Let’s get intense

I’m a little different from most of my classmates. I’m a transfer student from another seminary. I withdrew from my first school mid-semester, which meant that I arrived at my new school short by a whole semester of credits.

If I wanted to get back on track and graduate on time, I had to overload on credits for all my remaining years of school. Not ideal, but it was my own doing. How was I going to catch up?

To make up for lost time, I signed up for five classes a semester, which was not a great fit with my other goal: to pay my own way through seminary as much as possible by working. As my time at seminary progressed, I found that a more doable way to gain ground was taking intensive classes.

What does an intensive entail? These courses can be available at several different points throughout an academic year (depending on your school). Most frequently, they are classes offered in a condensed form during the summer or over a long winter break in January (known as “J-term”). They can also occasionally take the form of shortened classes during the fall or spring that only take up half a semester, though this is less common, in my experience.

These types of classes are exactly what they sound like: they involve longer class times, more reading, and more work in a shortened amount of time. Taking an intensive can be a great way to utilize free time in the year that normally can’t be used to move you forward in your degree program.

The obvious downside to intensives is that they are, obviously, intense. They require a lot of focus and effort in a relatively small amount of time. I found that I had to put my work schedule on hold for a few weeks when I took two intensive classes on top of each other over J-term 2014.

I had one class in the morning and one in the afternoon (not recommended!) and just didn’t have time for anything else. That was the choice I made that I probably wouldn’t repeat.

Depending on your school, intensives can involve travel. Studying abroad for an entire semester or year is often an option for theology students. It depends on where you study and what degree you are earning. Most theology students I’ve known find it’s just not possible to go away for so long. Intensives make learning in other countries or states more accessible because you’re only gone for a few weeks.

I’ve never taken a travel seminar because of the expense (our school’s seminars cost a few thousand dollars on top of standard tuition). I also didn’t want to leave my husband alone for two to three weeks. That’s my preference. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t amazing opportunities to learn and bond with your classmates and professors.

Intensive classes afford a professor an opportunity to try something creative that he or she may not have a chance to do in a full-length course. When I took an intensive on domestic violence, we made a daylong trip up to the Cook County (Chicago-area) courthouse to see what it looks like when an accused abuser faces prosecution. If we were juggling other classes and responsibilities, we might not have been able to carve out the time to make the journey up there.

I have experienced both the benefits and drawbacks of intensives. Besides the sheer amount of stamina they take, they also involve absorbing a lot of information on one topic very quickly. My first seminary class ever was a summer intensive where we learned biblical Greek. Over the course of six weeks, we lived that language.

The problem with learning hard skills quickly is that you have to use those skills consistently, or you won’t retain them. It’s like cramming for a test. Learning a language properly takes more than six weeks (for me, anyway). When the time came to learn biblical Hebrew later in the year, I opted to take it over a full semester instead of during J-term. That was a case where intensives weren’t the right choice for me.

If your school offers intensives, consider the kind of class that would be a good fit for that time span. You might love it. If you’re looking for flexibility, a new experience, or just need to earn some credits quickly, give intensives a shot. With the right class and instructor, they can be fun, educational, and convenient.