Skip to main content

Degree Requirements


This page uses lots of text, and no pictures. Please read the page carefully. Edit suggestions are welcome.


The catalog Degree Requirements (chapter 9)
The catalog Program for the first and second years (chapter 7.2)
Graduation Policies from the Registrar
Graduation Year Changes
Remote Degree Finisher
December Finisher

Guide to the Degree Requirements:

32 Credits Requirement
Distribution Requirement
The Writing Course Requirement
The PE Requirement
The Language Requirement
The NSEP Requirement
The 20-Credit Rule
The Major Requirement
Average Grade of C requirement
The Senior Year Rule & Four Semester Rule
Paid all outstanding bills and returned books & equipment
Exemptions for Transfer Students

32 Credits Requirement

Registrar's Guide to the 32 Credits Requirement

  • The Rule: see the Degree Requirements in chapter 9 of the catalog.
  • The semester course credit is the unit of credit at Swarthmore. One semester course credit is normally equivalent to 4 semester hours elsewhere. Upper-class seminars are usually given for 2 semester course credits. A few courses are offered for 0.5 credit.
  • The Registrar recommends:

    Usually, take four (4) credits per semester for eight (8) semesters
  • What counts?
  • Read your transcript. All degree-applicable credits count, including credit for work done elsewhere (AP credit, credit for work done elsewhere) as listed on the Swarthmore transcript. Courses taken here that are not excluded (this is rare) from counting toward the degree, count according to their credit amounts, which total in the earned credits line of the transcript. Excluded credits are flagged with an E (for excluded) off to the right of the course credit, and excluded credits do not count as earned credits in the earned credit summaries.  Add up the earned credit amounts to get your total earned credits.

Distribution Requirement

Registrar's Guide to the Divisional Distribution Requirement, the "3 in 3" rule

  • The Rule: see Educational Program chapter section 7.2 of the catalog.
  • While the Distribution Requirement technically includes the Writing Requirement (see below), the NSEP requirement (see below) and the 20 credit rule (see below), most of the time when we talk about Distribution we mean what I call the "3 in 3" rule.
  • The "3-in-3" Rule:

    Complete 3 full-credit courses in each of the 3 divisions...

    from at least two different subjects in each division...

    and at least two of the three in each division have to be taken on the campus at Swarthmore.
  • The Registrar recommends:
    Take at least two courses per semester toward fulfilling the 3-in-3 rule, until it is done.
    Take courses in different Divisions each semester (until done with a division).
  • Keep in mind...

    Writing Courses and NSEPs also count for distribution

    If you are expecting AP (or other non-Swarthmore) credit, 
    • AP credit is limited to certain conditions listed in the AP and IB credit Guide
    • Eligible AP credit must be of 1.0 credit awards (half credit does not count toward distribution)
    • AP credit can count for the "different department" part of the distribution requirement
    • for AP (or transfer credit) only one credit per division counts towards the 3-in-3 rule (the other two credits must be done at Swarthmore)
  • 3-in-3 rule courses need be at least 1.0 credit and specified as counting toward a division in the Course Schedule. For purposes of the distribution requirements, the three divisions of the College are as follows:
    • Arts & Humanities (HU): art (art history and art), classics (literature), English literature, film and media studies, Greek, Latin, modern languages and literatures, music and dance, philosophy, religion, and theater.
    • Natural sciences and engineering (NS also sometimes NSE): biology, chemistry and biochemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics and statistics, physics and astronomy, and psychology courses that qualify for the natural sciences and engineering practicum.
    • Social sciences (SS): classics (ancient history), economics, education, history, linguistics, political science, psychology (other than natural sciences and engineering practicum courses), and sociology and anthropology.
  • Note: Half-credit courses do not count toward the 3-in-3 rule, Non-divisional interdisciplinary courses do not count toward the 3-in-3 rule, but 1.5 credit Language courses do count toward Arts & Humanities distribution
  • For the "at Swarthmore" part of the requirement (two in each division), courses must be taught on the campus at Swarthmore.  "At Swarthmore" excludes Trico, Penn, transfer credit and AP/IB credit. Those can be the third credit, but none of those count for the "at Swarthmore" part of the requirement.
  • What is a "non-distribution" course?

    Courses without approval to count in a division (Arts & Humanities, Natural Science and Engineering, or Social Sciences), or courses of less than 1.0 credit are "non-distribution" courses.

    Interdisciplinary Courses without distribution status

    Many courses coded as part of an inter-disciplinary program are non-distribution.  This is by design since many inter-disciplinary programs intentionally span more than one division.

    Non-distribution courses can count toward other requirements according to the rules of the requirements.  They might count toward a minor. They all count either inside or outside for the 20-credit rule, and they all count toward the 32 credit requirement.

