section of the library if you want to do this. I write more about the course reserves section in my next point of advice) In addition to course syllabi, also ask other students who have taken the course for their opinions about the course. If you hear students say a course you need to take is difficult or that the textbook is important, follow their advice and prepare accordingly. However, try and get as many opinions as you can because what one student may find difficult or easy may not be so difficult or easy for you. Never shy away from a course just because one person tells you it is difficult – always use your discretion! Ask yourself whether you NEED to take a particular course or pursue a particular program. Some courses sound extremely interesting but can leave you with a very big workload and take away your time from courses that are more important to you. For example, I developed an interest at the end of my second year in pursuing the applied statistics minor, which led to me needing to cram many of the courses required for the minor into my fourth year. I eventually decided to drop the minor because attempting to complete the minor in my fourth year (when I was also submitting applications to grad/professional schools and being invited to med school interviews) would make things very difficult for me, and while I am interested in statistics, adding a minor in statistics on top of my double major wouldn’t be that useful to the career path I was interested in. Part of what influenced my decision about the statistics minor is that I researched the statistics courses I would need to take in my fourth year, which included emailing the supervisor of the minor and asking how difficult it would be to take all those courses in one semester/year, especially considering that many involved computers and I had never taken computer science.
  2. Take advantage of University resources You pay thousands of dollars each year to be a university student, so it is only right that you take hold of all the resources the university offers to students. Never feel shy about asking a Prof for help with a course or going to a department such as AA&CC for academic or career counselling – you are paying lots of $$$ for these resources. The AA&CC holds many workshops that are not only helpful in contributing to your academic success (ex: study skills workshops) but also workshops that are valuable to your success with work and/or post-undergrad life/options. For example, to prepare for the MMI interviews conducted by many Canadian medical schools, I went to an AA&CC workshop that taught me more about the MMI, which allowed me to participate in a mock MMI held by the AA&CC. The AA&CC is also involved with other initiatives such as the Career Learning Network (CLN), which is a website that posts many jobs, research positions, and other opportunities for students; one-on-one time with an academic or career counsellor; the Extern job shadowing program; and the work-study program, which is an excellent way to earn some money while you study. Although many people find Profs to be intimidating, you should never feel like you cannot approach your Profs with questions, whether those questions be about course content or about choosing a particular program. However, please be wise when doing this as it is not a good look to be asking a question already answered on your syllabus. Profs hold office hours (and are paid to do so) because they want to be asked questions by students, so do not fear visiting your Prof at his or her posted office hours. In fact, visiting Profs at their office hours can be an excellent way to begin building a relationship with your Prof which will be useful if you ever want to ask them for career advice or if you want to conduct research with them. Profs have dedicated their career to the subject they teach so they are happy to see that students are interested in the subject they are so passionate about. Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask Profs appropriate questions about things like courses, programs, or career opportunities. For example, if a particular course you want to take lists a recommended pre-requisite that you haven’t taken, don’t be afraid to email the Prof to ask how important taking that pre-requisite is. If think you are really interested in pursuing a particular field of study after you graduate that your Prof is involved with, don’t be afraid to email your Prof and ask if they can take some time out of their busy schedule to talk about your interest in continuing studies in their field of study. I asked Profs about courses, program choices, and career planning many times and always found them to be pleasant and willing to talk to me. A final resource I’ll highlight is the library’s course reserves section. Located at the very front of the library, the course reserves section contains one or more copies of the textbooks required by each course at UTSC. You are able to take out a copy of any textbook in the course reserves for 3 hours. Textbooks are very expensive, and many are rarely used in biology courses, so course reserves provide a much cheaper alternative to buying textbooks. Also, if you do buy a textbook, they are often extremely heavy, so instead of lugging it back and forth between home and school, you can just use the copy provided by the library. Why not spend some time between classes reviewing the textbook material to see if there is anything important or if there are any questions in the book that might appear on an exam? Top-secret hint: If you take out a 3 h loan course reserve less than 3 h before the library closes, the book won’t be due until the next day because the 3 h time period stops when the library closes and then resumes when it opens the next day (but remember the library can be open up to 24h around exam time). If you need to use the UTSC Writing Centre or English Language Development Centre or the Math and Stats Learning Centre or if you need to attend FSGs or book an appointment with a librarian, never feel hesitate to do so. It is the job of the people who work for these centres and resources to help you, so never feel shy to get their help. If you think they can help you succeed, USE THEM! For example, I am a native English speaker but still went and took the Academic English Health Check test offered by the English Language Development Centre to check if my academic English was at a level that might be required by some of my more reading and writing heavy courses. FSGs (facilitated study groups) also provide an excellent way to review and re-learn material that you may not normally do otherwise.
  3. Follow your interests Follow your interests, both academically and otherwise. With regards to academic interests, if you are interested in taking a course outside your program, go and take it if you are able to. For all you know, it could lead you to change up your program or career interests. However, remember to research that course a bit beforehand as I mention in tip #1 because you don’t want to be stuck taking a very demanding course you took for interest in a semester with very demanding courses your program requires you to take. I always tried to take at least one NON-biology or NON-chemistry course per semester amongst all of my biology and chemistry courses that semester because it is always nice to study something a little different. Not only did it help take my mind off of all of the biology and chemistry, giving me a bit of a break, but it helped me to expand my horizons. For example, after taking GGRB28 as an interest course, I became really interested in global health, which lead to my current interest in international politics. The breadth requirements that you must complete at UTSC are also a great way to pursue or discover your interests outside of your program area, and I would encourage people to not leave all their breadth requirements until their fourth year for this reason. For example, I only took linguistics because it would fulfill the English breadth requirement but I ended up loving it and almost pursuing a minor in it (not to mention that taking introductory linguistics allowed me to take an interesting course in semantics course that fulfilled my history breadth requirement). Secondly, follow your interests outside of the realm of academics. If you are interested in drama but are not a drama student, get involved in the UTSC improv team or audition for a drama show! If you enjoy tutoring, plenty of departments offer tutoring opportunities, some of which are paid! Or visit the gym! Or get involved with a student/departmental council! It is crucial to develop a life beyond academics, not only because many post-undergrad schools look for students who have volunteered or been involved with extra-curricular activities, but because being able to take time to live a life outside of studying to enjoy yourself really helps you to stay motivated and prevent burnout when it comes to your academic life. Don’t be so afraid of falling behind in school that you don’t do anything outside of school but don’t place so much focus on extra-curricular activities that you fall behind in school.

