Hey, Columbia College first-year; grab a seat! Let’s talk about The Core.

As someone who went through it already, I can understand that the Core can look intimidating. You might be looking at the list of required classes, comparing it to the list of required classes for your major, and thinking to yourself, “How on EARTH am I going to fit all these into the next four years?”

You could also be looking at every CC website about the Core and think that it’s all gibberish, which…fair. The language requirement section is especially difficult to understand, even though it’s quite simple to complete.

Again, I’ve been there, and I can tell you that it’s possible. There are people who have come and gone with a major, a major and a concentration, a major and two concentrations, or two whole majors in different fields, and they’ve all completed their Core requirements.

And with the right help, you could easily complete them too! That’s why I, a person who loves the Core probably a little too much, decided to address any questions you might have about this CC tradition before you even begin to think about course registration for the Fall 2022 semester.

Core Requirement Checklist that Actually Makes Sense:

  • Literature and Humanities (“Lit Hum”)
  • Frontiers of Science (“FroSci”)
  • Contemporary Civilizations (“CC”)
  • Masterpieces in Western Music (“Music Hum”)
  • Masterpieces in Western Art (“Art Hum”)
  • TWO math and/or science classes in different fields
  • TWO global core classes
  • At most TWO YEARS of a foreign language (this will vary based on skill level or testing out)
  • TWO physical education classes
  • The swim test

The Core Itself

First and foremost, remind yourself that Columbia University is a package deal: you chose to come here for whatever reasons you may have, but the Core Curriculum was definitely one of them, especially since no other school offers one like this. In other words, you didn’t come here despite the Core—you came here for it.

That being said, do not treat the Core like a hurdle you have to get over. From my time at Columbia, I realized that the best way to get the most out of your education is to really enjoy every class you’re in and what it’s trying to teach you. Sure, you may not be too fond of classic literature, or you don’t want to learn about four different fields of science at 10 in the morning on a Friday. However, in those moments, really try to remember why they’re there.

Another piece of advice: remember that everyone is doing the Core together. Some of my fondest memories of Columbia were talking to all my friends about our Core readings and homework, joking about the characters, or screaming Beethoven’s “Symphony no.5” at each other. Were my friends in my exact class section? No, but they had the same reading list, were on the same Core schedule, and were doing the readings at the same time as me! We can all get carried away by our majors, but if there’s one thing that brings a class together, it’s the Core.

Lastly, and this is a small detail, Columbia likes to throw around the word “credit” as a metric for completing course requirements. Ignore it; any mention of “credit” completion means absolutely nothing to normal people. Just take two classes for the required Core subject. You can’t ever go wrong with taking two classes.

Do I have to register for the mandatory classes?

You will be pre-registered for Literature and Humanities, University Writing, Frontiers of Science, and Contemporary Civilizations (sophomore year). “Pre-registered” means that it will already be in your schedule before you even add classes you want to sign up for.

For at least your first semester, I’d recommend working your potential major requirements/self-selected courses around your pre-registered course times. Since everyone is pre-registered, all the slots are full for each class section, so it’d be quite hard to swap classes without an effort to collaborate with other students. That may be stressful, especially if you don’t know anyone, so I wouldn’t bother changing it. It will be easier second semester onward simply because you’ll know other people who you can coordinate with.

If you reeeeeally want to take either University Writing or FroSci one semester, but you got placed in the other, then you could try finding someone with a flipped schedule and switch with them. Remember, however, that for FroSci, you will also be pre-registered for a seminar section alongside the 10 am lecture on Friday. Therefore, coordinate with someone who has a good seminar time—I’m pretty confident you won’t have any conflicts with the lecture.

Everything else under the Core Requirements, including Music Hum and Art Hum, is up to you. Believe it or not, the Core is much more flexible than you think, and playing with that flexibility also helps to make the whole experience more fun.

Do some mandatory classes differ by section?