Writing Course Requirement

Registrar's Guide to the Writing Course Requirement

  • Read the catalog rule in chapter 7.2:
  • The Writing Requirement has two parts:

    a) Take Writing courses from 2 divisions (of the 3 divisions)...

    b) Take 3 designated Writing courses
  • Look for the label!

    Designated Writing Courses are labeled
    • In the Course Schedule the label "W" is the last thing in the course title.
    • In the Course Catalog the label "Writing Course" follows the course description
    • The other way to know is to look on the approved list.
  • Other Cautions:

    To count toward the requirement, Writing Courses can't all be in the same division

    Two must be in identified different divisions. Look in the Course Schedule for the distribution (DIST) of the course, which will indicate a division for the course along with the W if the course is in a division, such as HUW, NSW, or SSW.

    Non-divisional: Some Writing Courses (such as some inter-disciplinary program courses) don't reside in a division, and these can be your "third" Writing course but only if your other two Writing Courses are designated in different divisions (HUW, NSW, or SSW). Non-divisional Writing Courses do not list a DIST division, and the W will be by itself.
  • Writing courses have to taken on the campus at Swarthmore -- TriCo, study abroad, transfer courses and AP credit are not eligible to fulfill the requirement.
  • The Registrar recommends:
    Try to finish the requirement in the first 3 semesters
  • Here's why...

    The Writing Course designation means the course includes explicit attention to teaching writing -- not just doing it

    Most designated Writing Courses are introductory in nature and are appropriate for first-year or second year students

    Many designated Writing Courses are First-year seminars, and those are only open to first-year students

    After sophomore year, the attractiveness of other course options can make it challenging to schedule designated Writing courses

    Most upper level courses with a lot of writing are NOT designated Writing Courses because the courses focus on content without explicit attention to teaching writing

    The PE Requirement

    Registrar's Guide to the PE Requirement

    • The catalog chapter

      Short version: Swim test (or swim class) plus 4 PE units

      Note that the PE requirement should be done by the end of the sophomore year
    • The Registrar recommends:
      Complete at least 1 PE unit per semester until the requirement is done
      For Swimming either pass the swim test, OR complete a Swarthmore swimming class (the swim class earns a PE unit and fulfills the Swimming requirement at the same time)
    • PE units are only available from one of these four ways:

      1) PE classes offered by the PE department or

      2) PE Dance classes offered by the Dance department or

      3) Varsity sports or

      4) Student Activity Groups and Clubs approved by the PE department for PE units.
      • There is a limit of 2 units of club sports or SAGs any student can apply to the PE requirement of 4 units
      • Seniors are not allowed to take club sports or SAGs toward fulfillment of the PE requirement
      • See more on the Physical Education pages
    • Note that working out on your own does NOT earn PE units.

    The Language Requirement

    Registrar's Guide to the Language Requirement

    1. The catalog rule -- see #4

      Students may satisfy the Foreign Language Requirement in any of the following three ways:

    • A. successfully completing 3 years of a single foreign language during grades 9 - 12 (work completed before grade 9 cannot be counted, regardless of the course level);

    • B. successfully completing the final term of a college-level, year-long, introductory foreign language course or a semester-long intermediate or advanced foreign language course; or,
    • C. for students who have learned English as a foreign language; demonstrate proficiency in another language.


    • Fulfill this requirement before the junior year.  Check your mySwarthmore Degree Audit to see your status.
    • If you think you have fulfilled the requirement in high school via part (A), contact the registrar's office to see if our records confirm your understanding. Keep in mind that work completed before grade 9 cannot be counted.
    • If you believe you have fulfilled the requirement via part (C): “learned English as a foreign language while remaining demonstrably proficient in another" contact the appropriate department below specifying: 
        • What language you are requesting language requirement fulfillment in,
        • What is your self-estimate of your proficiency, and
        • Where you acquired that proficiency.
    • This information will be reviewed by the appropriate department chair and the Registrar.

      • For languages taught by the Modern Languages Departme­­nt and the Spanish Department:
      • Japanese, Chinese, German and Russian - contact Bethanne Seufert
      • Arabic, French and Spanish - contact Jessica Bawgus
      • For Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit - contact the Classics department
      • American Sign Language - contact Linguistics
      • For other languages please contact the Registrar

    If you are satisfying foreign language requirement with transfer coursework: Successful completion of transferable courses from other higher education institutions may also be considered. Course descriptions and syllabi may be required to make a determination. 

    If you know you are not finished with the requirement, you can fulfill it by successful completion of the second half of a year-long, college-level, introductory language course, or a higher-level course -- through part (b) of the requirement.

