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Planning Your Program for the Fall

Academic Advising and the Residential College

Residential college deans and directors of studies provide guidance and support for students throughout their undergraduate careers. They can help you navigate the curriculum, change a course, find a tutor, get an extension, choose a major, and point you in the right direction to get any and all of your questions about life at Princeton answered.

During freshman and sophomore years, all students are advised by the deans, directors of studies, and peer advisers in the residential colleges. All students also receive regular academic guidance from faculty academic advisers. As students select a field of concentration, they develop advising relationships with the relevant departmental representatives and faculty advisers in the areas of their independent work. A.B. students normally select a major in the spring term of their sophomore year. B.S.E students normally select a field of study within engineering in the spring term of their freshman year.

When you first arrive at Princeton, however, your principal concern will be selecting your courses for the fall term.

Selecting Courses

Choosing your courses for the first time can be an intimidating experience. This summer, we will ask you to start considering the listings in Course Offerings, and you will no doubt come across 10 or 15 courses that pique your interest. Narrowing that list to four courses is not an easy task, but you do not need to do it alone. During orientation in September, you will have an individual appointment with your academic adviser to discuss your plans for the fall before you register online for classes. You will also have a chance to talk with peer academic advisers.

Your academic adviser is a faculty member who understands the curriculum at Princeton and will help you navigate your freshman academic choices. If you are a B.S.E. candidate, the associate dean for undergraduate affairs in the engineering school selects a member of the engineering school’s faculty to be your academic adviser. Your particular interests within the engineering school will be considered in assigning an adviser, but all the engineering advisers are fully familiar with University and B.S.E. requirements. If you are an A.B. candidate, your director of studies selects your academic adviser from among the wide range of faculty members affiliated with the college. In some cases, your adviser may represent a field that is not especially close to the subject in which you are most interested, but you can be assured that he or she is aware of both University requirements and significant educational issues. Moreover, if your adviser does not know the answer to one of your questions, he or she will know where to find it.

When you meet with your academic adviser, you may discover that he or she suggests a particular level or “placement” for certain courses. These placement decisions, which are especially common in foreign languages, mathematics, and the sciences, are made on the basis of test scores and your high school preparation. Faculty members from the relevant departments review your records and make a best estimate at the level at which you are best prepared and will feel challenged; your adviser will also talk with you about how these courses might fit into your overall program.

Having realistic expectations about your faculty adviser will help you get the most from your relationship with him or her. You cannot expect a faculty member to be able (or willing) to rate every course in the curriculum on the qualities of the lecturer, the appeal of the assigned readings, or the difficulty of the exams. Instead, you should expect your adviser to talk with you about your short-term and long-term academic goals, and to help you plan not only this semester’s courses, but also a strategy for taking the greatest possible advantage of your undergraduate education. And because your adviser has information about your high school record and test scores, he or she is best qualified to help you select courses at the right level — courses that will challenge but not overwhelm you.

Before you meet with your academic adviser to select your courses, it is important to review Course Offerings thoroughly, to think about your goals, and to complete the necessary advising forms in advance of your meeting. This will allow you to make the most of the appointment with your adviser.

Peer academic advisers are another important part of the college advising community. Peer advisers offer their perspectives on a full range of issues: course selection, study strategies and resources, choosing an academic concentration, and adapting to the academic demands of Princeton. You will meet with your peer adviser during orientation, and he or she will also be a resource throughout freshman year. We recognize the importance of seeking the advice of other students, especially from the peer advisers, who have had some training in advising and who are sensitive to the subtle nuances involved in good advising. You should remember, however, that every student you consult will have a unique point of view and will advise you from a particular (sometimes peculiar) frame of reference. For example, an upperclass student may discourage you from taking a certain math class because it is too difficult, but you may find this assessment inaccurate if your own high school background in math is very strong. Conversely, an upperclass student who successfully took a notoriously rigorous course as a freshman might urge you too to give the course a try, not realizing that your background in that area is not as strong as it could be. While your peer academic adviser and your residential college adviser (RCA) are good people with whom to discuss course selections in an informal way, even they may not be familiar with all the factors necessary for making the best decision.

