Freshmen are greeted by a 1000+ page book detailing all the courses they could possibly take (and many that they’ve never heard of) in the fall. Contrast this to even the course selection at the largest and most awesome high schools, and many a freshmen sort of freeze up, freak out at narrowing down what they want to do with their life, major, career and beyond!
While I can’t tell you whether to take that Psych 1 (yes the numbers start low here) class or that freshmen seminar, there are a few basic rules you can follow to make your life easier and narrow down your selection.
Course selection for freshmen should be primarily directed toward concentration exploration and workload/difficulty balance.
1) Figure out what you MUST take and PLACE into
Do you have to take Expos 10 or 20? Do you need to take a language class?
Are you being placed into orgo? intermediate econ? intermediate statistics? super smart computer science 51? even smarter math 101?
Figure out where you stand.
Remember that your placement test scores don’t necessary dictate what you HAVE to take. Just because your placement test says you should take the Calculus BC equivalent, doesn’t mean you can’t get out of it if you have your AP exam scores etc. (And apparently so with Expos 10 and economics, and maybe chemistry.)
On the other hand, you have to really really argue your case to skip computer science 50 and the math 20/21/23/25/55 series.
And you will NEVER get out of taking a language class if you don’t meet their standards. (If you are a heritage speaker in Chinese, you can take Bx for a semester, do well on the final, and not have to take a second semester of Chinese to meet your language requirement.)
2) Language classes
Don’t cry if you have to take a language class. The language classes at Harvard are amazing, particularly the introductory classes. Chinese was amazing, and Japanese/Spanish/French are all pretty good from what I hear from my roommates.
They’re small, interactive classes, staffed by brilliant professors and section leaders.
Also, don’t be afraid to start afresh with a new language. This may be your only time to learn Italian!
For those choosing Arabic, Chinese and Japanese, these are serious time commitments. The languages are inherently harder, and you need to dedicate yourself to learning them if you’re going to survive. They’re still fantastic classes, but understand they require more time and attention than an introductory romance language.
3) Regarding the Math 19/20/21/23/25/55 and Applied Math 21 series
Math 55: For the people who want to think about math all day and would love nothing better than to do so. (A math genius friend of mine fell here)
Math 25: For the people who would like to think about math for a large portion of the day but may not have the background/time for 55. (Good friend of mine fell here.)
Math 23: For those who are seriously considering a concentration in math, want to work in the world of proofs, don’t mind not using many numbers, and like study groups. (A lot of my friends fell here.)
Math 21: For those who need math for something else, with more theory than Applied Math 21, but far more numbers than 23, who might not like to work with others, and don’t want to spend too much time doing problem sets. Those who like math when they’re good at math would fall here. (I fell here.)
Applied Math 21: For those interested in solving real problems they’ll be facing, most likely in the engineering world. (Don’t actually know anyone who took this series personally.)
Math 20: For those who are certain they want to be economics concentrators.
Math 19: For those who are looking to kill a premed/life science requirement.
Basically, think about the attitude you have to math. If math is a means to an end, look at the 21 series. If math might be an end, 23. If math is the end! and the answer! then 25, 55.
If you know what you want to do, take 19/20 or AM 21. If you don’t know what you want to do and probably need math for what you might want to do but didn’t do that math camp thing, check out Math 21.
While you might be tempted to “challenge” yourself with a more rigorous theory based course, really examine your reasons. One doesn’t flippantly take Math 23. 23 requires a lot of dedication/time/effort. For some it’s worth it for the intellectual challenge and stimulation. For me, I uh…realized I was a math lover poser.
End of the day, try not to worry until you hit shopping period where you’ll get a better sense of the syllabi/texts/psets.
And it’s always better to keep more of your options open as a freshmen since a lot of people do change majors.
4) Concentrations?! I’m just a freshman!
If you’re a freshman reading this, chances are you sort of, kinda know what you want to study, but not really. This is okay because no one really knows what concentration to pick unless they’ve had a bit of a taste of it in the college setting.
If you seriously have no idea what you want to study, reflect. Then, peruse the course guide. Figure out which departments pique your interest more. More importantly, try to figure out if you’re more math/science, humanities/literature or social sciences.
