Can you imagine sitting in a college class you did not know you signed up for? In case you wish to avoid such blunders, one of the key aspects to understand when exploring colleges is the type of curriculum you would be studying right from the first day of your college journey. Remember that understanding what the curriculum at a specific university offers needs to be the priority in your college search process.
So, the big question is: What does a college curriculum comprise? Let’s look at some of the aspects you need to know –
Mandatory Curriculum Requirements
Distribution Requirements: These include taking courses in areas such as Natural Sciences, Historical Studies, Ethics and Values, Literature, and Fine Arts (mentioned as Northwestern University offers). While Distribution Requirements are compulsory, students can still pick courses within these broader areas.
Core Curriculum (General): Some colleges offer a Core Curriculum that all students are required to take. Sometimes the Core courses can make up for 50% of your undergraduate curriculum. For instance, this applies to Columbia University’s Courses, where courses like ‘Frontiers of Science’ and ‘Literary Humanities’ are offered, and all students are expected to complete the Core Requirement (fun fact: the Engineering students’ curriculum requirements include a third of the Core). While the Core curriculum is mandatory, students are allowed to choose from various core courses that align with their interests and passions.
The opposite of a Core Curriculum is the Open Curriculum (such as the one at Brown), where you get a lot more freedom (sometimes complete freedom) to design an academic path of your own.
Major-Specific Core: Many colleges and universities require that students pursuing a certain major are exposed to the same theoretical foundation, regardless of their concentration/track/area of specialization, which is why they offer a major-specific core curriculum. You can expect this for most business majors.
Capstone Project/Culminating Experience
A major-specific capstone project is usually undertaken in the senior year, where students work on a single project for a semester or two. The capstone project provides students with the practical experience of solving a real-world problem before they step into the professional world or pursue their graduate studies. In many cases, this is a group-based project that could be a research apprenticeship, simulations for real-world problem solving, and so on. Overall, students develop skills like independent and critical thinking, intercultural thinking, information literacy, collaboration, and research, which help prepare them for professional careers and/or graduate school.
These courses are generally introduced without a Core Curriculum to ensure that the students are thinking critically and able to form connections between various disciplines. These could be courses on cultural awareness, morals, ethics, identity studies – basically anything that will make you think deeply and deliberately.
Yes, you read that right. Physical Education is a mandatory requirement at some colleges, without which you may not be able to graduate. (Pssst. Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, and MIT have been proud owners of a swimming test graduation requirement)
Non-Mandatory Curriculum Requirements
By non-mandatory requirements, I mean the kind of curriculum aspects you get to choose from.
While you obviously know that you can choose your major (mostly in your sophomore year), you also get to choose the track/concentration. For instance, if you wish to pursue a business major, you can select from various concentrations such as entrepreneurship, business analytics, leadership, real estate, and environmental sustainability at Babson College.
Elective courses: Electives are the courses that go beyond all of the requirements for your major and the ones that you can pick from purely for joy or satiate your intellectual inquiry. What do you get in return? Credits!
Most students tend to go a bit crazy selecting electives as options could range from art and music to home economics, such as sewing/cooking. Electives could be a great way to reduce the academic stresses from your mandatory courseload, so make the most and remember to have fun.
Double Major: Yes, double majoring is a choice and many students opt for it. Colleges like the University of Southern California have more students taking up double majors than what makes for the usual norm. Sometimes, this is because colleges want students to challenge themselves academically by opting for two majors.
In a nutshell, prioritize understanding the kind of curriculum offered by all colleges you will apply to. This will also help you immensely when working through supplemental essays. We wish you luck with your college exploration and finalization journey!