    • Plan your language courses during your first semester at Swarthmore to avoid scheduling conflicts with other courses required for your major/minors at a later stage. Language classes can help you structure and maintain a daily study routine, which can be very helpful in your first year. They can also help you anchor your place at Swarthmore by building close relationships with your classmates.
    • Not summer school: You can take language courses here at Swarthmore, and TriCo/Penn for languages not offered at Swarthmore, or study abroad if approved, but not over summer school, because the requirement calls for "yearlong" courses.
    • Placement tests do not serve as proof of achievement for the purpose of fulfilling the language requirement. These tests are only intended to assist instructors in placing students in the appropriate language courses at Swarthmore.

    The NSEP science lab requirement

    Registrar's Guide to the Natural Science and Engineering Practicum (NSEP) graduation requirement

    • The catalog rule
    • The Registrar recommends:
      Consider taking an intro science NSEP in your first year
    • NSEPs are labeled in the Schedule and Catalog
    • NSEPs count toward NS distribution as well as NSEP
    • Explore the subject as a prospective major

    The 20 credit Requirement

    Registrar's Guide to the Twenty course-credit rule

    • The Rule: see the Educational Program chapter of the catalog.
    • The Registrar recommends:
      For the first two years take courses in a variety of subjects
    • You will need by graduation 20 credits in subjects different from your major

      For regular (non-special) majors, sum the credits with four-letter subject codes which are different from your major's four-letter code

      There are different rules for special majors

      The 20 credits can come from all kinds of degree-applicable credit, and it all counts without limits based on type of credit

      AP credit counts (depending on subject code)

      Transfer credit counts (depending on subject code)

      Half-credit courses count (depending on subject code)

      OCST (Off-Campus Study) credit, as opposed to department or program credit, does not automatically count either inside the major or outside the major, but it can count outside the major if the registrar manually approves it to be outside the major, which the registrar can check for you if you have not fulfilled the 20 course rule otherwise. The determination is based on course content.
    • For double majors, the 20 course credit rule is calculated as if you had only one major

      You only have to complete the rule once, from the perspective of either one of your majors (not both)

      CAUTION: If you drop one of your double majors, be careful to meet the 20 credit rule outside the major you keep.

    At least one Major is Required

    Registrar's Guide to the Major Requirement

    Average Grade of C Requirement

    Registrar's Guide to the Average Grade of C Requirement for Swarthmore letter graded courses

    • The Rule: see the Degree Requirements in chapter 9 of the catalog.
    • The Registrar recommends:

      Do the best you can in all your courses, always trying to get a C or better grade in all your Swarthmore letter-graded courses
    • How to calculate your GPA

    • For the purposes of achieving the C average graduation requirement, a student with more than 32 credits may use the Swarthmore credits within the highest graded 32 credits (including credits for work done elsewhere, even though grades for work done elsewhere do not count in the Swarthmore grade average).

    The Senior Year Rule and Four Semester Requirement

    Registrar's Guide to the Senior Year and Four Semester Requirement

    • The Rule: see the Degree Requirements in chapter 9 of the catalog.
    • The Registrar recommends
      Either do the familiar eight semester path, or...

    • For more on the senior year, read: the Senior Year rule

    • Regarding the four semester rule, note that what is counted is semesters of full-time enrollment on the campus at Swarthmore

      • Therefore, junior transfers normally cannot study abroad, but after the four semesters at Swarthmore, junior transfers can finish their degrees remotely following the senior year rules

    Paid all outstanding bills and returned books & equipment

    Registrar's Guide to the Paid outstanding bills Requirement

    Exemptions for Transfer Students

    Students transferring to Swarthmore can utilize their transfer courses or AP credits as specifically approved by the registrar toward the graduation requirements, including the distribution 3-in-3 requirement and the NSEP requirement.

    Exemptions for transfer students - the Writing Course and the "at Swarthmore" requirements: Transfer students who enter Swarthmore with 8 credits of college work are exempted from one of the three required writing courses and the requirement that writing courses include work in two divisions, and have the credits-at-Swarthmore requirement reduced from 2 in each division to 1 in each division. ​ Transfer students who enter Swarthmore with, at most, four semesters remaining to complete their degree are exempted from two of the three required writing courses and are exempted from the requirement that in each division 2 credits be taken at Swarthmore.

    Exemptions for transfer students - the PE requirement: Transfer students can either apply transfer PE units toward the 4-unit physical education requirement or opt for a reduction in the PE requirement based on the student’s transfer status, but transfer students cannot both transfer PE units and receive a reduction in the requirement. The optional reduction in PE units depends on the transfer class of the student. Transfer students who enter Swarthmore as sophomores can opt to complete 3 units of physical education and pass a survival swim test (a reduction of 1 PE unit). Transfer students who enter Swarthmore as juniors can opt to complete 2 units of physical education and pass a survival swim test (a reduction of 2 PE units).

    More information is available on the Registrar's Transfer Students webpage.