Choosing Courses [Part I]

 Interest vs. Requirements

Your interests and your curiosity about disciplines that have not previously been available for study in high school should be your strongest guide to choosing potential courses.  That does not mean you should ignore the College's requirements. Rather, you should make your strong choices with knowledge of the requirements that are relevant to your first year, and search for intersections and balance.

For example, if you list the disciplines and courses that most excite you, that most appeal to your interests, you may find that some of your choices satisfy division distribution requirements, or include a writing intensive course, or satisfy the Natural Science and Engineering Practicum (NSEP) requirement, or move you closer to satisfying the foreign language requirement (if you have not yet done so). You may find that satisfying a physical education requirement opens a whole new world of physical activity and intellectual interest that you did not know existed.

Knowledge vs. Thinking

Most of the courses at Swarthmore College are much more about thinking and learning than about gaining discrete knowledge. Liberal arts and discipline-based study will teach you to ask and refine questions, to frame and perform and analyze, and to construct arguments and rhetorical approaches that are unique to each discipline and sub-discipline. Liberal arts courses and professors are primarily focused on providing you with experiences that teach you how to think so that you can decide what to think.

In choosing courses, pay special attention to what you like to think about and how you like to think. What questions excite you? How do you like to consider evidence? What do you know and not know about constructing arguments? Use your knowledge of yourself as you read course descriptions, learn from peer and official advisers, and work your way to course selections.


As you develop a list of possible courses (hopefully more that you want to take than is possible) listen to and weigh the advice of more knowledgeable peers, professors, and advising staff. You might find yourself yearning to take an upper level course that looks so perfect for you. But, if you are hearing advice about prerequisites or readiness, please listen. Give yourself time to build the necessary skills and knowledge that will ensure success when you finally take that course.

It is true that many Swarthmore graduates remember fondly that the course they took on advice, or a whim, or that they had low expectations for, ended up being their favorite course at Swarthmore. We hope that you, too, will find a course or a professor who changes your life's trajectory.

A Few Special Points

Balance your interests and the College's requirements with consideration of the following:

  • make sure that you will satisfy the physical education requirement by the end of your sophomore year;
  • if you are an engineer, you will have greater restrictions than those interested in other disciplines; please follow the advice the department gives you about your program;
  • if you are nervous about math and science and think that satisfying the Natural Science and Engineering Practicum or the distribution requirement in this division might be an issue for you, consider taking a math or science course in your first semester, and using department clinics, peer tutors, and professor's office hours;
  • if you have little or no experience with a foreign language, it is usually wise to begin a language as soon as possible;
  • if you would like to focus on improving your writing, consider taking English 1F or another writing-intensive course right away--Swarthmore is indeed a writing-intensive place, even in the sciences, so every student who has focused on improving his or her writing reaps long-lasting benefits.  First Year Seminars that focus on writing are often good places to develop as writers because they are small.
  • students are encouraged to take a first-year seminar during the fall or spring of their first year. First-year seminars are offered across the curriculum and are designed to introduce students to a field of study and to engage them in learning skills that will support them throughout their college experience. Each first-year seminar is limited to 12 first-year students. Many (but not all) first-year seminars count as the prerequisite to further work in the department in which they are offered.