You should also be sure to consult the registrar’s Course Offerings website for the most complete, current, and authoritative course information.

As you start to plan a semester’s program, be sure to look at the kinds of assignments and amount of work demanded by a particular set of courses. Balance and variety should be the goal. Although University requirements (described below) compel you, to a certain extent, to vary your schedule and to explore a number of areas, you should also consider your attitude toward repetitive or similar intellectual exercises. For example, if all your courses required difficult textbook reading, weekly problem sets and quizzes, and a fair amount of memorization, after a month or two you might find yourself mentally fatigued and desperate for new and different ways to expend your cerebral energy. You might then wish that you had signed up for that literature course you had considered earlier. The thought of reading some novels and writing expository essays might seem appealing.

You may be unfamiliar with some disciplines, like anthropology or philosophy, and they may seem strange and perhaps daunting; you will already have encountered others, like mathematics or history, and you may wish to continue studying them during your first term at Princeton. In general, when contemplating your schedule, it is advisable to balance the new with the old; required courses with elective courses; and preprofessional concerns with the ideals of a liberal education. Similarly, electing four extremely challenging courses is as inadvisable as electing four extremely easy ones. Explore the curriculum with this sense of balance, and you will be able to take full advantage of the opportunities available to you at Princeton.

It’s not unusual for students to have second thoughts about one or two of the courses they have elected. If it happens to you, don’t panic. You can always go back to your academic adviser, dean, or director of studies to see about changing your program.

During the first two weeks of classes you can drop and add courses without incurring an administrative fee. After the second week, you may drop a course but will be charged $45 for each change. You should note that a course may be added after the second week of classes only in exceptional circumstances, with the permission of your dean or director of studies, and with written confirmation from the instructor of the course you wish to add noting that you have been attending the course and doing the required work since the beginning of the term.

University Requirements

Princeton’s curricular requirements are the result of the faculty’s intention to expose undergraduates to a liberal education that balances specialized knowledge in a field of concentration with broad areas of knowledge and important kinds of critical thinking. The various approaches and fields included in the requirements will acquaint you with significant intellectual issues and will show you how to view problems and formulate solutions in new ways.

While the requirements for the A.B. and B.S.E. degrees are different, both are easily fulfilled within the overall degree program.

Writing Requirement

The Writing Seminars give Princeton freshmen an early opportunity to belong to a lively academic community in which members investigate a shared topic and discuss their writing together, with the aim of clarifying and deepening their thinking. Focused instruction on the writing process and the key elements of academic writing enriches and guides the Writing Seminar experience. You’ll learn how to frame compelling questions, position your argument within a genuine academic debate, substantiate and organize claims, purposefully integrate a wide variety of sources, and revise for greater cogency and clarity. As you work on completing four major assignments, including a 10–12 page research essay, you’ll submit drafts for review, and participate in conferences with your instructor, as well as draft workshops in class. Through an extensive collaboration with the University library, you’ll also learn to use databases to locate and evaluate sources. Writing Seminars are interdisciplinary in nature to emphasize transferable reading, writing, and research skills.

The Writing Seminar is required of all freshmen. In late July, you’ll be assigned to a term, fall or spring, in which to take the course. You’ll then have an opportunity to request topics based on your interests.

Foreign Language Requirement

When you become proficient in a foreign language, you acquire more than a communication skill; you become literate in another culture and gain another perspective on the world. All candidates for the A.B. degree at Princeton must demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language before graduation.

Some of our undergraduates satisfy the foreign language requirement by demonstrating proficiency when they enter the University. On the basis of your SAT Subject Test score (for example, 760 for tests in German, French, Italian, Latin, Modern Hebrew, or Spanish), your advanced placement score of 5, or the result of a placement test given by an academic department at Princeton, you may be judged to have attained the degree of proficiency in a foreign language required by individual departments and thus to have satisfied the foreign language requirement.