Yes! The syllabus for Lit Hum, CC, Music Hum, and Art Hum are fixed, and changing the main texts/songs/pieces of art requires a lot of work and consideration on the University’s side, but there could be some variance among class sections. Professors are, in most cases, entitled to swapping/adding one or two texts/etc. per semester, so your experience with the Core will be specialized. To prevent bias, I won’t say which text got swapped out for another in my own Lit Hum class, but I definitely dodged a bullet and read Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies instead. A win for me!

The FroSci syllabus is solid rock; no one that I know of has customized it in years.

University Writing really is the only course that differs by section: there are multiple “themes” that cover a wide range of topics (ex. Mine was “Performing Arts,” and my friend was in “American Studies”), and there are two class sections per theme. You read and write essays that explore your theme further and learn how to write college-level papers with the guidance of essays within these domains. Since you’re pre-registered for University Writing, you will not get to choose your theme at first. You could try to switch with someone to get into a class more suited to your tastes, but I’d embrace the randomness. When are you ever going to be placed in a mystery class ever again?

When do I take Music Hum? When do I take Art Hum?

Don’t worry, everyone asks this question. And everyone always answers with, “It depends!”

I really wouldn’t worry about Art Hum and Music Hum until junior year; focus on your pre-registered courses first. I also think it’s nice to wait until the two years you don’t have pre-registered mandatory courses to take these ones simply because it spreads out your experience with the Core, making it a 4-year experience rather than a 2-year one.

To be more practical, you also won’t get in until you’re a junior. Not because they’re restricted; on the contrary, they’re the only Core classes you can actually register for. However, there are a limited number of students per section (and it’s almost always capped at 15 students). That means that seniors and juniors will get priority, and they will fill those classes up faster than a bot will scrape every ticket for a concert headlined by your favorite artist. Miracles happen, I’ll admit, but don’t plan a schedule around a class you have a very little chance of getting into until you’re an upperclassman.

Definitely don’t schedule both for the same semester. Spread them out because the strategies and content you learned for one course will set up how you have to approach the other.

Most people take Art Hum first, which isn’t a bad idea. I took Art Hum first and had a great time, and it set me up well for Music Hum, but the order does not matter. It’s up to personal preference, really, so pick the one you’re more excited about first.

What do I need to know about the Foreign Language Requirement?

Columbia College wants everyone to be at least “proficient” in a language other than English. The way they explain that, however, is confusing. So, allow me to translate (hehe).

In order to get the requirement completed, you need to take as many classes to be able to take and pass “Intermediate [language] II.” That could be two years of language classes—you can’t take more than one grammar and composition class per semester—or one semester, depending on where you place on the placement test, or if you’re starting a new language altogether. Information on placement tests will be posted here. All placement tests occur during NSOP.


If you want to learn a new language you haven’t seen before, then I’d start your first semester of freshman year. They won’t take up too many credits on your credit limit, so it’d be more than easy to fit them into your schedule. Plus, it might be less pressure to enter an intro-level class as a first-year than it would be as a junior.

If you took a certain language in high school and placed into “Intermediate I,” then you only have two semesters of a language! Take it as soon as you get to college so all the words and grammar you learned in high school will be fresh in your memory. If you placed into “Intermediate II,” then you only have one semester. Again, take It the first semester you get here.

If you’re already bilingual, you can take the placement test in that language, and at the beginning of the survey, you can say that you are fluent/a native speaker already. The test is the same (I think), so a lot of bilingual students can place out that way. If you cannot place out, then there will be a “[Language] for Native Speakers” class that will be the only class you’ll have to take to fulfill the requirement. It’s only a semester.

If you placed out of the language requirement, then you do not have to sign up for any language courses. However, I genuinely advise that you take classes anyway! I’m the biggest supporter of the foreign language departments at Columbia and Barnard, and it’s really the last opportunity you’ll have to have easily accessible, high-quality language classes. Plus, you’ll be exposed to beautiful literature, poetry, music, and film that you probably would never have heard about prior to learning the language of your choice. Or if you want something more ‘low-stakes,’ then a 2-point “Conversations” course, where all you do is sit in a room and talk to each other in a foreign language for a class period, might be the solution! It’s a great way to retain proficiency, and it does not occupy your schedule at all.

