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Looking Toward Sophomore Year

General Guidelines

If the first year of your Princeton education is a time for exploration and discovery, the sophomore year is a time for reflection, consolidation, and decision-making. If you are in the engineering school, you will identify an area of interest and begin to concentrate in your chosen field of engineering. You should, however, continue to discuss with your adviser opportunities to take courses outside your department. Some of these will strengthen your major, while others will introduce you to a whole new set of issues and ideas. If you are in the A.B. program, you will continue to test new academic areas and explore your intellectual interests in greater depth with the aim of selecting a departmental concentration in the spring term of sophomore year. As a sophomore, you should feel more comfortable about investigating your departmental options and seeking guidance in developing your plans throughout the year.

Even though your fear of the unknown may have subsided, you may still find sophomore year to be fraught with periods of stress, indecision, and even bouts of the infamous "sophomore slump." You should be sure to seek any academic or personal help you need. Your academic adviser, residential college dean, or director of studies can assist you in reviewing your academic options and giving shape to your overall academic program; individual faculty members and departmental representatives can offer advice about specific courses and departmental requirements. For engineers, an additional resource is the associate dean for undergraduate affairs in the engineering school.

For many students, the best way to continue to sort out academic options and career goals, to weigh strengths and weaknesses, is simply to talk about them, not only to advisers and faculty members, but also to friends and family. As you discover various academic alternatives for yourself, a number of questions will invariably arise. Many of these questions can be answered by consulting the Undergraduate Announcement (online) or departmental websites. The preprofessional adviser for the health professions is a particularly useful sounding board if your future plans include study in this area.

You should be sure to verify information you hear through the grapevine about departmental requirements and exceptions to those requirements. In many cases, the popular lore is flawed in critical ways, and following imperfect advice can frustrate your progress toward your intended goal. A quick check of the facts by referring to regulations printed in this or other University publications or by stopping in to see your adviser, dean, or director of studies can save you some disappointment and worry later on.

Course Selection for Sophomore Year

In the spring of your first year you are required to choose courses for the following fall. In reviewing your course schedule for the fall term of sophomore year, you should keep in mind the following criteria. Unless you have strong personal feelings about different course options, you should probably think of the criteria in roughly the order given below.

1. Preparing for a department or program. In choosing courses, you should be concerned about taking those that qualify you to enter any department or program in which you are interested. Some departments and programs have rather strict prerequisites, some suggest prerequisites but are flexible about the precise choice of courses, and some simply require you to be acquainted with courses in their discipline. If you would like to have prerequisites waived or to substitute other courses for prerequisites, you need the approval of the appropriate departmental representative. Even when departments have no formal prerequisites, you should plan to take one upper-level course in every department in which you consider concentrating.

In the spring, almost all departments have open houses. At these meetings the faculty will discuss the undergraduate curriculum with interested students. Often departmental concentrators attend these sessions and describe their experiences in the department. If you miss an open house, you should be sure to ask the department for the information that is distributed to concentrators, and read it carefully before or during the fall of your sophomore year. If you have questions, make an appointment with the departmental representative. The earlier you do this, the more time will be left for you to make adjustments in your course schedule. Don't assume that a department will waive prerequisites or make other adjustments just because they have done so in the past. Departmental requirements change, and hearsay does not provide adequate guidelines for course selection.

2. Completing University and distribution requirements. If at all possible, you should fulfill all University and distribution requirements by the end of the sophomore year. This is particularly true of foreign language and introductory-level laboratory science and technology courses, which are difficult to fit into upperclass schedules. The more you are tempted to procrastinate in fulfilling a requirement, the more important it is for you to complete it before you begin your independent work. Note: You don't need to have completed all distribution requirements to study abroad. In fact, many students fulfill distribution requirements abroad as part of their academic program.

3. Exploring the curriculum. You should try to explore departments and courses that you think might interest you (aside from potential areas of concentration) or that could be helpful in developing independent work topics. Sophomore year is a good time to do this because you know the opportunities available at the University but do not yet have the pressures of departmental courses and independent work.

One thing we have not mentioned is getting a head start on your departmental courses. Many sophomores believe that, if they have made a reasonably firm decision on a departmental major, they should begin taking departmental courses. There is certainly nothing wrong with this strategy, especially if you study abroad in junior year, but it may not be the best one to follow for entrance into all departments.

Many departments, especially in the sciences, have a basic set of courses that are prerequisites for upper-level departmental courses, and some departments encourage early concentration in order to take advantage of special summer research or field study opportunities. Students who plan to study abroad for the term or the year may choose to begin departmental work early. In such cases it can be very useful to take one or two departmental courses during sophomore year.