In order to fulfill the language requirement through coursework, we expect successful completion of courses normally numbered through 107/108. When a student begins a language at Princeton, three or four terms of study will usually be necessary. If you would like to study a new language at Princeton, you may simply register for the first course in the language sequence (normally 101). If you wish to continue studying a language that you have previously studied in high school, we will need information to place you appropriately. The most accurate way for us to determine your appropriate placement in a language sequence is through a departmental placement test. The placement test does not become part of your record here — it is simply a diagnostic tool to help the department place you in the appropriate course. Placement tests in most languages will be available online during the summer before you matriculate; others will be administered during orientation. Your academic adviser will have the results of your placement test by the time you meet to discuss course selection.

Unless you can demonstrate proficiency before matriculation, you should plan on including language study in your first semester schedule because students are ordinarily expected to have fulfilled the requirement by the end of junior year. Language courses at Princeton move quickly and require dedicated and sustained study. You must stay on top of the material from the outset, especially if you are beginning a new language. You cannot receive course credit for the first term of a beginning language course unless you successfully complete the second term.

Distribution Requirements

If you are an A.B. candidate, you must successfully complete distribution requirements in each of the following areas: epistemology and cognition (one course), ethical thought and moral values (one course), historical analysis (one course), literature and the arts (two courses), quantitative reasoning (one course), social analysis (two courses), and science and technology (two courses). At least one course must be a science and technology course with laboratory (STL). You may elect a second laboratory science course, or a nonlaboratory science course (STN). Approach your selection with a sense of openness and adventure. In making your choices, you have the opportunity to experiment with subjects totally new to you. If you are undecided about your field of concentration, you may well find a new and lasting interest in one of the subjects you select.

Course Offerings and the Undergraduate Announcement indicate with letter abbreviations the distribution area fulfilled by each course. No designation means that the course does not fulfill a distribution requirement.

You should note that advanced placement units cannot be used to fulfill distribution requirements. Students are expected to fulfill all distribution requirements at Princeton. A.B. students may, however, with the prior approval of your dean or director of studies and the appropriate departmental representative, complete a maximum of two distribution requirements at another college or university. You can satisfy one course in each of two of the following distribution areas: literature and the arts, social analysis, or science and technology (please note, only nonlaboratory science courses (STN) may be taken away from Princeton).

B.S.E. candidates take at least seven courses from the humanities and social sciences. These courses must include one course in four of the following six areas: epistemology and cognition, ethical thought and moral values, foreign language (at the 107/108 level or above), historical analysis, literature and the arts, and social analysis.

Advanced Placement and Advanced Standing

The advanced placement policy at Princeton is designed to recognize college-level work completed prior to matriculation and to encourage you to pursue your studies at a level appropriate to your preparation.

Advanced placement is awarded by individual departments on the basis of your performance on certain standardized tests or departmentally administered placement examinations. You should be certain to have official scores of standardized tests reported directly to Princeton. If you have a question about whether a score has been received or about your eligibility for advanced placement, you should go over your records with your director of studies after arriving on campus.

You do not have to continue in a subject in which you have earned advanced placement. If, however, you elect a course that is below the level at which advanced placement was granted, you lose the use (for advanced standing, see below) of your advanced placement units in that subject.

For example, if you are placed into French 207 (the next level after fulfillment of the language requirement) but elect French 108 (the last term of the language requirement), you will forfeit your advanced placement in French language.

The rules governing advanced placement are quite complex. If you have concerns about maintaining your advanced placement in a subject, be sure to consult your dean or director of studies before changing courses. You should also refer to the Advanced Placement website for information on advanced placement and advanced standing.

Please note that advanced placement in a subject does not reduce the total number of courses required for graduation (see advanced standing below). Instead, it permits you to elect a more advanced course in that subject. Similarly, advanced placement cannot be used to reduce a course load in a given term or to make up course deficiencies.

