A new, free online course produced by the University of Washington is designed for students who are applying -- or have been admitted -- to any college in the U.S. Their parents could get a lot out of it, too.

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University of Washington lecturer Matt McGarrity has taught more than a half-million people the basics of good public speaking with his free class, Introduction to Public Speaking. Now, he’s using some of those same skills and tools to teach students how to make the most of their college years.

The course, “U101: Understanding College and College Life,” is free through the online learning platform Coursera, which has a worldwide reach. It describes how colleges and universities operate, describes what faculty are looking for in college-level academic work, lists effective study strategies and suggests ways to select a major, among other topics.

The course stems from work McGarrity and the UW’s First Year Programs did to create an online orientation class specifically for first-year students at the UW.  That course is required for entering freshmen and transfer students, and covers UW-specific information. This year, more than 8,000 UW students took the course.

While he was working on it, McGarrity realized that some of the interviews and topics covered applied to any American university, and they’d be helpful for high-school students who are applying — or have been admitted — to any college.

Their parents could benefit, too, McGarrity says — regardless of whether they went to college themselves. That’s because the higher-education landscape has changed in the 20 to 30 years since the parents of college-age kids went to school.

McGarrity was inspired by what he describes as widespread misperceptions about higher education at research universities. For example, he said, many believe that schools like the UW mostly offer lecture-style classes in halls that seat hundreds of people. And they believe the research opportunities aren’t the same as at a small liberal arts college.

But a research school offers students “an embarrassment of riches” for students who know how to make the most of it. “It’s a buffet, but students have to do their own heavy lifting,” he said.

McGarrity said students often don’t figure out until their junior or senior year that they need to reach out to professors, seek out opportunities for research and do the kind of work that allows them to make the most of their degree.

He’s hoping the Coursera course, which takes about four to five hours to complete, will help.