Often, however, some students find that they get more out of upper-level departmental courses when they take them in conjunction with their junior and senior independent work, since one complements the other. Some departments expect their majors to take at least two departmental courses each term of junior and senior years regardless of how many courses they might have had in the department as sophomores, so that taking departmentals early does not necessarily result in increased flexibility in the upperclass years.

If you would like to begin your departmental coursework early, you should consult the Undergraduate Announcement, your faculty adviser, dean or director of studies, and the appropriate departmental representative or program director before firmly deciding on your schedule.

Near the end of your freshman year, you should complete and save the online Academic Planning Form before your appointment with your academic adviser. This brief form asks you to take stock of your academic program during your first year and to make a preliminary plan for your sophomore year and beyond. Both students and faculty advisers find this a useful exercise in preparation for the advising appointment.

Choosing a Major

Assessing your talents and interests and matching them with an academic discipline is not always a simple task. Questions about graduate school and career, as well as family and personal aspirations, are bound up with choosing a field of concentration. Certainly you need to think carefully about your choice, but you also need to understand that there is no secret formula for arriving at the most appropriate major for each individual. Perhaps the best rule of thumb is to choose a field you can pursue with enthusiasm, and do the best work you can in it.

When you think about choosing a department, you should consider its requirements, its opportunities for interdisciplinary study, the accessibility of its faculty members, its special strengths or weaknesses, and whether or not you will be supported in your choice of independent work projects. The junior paper and senior thesis are hallmarks of a Princeton education and should be prime considerations in choosing a major. It is crucial that you choose a department in which you will be encouraged and assisted in doing stimulating independent work. Ask your dean or director of studies, academic adviser, departmental representatives, and junior and senior departmental concentrators about the kinds of research done in different departments, the kinds of independent work pursued by undergraduates, and the careers chosen by departmental majors.

The decision about your major is an important one, perhaps the most important of your undergraduate career. It is a decision that will affect the way you look at the world around you, but it will not determine once and for all who you are and how you will live your life. Certainly not all science majors become doctors and researchers, and even some of your professors may not have concentrated as undergraduates in the fields they are now teaching.

When deciding on a major, you should be aware of what it means and what it does not mean to major in a department.

  • It does not mean that you will have to work in that area for the rest of your life, or that you will be unqualified to do anything else.
  • It does not mean that you will (or will not) get a job after graduation.
  • It does not mean that you will take courses in only one department for two years, or that the scope of your undergraduate education is restricted. Though focused on a discipline, you can continue to explore other interests.
  • Choosing a major does mean that you will do independent research under the supervision of a faculty member, on a specific topic, and from a specific intellectual perspective. You certainly will spend much of your time and energy working within the department, so above all you should enjoy and feel stimulated by your chosen field.

Consider Study Abroad

As you plan for your major and complete other academic requirements, you may find that a semester abroad can serve to enhance and add a new dimension to your academic program. Information about how departments build study abroad into their curricula and departmental recommendations for programs abroad are available on the Office of International Programs website The Study Abroad Program enables students to receive full academic credit while studying outside the United States for either one term or an academic year. Programs are open to sophomores (usually in the spring), juniors, and fall-term seniors. Students may directly enroll in a foreign university or participate in an approved study abroad program. Study in non-English-speaking countries is especially encouraged. Summer opportunities also exist in a wide variety of fields. Princeton runs particularly strong intensive language programs as well as faculty-led programs on a range of topics. A list of Princeton-affiliated and approved programs can be found in Princeton's Global Programs System (GPS)

To participate in the Study Abroad Program for a semester or a year, an applicant must have at least a B average for the academic year prior to the year in which study abroad is undertaken and in most cases must present evidence of competence in a foreign language if applying to a program in a non-English-speaking country. Final approval to study abroad is granted by the Committee on Examinations and Standing. Students receive full credit for the term or year spent abroad, provided they complete satisfactorily all academic work (with a grade of C or better), and submit a transcript or similar report. Courses abroad may be preapproved to fulfill up to two distribution area requirements, normally in different areas, and/or a limited number of departmental requirements. Summer courses may be approved for LA, SA, or STN distribution requirements. Up to two course credits may be earned in a given summer.

Although most applications to foreign institutions or programs are due at the beginning of the term prior to the proposed period of study, some are due earlier. Early planning for study abroad is encouraged and, in some departments, required. Freshman year is not too early to start preparing.

Students interested in the program should review the Office of International Programs website and attend relevant informational meetings scheduled throughout the year. After reviewing options, please make an appointment with the Office of International Programs, (609) 258-5524; 20 Washington Road, to discuss your plans.