You may well be asking what advantage there is to maintaining your advanced placement status in a given subject area. First, you don’t want to repeat material that you covered in high school and thereby squander opportunities at Princeton. If forfeiting advanced placement in a subject means that you would be taking a class that, for the most part, reviews what you already know, you would be going backward rather than forward. However, if, as occasionally happens, you find that the material in an advanced course is so difficult as to be unmanageable, you should consider reverting to a course that will be more meaningful to you, especially if you plan to do further coursework in that area. Remember that our placement system is very good but not perfect. We are often basing placement decisions for the Princeton curriculum on the basis of a single test result.

There is another reason why you should think seriously about maintaining your advanced placement in a given subject area. It has to do with eligibility for advanced standing, which allows a student to graduate in three years or with three and a half years of study.

A.B. candidates can apply for a full year of advanced standing if they have eight advanced placement units distributed in at least three of the following subject areas: foreign languages, historical analysis, literature and the arts, quantitative reasoning, science and technology, and social analysis. B.S.E. candidates can also apply for a full year of advanced standing if they have eight advanced placement units, but they must include among them two units in physics, two in mathematics, and one in chemistry.

A.B. candidates with four advanced placement units in at least two subject areas and B.S.E. candidates with four advanced placement units, which must include two in physics, one in mathematics, and one in chemistry, can apply for one term of advanced standing.

In November you will be notified of your eligibility to apply for advanced standing. You may submit an application for either one term or one full year of advanced standing, depending upon your qualifications. With a full year of advanced standing, you may apply to become a second-semester sophomore in the spring of your first year, or a first-semester junior in the fall of your second year. With one term of advanced standing, you will take a leave of absence from Princeton either in the fall or spring of your sophomore year. You will thus spend three terms at Princeton prior to your junior year.

The final decision on your application for advanced standing will be made by the Committee on Examinations and Standing. The committee will review your academic record to determine whether advanced standing is appropriate given the quality of your academic program and performance. The committee reserves the right to rescind advanced standing if, in its judgment, you have not made satisfactory progress toward the degree.

The decision to take advanced standing is an important one, especially if you elect to take the full year. If you enter the junior year after only one year of study at Princeton, you will have to choose a major and complete, at the very least, the prerequisites to concentrate in that field within a short period of time. In some cases, a student’s academic goals make advanced standing inadvisable or impossible, particularly in areas where there are many sequential courses. Moreover, students who take advanced standing are expected to fulfill all University and departmental requirements for graduation. A.B. candidates graduating in three years have to complete 23 courses; those graduating with three and a half years of study, 27 courses. B.S.E. candidates must complete 28 and 32 courses, respectively.

Finally, if you elect to graduate in three years and then change your mind, you can revert to your original entering class until the beginning of your senior (third) year.

In any event, you should discuss these issues with your teachers, faculty adviser, residential college dean or director of studies, and parents. If you or your parents have any questions about advanced standing, consult your dean or director of studies.

The Structure of a Princeton Course

While each course is unique in terms of its manner of presentation, workload, assignments, and class meetings, there are several types of courses that you will encounter repeatedly during your years at Princeton.

The lecture/precept format is especially common for introductory courses. The professor in charge of this kind of course lectures twice a week to all the students enrolled in the course. Each student signs up for a section meeting, called a precept (from the Latin praecipere, “to teach”), where normally 12 to 15 students meet with a section leader, called a preceptor, to discuss the material in greater depth (the professor of the course usually teaches at least one precept). In most cases, the preceptor does the grading for his or her section. Precept attendance and participation are required components of the course.

Still other kinds of courses are taught according to the “class format.” This kind of course has no lecture where all the students meet. Rather, the course is already broken down into several classes, at which you meet with the same group of students and the same instructor for an hour three times a week or for an hour and a half twice a week. The format might best be described as a combination of lecture and discussion. The same instructor lectures, leads discussion, and does the grading for those students in his or her class. Normally, the exams are uniform throughout all classes (as they are in lecture/precept courses). Mathematics courses are often taught according to the class method.