The great thing about being a freshmen is that if your interests fall in the same general area, it’s really easy to fulfill requirements for a range of departments. For instance, a math class will cover you from Molecular and Cellular Biology to Physics to Economics to duh, Math.
Figure out what a freshman’s schedule generally looks like for a particular major — usually on that department’s website or in the requirements section of the handbook.
Figure out which classes would set you up properly for a number of your interests. (Math seemed like a good choice for me as a maybe economics/chemistry/engineering major.)
Then, make a list of more department specific “exploration” classes, e.g. basic chemistry, life sciences, ec 10, history 10, psych 1 etc. And from this, pick the ones that are the most interesting to you and/or really require you to start picking up classes as a freshman in the fall. (Aka, life sciences 1a is pretty important if you want to consider that career route.)
Make note if the intro. class is offered both semesters. If it’s not, you may want to prioritize it over something that’s offered both semesters.
5) Uhh, that doesn’t help.
If your concentrations are spread ALL over the place, then it’s time to diversify.
For instance, if you’re considering science vs humanities, then you should definitely try to incorporate both. For instance, you might grab a Physics 15a and an English 10, or Ec 10 and Life Science 1a, etc.
It’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to be messy, and you’re going to debate amongst Gov/Hist/Lit/Anthro/Soc/Psych/Ec and LS/PS/Phys/Math/Chem/Eng because by golly, you have to take Expos and a language class.
But, it’s okay. What you’re really trying to determine is what style of learning is for you more so than what exactly you’re trying to learn (if you are this spread out). Do you want to write papers all the time? Work on psets? Be in a lab?
Generally, the humanities are in one clump, the sciences in another, and the social sciences in yet another (with lots of blurry lines in between). And then you have the languages clump.
Once you figure out a “clump” that you like, you’ll have a lot more chances to decide in freshmen spring and more significantly sophomore fall to figure out where in that clump you’d like to belong.
6) That said, strive for a balance
If you can help it, balance your classes according to size. Expos, language classes and freshmen seminars automatically give you a chance to have a smaller class feel with a different style and pace of work. And if you want to fill up the rest of your schedule with other larger intro. classes, go for it.
7) What about cores?
I have always prioritized concentration exploration over core completion. A core is a core is a core, regardless of if you take it in your freshmen year or your senior year. But your concentration is what you’re striving for as a degree seeker.
If you’re clumped into one area, then it’s okay to go kill a core to balance out your schedule in terms of style/size. Aka, if you’re sciences/math, it’s safe to pick a hist/lit core.
If you have no idea what you want to do, then you’re probably better off with focusing on your concentration. It’s fine to take core classes since the lit/hist cores are reflective of the concentrations themselves (though you should double check to see if they can count to your concentration later). Similarly, a lot of introductory classes do count as cores.
So if you take LS 1a and English 10, no matter if you go into the sciences or the humanities, you’ve just killed off a core automatically since English 10 is a lit core and LS 1a is obviously also a science core.
So BREATHE. You’ll be fine. :)
8) Freshmen seminars?
Freshmen seminars are a great way to get to know a famous professor, have a smaller interactive class and not worry about a final.
A few of my friends who did take a seminar really really enjoyed it. The majority called it a “cool experience, but I could have not taken it” Those who didn’t take a seminar, don’t really regret it. (I fall into the last category.)
Seminars in the fall are much more competitive than in the spring. (Fewer freshmen take them in the spring.)
My faculty adviser said, “Taking a freshmen seminar is like getting to know your parents. The novelty wears off.”
So, take that how you will. Look at your learning style, your other courses, which ones you get into and decide from there. Generally, I’d only take a seminar only if you’re really interested in the topic.
9) Don’t freak out
You’ll have your PAF (peer advising fellow), proctors, department people etc. etc. etc. to answer all your questions. There’s a lot of support for freshmen AND you have a slightly longer time to decide your freshmen fall classes than yours truly.
Heck, you can add/drop too if you realize that college science or history is too much.
Use shopping period wisely. A lot of things will come together then.
If you enter as “clumped,” your intro. classes will probably cover a lot of bases. If you enter as “unclumped,” then your diverse set of classes will cover your cores later.
Don’t worry too much about the difference among the life sciences or CPB versus Chem versus Chem and Physics, or whatever they’re calling it these days. These types of narrow decisions are more for first semester sophomores.