What will you do with your degree after graduation?

I will be starting medical school in September.

What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?

First year focused on the basics of biology, chemistry, and physics. I also took calculus I and II and psychology. While I felt that many topics in these courses were a review of Gr. 12 material, many students did not encounter some of the topics covered in first year in their Gr. 12 courses at least to the extent that they are covered in first year (as indicated by the high failure rate in midterms for these courses), so do not make the error of brushing off first year material because it initially seems very easy. I also used first year as a time to explore the UTSC’s resources, explore different programs, and seek out clubs and other extra-curricular opportunities. In second year, the subjects get more specific – ex: instead of taking first year introductory biology which covered a bit of ecology, evolution, physiology etc., you are required to take full courses in ecology, evolution, and physiology. In my second year I also really started to look at courses I would need to take for post-undergrad programs/schools such as medical school or optometry school etc. and I spent a lot of time planning what courses I would need to take or be interested in taking in 3rd and 4th year. I also thought more about what research and other activities I should pursue in order to be a competitive applicant for post-undergrad programs I wanted to apply for. In third year the courses get much more specific, and your program gives you much more freedom in the courses you can choose (ex: they give you a list of 10 courses and you only need to take any 4 from the list of 10), allowing you to pursue your area of interest and also allowing you to have more control over your schedule and what you would like to learn. I also used third year to explore my research interests because I was interested in so many areas of biology and chemistry and I was seriously considering applying for a MSc in my fourth year. Lastly, I spent time planning out my third and fourth year courses so that my fourth year could be a bit lighter. I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with demanding courses required by my program in my fourth year when I would be applying for different schools and possible travelling out of Toronto for interviews for different schools. By my fourth year, I had already completed almost all of the courses required by my program, allowing me to pursue courses I found interesting while also making sure I didn’t take any very heavy courses that weren’t required (even though I really wanted to take some fancy but demanding chemistry courses) because I knew I would be spending a lot of my fourth year writing applications and possibly having to attend interviews outside of the city for different post-undergrad schools. Many post-undergrad schools place a very heavy emphasis on the courses taken in your final two years, so do not try and make things easy for yourself by taking a bunch of easy A-level courses in your final year because doing so will reflect badly upon you in your application. You will also continue to be involved in different opportunities (ex: research) throughout your fourth year while you take courses and apply for or consider post-undergrad opportunities so you must continue to keep a very fine balance between all three. Many students take summer courses earlier in their undergraduate years, allowing them to take less courses in their fourth year which gives them more time for things like writing applications for post-undergraduate schools. However, although I took some summer courses, I kept my fourth year (and all of my years) full because some programs like U of T medicine give GPA benefits to students (ex: dropping a certain number of your courses with low marks) who took a full course load every year (or in the last two years) in university, but foregoing these GPA benefits to get a better GPA by taking less courses may be a better option for you.