Laboratory science and technology courses have lectures, sometimes a discussion section, and a required laboratory exercise one afternoon or evening a week. These courses do have more than the average number of class hours, and you should plan accordingly when organizing your schedule.

Finally, a small number of courses at the introductory level, and more at the advanced level, meet only once a week for a period of three hours. These courses, called seminars, bring together a professor and no more than 15 students; the intellectual dialogue is intense, and everyone is expected to be an active participant. Seminars often require students to produce a substantial paper and to deliver to the class the results of their research.

Many students in their first year have an opportunity to take a seminar through the Program of Freshman Seminars in the Residential Colleges. The program is designed to provide freshmen with an early opportunity to form strong connections with faculty and fellow students through an engaging course of study. Approximately 70 unique seminars will be offered this year covering a wide variety of topics and academic disciplines. All of the seminars count as regular courses, and fulfill distribution requirements. Unless specifically indicated in the course description, the seminars do not assume prior knowledge or advanced placement in the subject. The seminars depend for their success on the expertise of the professor and on the hard work and enthusiasm of all the participants. Enrollment in each seminar is limited to 15 students. You may apply to take a seminar during each semester of your freshman year. The director of the program is Dean Clayton Marsh.

In almost every course that you take at Princeton, instructors will provide a syllabus of the course on the first day of class. The syllabus provides a detailed outline of reading assignments, written assignments to be handed in, examination dates, and, generally, the method for calculating the final grade in the course. The combined syllabi of all your courses may seem a bit overwhelming at first glance. If, however, you regard them with the proper respect and work at a steady pace, you will find that they are helpful reminders to keep up with the reading before exam dates or dates on which papers, homework assignments, or laboratory reports are due.

Fortunately, the semester contains periodic breaks that allow you to catch your breath. Midterm exams are normally scheduled during the sixth week of the term, followed by a weeklong break. After another six weeks of classes, Princeton schedules a nine-day reading period to allow you to complete papers in your courses and to begin preparing for your final exams. All papers are due at the end of reading period; this date is referred to as the “dean’s date.” If, as occasionally happens, you need a short extension into the exam period to complete a paper, see your residential college dean or director of studies. Extensions require the permission of both your course instructor and your dean or director of studies and are to be regarded as a privilege rather than an entitlement.

Below are important deadlines pertaining to academic matters. (Academic year calendars are available at

Fall-term Deadlines, 2014–15

September 23, Tuesday. Last day to drop fall-term courses without a fee.
September 23, Tuesday. Last day to add a course.
November 3, Monday. Undergraduate selection of P/D/F option begins.
November 21, Friday. Last day to drop courses or select P/D/F option.
January 13, Tuesday. Dean’s date: deadline for submission of all written work (except final exams and take-home exams).
January 19, Monday. University deadline for submission of take-home exams.

Spring-term Deadlines, 2014–15

February 13, Friday. Last day to drop spring-term courses without a fee.
February 13, Friday. Last day to add a course.
March 23, Monday. Undergraduate selection of P/D/F option begins.
April 10, Friday. Last day to drop courses or select P/D/F option.
May 12, Tuesday. Dean’s date: deadline for submission of all written work (except final exams and take-home exams).
May 18, Monday. University deadline for submission of take-home exams.

Learning Outside the Classroom

Intellectual inquiry is an integral part of Princeton life; you cannot abandon it as you step beyond the threshold of the classroom. Indeed, you may discover that some of the important learning that takes place at Princeton goes on outside of courses.

The residential colleges are particularly intended to facilitate informal discussion between faculty and students. Your faculty adviser is one of a large group of faculty members who are affiliated with your residential college as “faculty fellows.” Most of the interaction with faculty fellows occurs over meals; you are encouraged to invite professors to join you over lunch or dinner to discuss coursework, your academic plans and aspirations, their academic discipline and research, or simply interests and concerns that you share. In addition, you will find a program of talks and discussions organized in the residential colleges every week. Led sometimes by Princeton faculty, sometimes by someone from outside the University, and sometimes by a resident graduate student or even a fellow undergraduate student, these are excellent opportunities for an informal exchange of ideas on topics ranging from campus controversies and world affairs to jazz, photography, literature, and dance.

