In many high school students’ college search processes, the most important factors they look for in schools are things like housing, location, size and student body. While all these factors may be important, students often miss one huge aspect of college – school itself! Sounds obvious, right? But sometimes it can be easy to forge that college is still school, and that school will actually take up the majority of your college time.
So, to make sure you make the best college choice for you, it’s important to also look at academic aspects of a school, like their curriculum requirements – by this, I mean general education requirements, distribution requirements, major requirements, language requirements, study abroad programs, and a host of other things. Since school is going to take up so much of your time, it’s important that you spend this time in a curricular environment that you like and that challenges you to grow academically.
There are three general forms that a college’s curriculum can take: let’s call them moderate, strict, and open.
Most colleges around the country have moderately structured curriculums. At these schools, students are required to take a few courses in a variety of different fields (often referred to as “General Education” or “GE” courses) while also completing a major. Usually, you will have freedom in which course you choose to take in these required fields – for example, students might have to take 2 humanities classes, 2 science classes, 2 social sciences classes and 2 math classes in order to graduate, but the specific classes the students take within these fields is up to them.
Many students will choose to fulfill these requirements early on in their first couple of years at school, and then use their remaining time as upperclassmen to take electives and complete their major.
Schools with strict curriculums have a set of classes that all students must take – these colleges believe that there are certain classes that are valuable to everyone and feel that creating a common “core” of classes is valuable to the student body as a whole. Unlike moderate curriculums, strict curriculums will usually be very specific with which individual classes you are required to take. Schools like Columbia University and University of Chicago have well-known core curriculums that are a hallmark of the academic experience at these schools. This type of curriculum is helpful for students who like structure and want to know exactly what they are getting in to.
My personal favorite is the open curriculum, which allows students a great degree of freedom in choosing their classes. There are no “GE’s” or distribution requirements, and there are rarely any specific class requirements at all. Admittedly, very few schools have this type of curriculum, but if you’re the type of student who likes taking on the responsibility of designing their own education, an open curriculum might be right for you. Colleges like Brown, Grinnell and Amherst are well known for their curricular freedom. At times, the freedom in an open curriculum can be daunting, but when it is used well, this type of curriculum can be incredibly freeing for students who like to explore all their passions.
Now that you’re familiar with the general types of curriculum options, it’s time to start researching! Figure out what academics style best suits you as a student, and then go out and find colleges that match that. Each type of curriculum has its advantages and disadvantages, so make sure the one at your school will work for your needs and help you grow into a stronger student.
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By Aidan Calvelli.