Supplement to Information on the New Student Academics Webpages

Overview of the Math/Stat Program for Incoming Students


Placement and Credit

First-Year Seminars

Fall Registration and Lotteries

Should you buy a graphing calculator?


Welcome to Swarthmore! We suspect you are planning to take some math or statistics here; most Swarthmore students do. There are 3 different groups of courses from which a first-year student typically chooses. The best known and most popular, but not necessarily the best for you, is the calculus and linear algebra sequence (Math 15, 25-26, 27-28-28S, 33-34-35). The second group is statistics (Stat 1, 11, 21). The third might be called "the rest of math", courses on basic ideas (Math 3) or on areas not covered in the calculus sequence (Math 29). If you are planning a major that requires or recommends the traditional calculus topics (majors such as physics, chemistry, engineering, economics, and, of course, mathematics) you will probably want to start or continue with the standard calculus sequence, although you may well wish to branch out after a semester. For the rest of you, consider a math/stat course from outside the calculus sequence this Fall - one goal of the first two years at college is to expand your horizons.

Questions about the best mathematics or statistics cores for you can be directed to the Math/Stat Placement Advisor.  You can contact the Math/Stat Placement Advisor by email at or stop by the Math/Stat department office during Orientation Week.


Current semester information on courses can be found on the Registrar's Math & Stat catalog pages. To search available courses visit the online Course Schedule. Any further changes since the online catalog was last updated, including new course offerings, can be found at the Registrar's Course Announcements page.

Placement and credit.

Our policies are thoroughly detailed on the Dean's Office Math/Stat placement page for new students. Here we answer two additional common questions.

  • Must you follow our placement recommendation?

    Try it. If it turns out to be either too hard or too easy, you can switch. Swarthmore students have two weeks in which they can add and drop courses without penalty, after consulting their advisors.

  • Why don't we give credit for your work before Swarthmore (except in the case of AP/IB exams)?

    First, let's make the distinction between placement and credit clear. Placement is the math/stat course we think you should take next. Credit is a listing of a course on your Swarthmore transcript, and it counts as one of the 32 course credits you need for graduation.  We are willing to place you as high as you show us you are ready for. See our page on Advanced Placement beyond Calculus.

    So why don't we give credit for advanced work done before Swarthmore?  We feel your Swarthmore transcript should be a record of what you did during your college years, here or in programs elsewhere approved once you are here. There are members of the Math/Stat Dept who feel we should not give any credits on entrance towards graduation. However, as a compromise, and partly to fit in with what many other departments and colleges do, we will give you up to 2 credits for calculus and 1 for statistics (as explained at the bottom of our department's placement page).

    Please note that if you enter as a first-year student, the same rules apply whether you took your advanced math in secondary school or through a college or university. However, if you took it at a college or university, and have a transcript from that institution, there is a difference. Suppose you were hoping Swarthmore would also give you credit for that course because some outside organization requires college credits (e.g., medical schools require two college credits in math). Then keep that transcript. It probably won't matter to the outside organization that the credit is not a Swarthmore credit. Of course, you should double-check with such outside organizations, or their representatives at Swarthmore (e.g., the pre-med advisor).

First-Year Seminars.

The Math/Stat Department is currently offering only one first-year seminar: Math 28S, honors linear algebra seminar.

What is a math seminar? First, like all seminars, it's small. The first-year seminars are limited to 12 students, whereas regular class sections may be 30 or more. And as with all Swarthmore first-year seminars, part of the goal is to form an informal advising group through which you learn the ways of Swarthmore. But the biggest difference between a math course and a math seminar is in the style of learning. You learn cooperatively by discussing math with your peers, through getting up to the board and explaining your insights and solving problems. Lectures by the professor are limited. Seminars typically meet in a seminar room, around a table with blackboard all around.

To accomplish this style of learning, one needs more class time. So Math 28S meets more hours than Math 28 (the non-seminar version of honors linear algebra) meets. The amount of material covered is the same, so Math 28S is still a 1-credit course, but many students feel they learn it better in a seminar, have more fun, and become friends with their seminar-mates.

But don't take our word for it. Here are some comments from two students who took the linear algebra seminar:

  • The linear algebra seminar is one of the best classes I have ever taken. I learned concepts at a much deeper level than I have in comparable, science/math lecture classes. This was probably because unlike lecture classes, we did not spend time going over material in the book. Instead we spent all the time addressing issues we faced while doing problems and readings. All of that discussion (which we do not get much of during lectures), really helped in solidifying my understanding. I had expected the linear algebra seminar to be more difficult than a lecture, and took it only because it fit into my schedule. It turned out to be an amazingly interesting and challenging, but not overwhelming class.
  • Math 28S was my best and favorite class of the fall semester. Though the time commitment was admittedly large, it was not unreasonable for the material covered, or considering the culture of the class. Every day before class, five or six of us would work problems for about an hour, and attack misunderstandings and difficult problems so that, come seminar, we would feel comfortable presenting. The class was structured such that I always felt comfortable stretching my mathematical and conceptual limits, and was therefore able to lay a much stronger foundation for moving on in math. Socially, suffice it to say that six of the eight people in my housing block for next year were in 28S with me. Eschewing hyperbole, this class is why you are coming to Swarthmore: it is a challenging, supportive, intense, relentless, rewarding, and wickedly fun experience.

Is this seminar just for math majors?

No! First of all, no first-years are math majors yet, because Swarthmore students don't declare a major until the spring of their second year. We want you to keep your options open.  This seminar is for anyone who likes math, is good at it, and wants to try the seminar-style of learning in math. 

Fall registration and lotteries.

At Swarthmore, registration for courses has 2 steps: first you register by computer, and then certain courses are lotteried or adjusted. Note that if you attempt to register for a math course that we did not recommend for you (or if we have not made a recommendation because you did not take one of the required placement tests), the registration program will block your attempt to register for that course

A lottery means that a course has an enrollment limit and, if the number of students who register exceeds the limit, some students will be removed from the course.  In the fall, the math/stat classes that may be lotteried are Stat 1, Stat 11, Stat 21, Math 15-SP, Math 28S, and Math 29.

For most other courses, if a section gets too big, instead of lotterying, we move students to less crowded sections that fit in their schedules, and sometimes we change how many sections we offer and/or when we offer them.  In order to do this, we need to collect some additional information. The procedure is as follows.

  1. On Friday afternoon of Orientation Week, after you have consulted with your advisor, you will participate in the College's regular online registration. If you are thinking of taking a math or stat course, you must select it during this registration process. If you fail to select it during this electronic registration, we cannot guarantee you a slot.
  2. By Saturday morning at 9am, enrollments will be posted on mySwarthmore. You must check this information because we may have lotteried you out of a course or moved you to another section, perhaps a newly-created section.
  3. If you are satisfied with your math enrollment (and all your other registrations), you are done with registration. If you are not satisfied, come to the in-person registration at 11am on Saturday.

Should you buy a graphing calculator?

No course in our Department requires a graphing or symbolic calculator. Our courses typically use computers for useful graphics or if there are tedious calculations. Still, calculators are welcome by many Swarthmore math/stat professors, other departments may make heavier use of them, and many Swarthmore math/stat students use them. So if you already have one, bring it, but don't buy one to take a Swarthmore math/stat course.