In addition to the classroom and the residential colleges, there are other centers offering opportunities for extracurricular learning. The Pace Center for Civic Engagement challenges students to learn more about themselves and the world around them through civic engagement and community service. The Pace Center aims to make service a part of every Princeton student’s experience, supporting Princeton’s commitment to be “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” The Pace Center connects Princeton students to service and civic engagement through on-site educational experiences that promote deeper learning and meaningful action. Included among these experiences are civic action break trips, social entrepreneurship, public service internships and fellowships, direct volunteer service, student leadership positions, and a variety of other activities.

The Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding is both a multicultural resource center for University members and a place to relax, study, and make new friends. The center hosts the activities of many student organizations, and sponsors ethnic heritage celebrations, lectures, seminars, dinners, and social activities for all students who wish to be enriched by the range of cultures represented on campus. The Women’s Center stimulates discussion and awareness of women’s issues on campus through a range of political, cultural, and social activities. In the past, the center has sponsored academic conferences, various support groups on social and health topics, speakers, and mentoring programs. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Center works to create a safe and supportive environment by providing educational opportunities and advocating for the needs and concerns of LGBT students. The center hosts a number of programs, celebrations, and activities, and sponsors several support and discussion groups. Together these centers help students celebrate the cultural experiences of others, explore common experiences, and ponder the challenges and rewards of life in a pluralistic society. Campus Club, a University facility on Prospect Avenue, is a social space programmed by and for undergraduate and graduate students. Student organizations may reserve spaces in the club for meetings, events, and social activities. Each of these centers welcomes and encourages the participation of all members of the Princeton University community.

The Davis International Center provides services and support to almost 2,500 international students and scholars who represent more than 100 countries on campus. It provides visa and immigration advising and document processing; specialized orientations; cultural adjustment programming; and serves as a clearinghouse for information relevant to all international students, scholars, and employees, as well as University offices and departments. In collaboration with community volunteers, the Davis International Center also provides a host family program and an English conversation program for international students, scholars, and their families.

The academic departments also provide many opportunities to learn beyond the structured setting of the classroom. On almost any afternoon you will find three or four department-sponsored lectures on topics ranging from black holes to black humor. These are usually talks by Princeton faculty or their colleagues from other universities on research in progress. Often you can hear the leading experts in a field debate their discipline’s most pressing issues. Sometimes the subject matter is arcane, but many lectures are intended for nonspecialists. Undergraduates are especially encouraged to attend these lectures. Watch for advertisements in the Daily Princetonian student newspaper and notices on bulletin boards, on the University home page, and in your e-mail.

Student organizations are another important means of expanding your education beyond the walls of the classroom. There are more than 300 such organizations, including campus publications, cultural and educational organizations, performance groups, and political organizations. Through these activities you can hone your writing skills, develop your leadership and organizational abilities, satisfy your musical or theatrical interests, or test your powers of verbal debate and persuasion. In addition to the array of activities offered by student organizations, you can enrich your Princeton experience through participation in community volunteer work, athletics, or Outdoor Action trips. All this is part of the Princeton education.

Ideas are the currency of a vibrant campus. They carry intrinsic value in an intellectual community, and you should get in the habit of exchanging them freely. This does not mean that every conversation you have at Princeton will be (or should be) a serious one! Even faculty and administrators are known to engage in occasional moments of levity and humor. But you should certainly feel free to talk about intellectual matters — at breakfast, over dinner, during a study break. When education is working well, the ideas you encounter in class will have a bearing on circumstances you encounter in everyday life, and it is not empty pedantry to apply those ideas. Avoid thinking of education narrowly; it will be going on all around you at Princeton, often when you are least expecting it.