HELP: I’m a hardcore humanities major and think STEM is witchcraft from 1692; how do I handle the Science Core?

As a hardcore humanities major, I offer three pieces of advice. First, learn to do math and go outside. It’s not hard, I promise. Go to f***ing FroSci lectures.

Next, anyone who said wait until senior year to worry about the Science Core is wrong.

On one hand, even though there’s nothing wrong with it, taking intro-level classes as an upperclassman with first-years does make you feel odd, especially when you’re used to doing really high-level stuff in your major’s department.

Next, you have to take two classes in separate fields (ex. You cannot take two astronomy classes to fulfill the requirement); take one when your schedule isn’t looking too heavy. If you’re a senior worrying about your thesis, the last thing you want to do is take an introductory-level course in some random field of study you don’t care about. Furthermore, if you’re a freshman dying to take classes in your potential major, then take classes that interest you! Interesting classes set the course for how you want to navigate your studies, so don’t get too bogged up in the Core.

Take one Science Core class sophomore year (either fall or spring, whichever isn’t too stacked up with major requirements), and one class junior year (same judgment applies).

Third, please take classes that could apply to your personal field of study. Sure, sometimes it’s fun to take classes that are wildly different from what you know very well, but this isn’t Jeopardy!, this is STEM. No one has the time to spend an entire semester learning fun facts about STEM. If you’re in the social sciences, maybe take an intro-level psychology class and an intro-statistics class. If you’re a philosophy major, take a logic class paired with some kind of bio or physics intro class—the philosophers cared too much about that anyway. Majoring in a foreign language? Guess what, “Intro to Linguistics” counts as a Science Core class! Point is, the different subjects are more connected than you think, so do not take a class unrelated to your interests solely because you’ll think it’ll be “easy.”

If you are here for “fun facts,” here’s a good one: “Easy” classes that turn out to be really boring are actually way harder than more technical courses that genuinely grab your attention. Avoid boredom, not a slight challenge.

There is also a list on the Core Curriculum website that tells you which specific classes designed for non-STEM people fulfill the requirement.

HELP: I’m a serious STEM major and avoid the humanities like the plague; how do I handle the Global Core?

This piece of advice goes for any Core class for you, since you’ll easily handle the Science one anyway: read a book and care about people. It’s not hard, I promise. Do the f***ing readings.

Global Core requirements are admittedly easier to complete when you’re in the Humanities; I, for one, knocked them both out my freshman year solely because I took History classes in various parts of the world to see which one I wanted to focus on for my major. I’d take Global core requirements whenever you can; again, if you’re knee-deep in your major requirements your senior year, maybe don’t postpone these classes until then. Furthermore, if you feel too bogged down with Lit Hum readings and UW essay-writing, then maybe take a class when there aren’t a lot of humanities-centric courses in your schedule.

To complete global core requirements, you need to take two classes in any field that focuses on a country outside of the US and Europe. It’s really easy to figure out which classes count as “Global Core;” it’ll have the location right in the course title. For instance, a popular class many take is “World History Since World War II.” There’s something for everyone in that very obviously world history class, and it really changes your perspective on the Cold War and global politics. Another popular class that’s offered every single semester is “History of the Modern Middle East.” To no one’s surprise, it’s about the Middle East.

History classes are not the only ones that fulfill Global Core requirements: you could take literature classes, dance classes, linguistics, sociology, music, religion, even economics of all subjects…there’s so much diversity that there’s bound to be something for you! Again, I told this to the humanities folks about STEM: take something that interests you, not something that’s easy.

In fact, the humanities aren’t “easy” at all, otherwise you’d have no problem finishing all the readings in time for class discussion, articulating thought-provoking discussion points that don’t make your classmates roll their eyes, and writing the best, most original essay you will ever construct!

There is also a list on the Core Curriculum website that tells you which specific classes designed for non-humanities people fulfill the requirement.

Do I really have to “Get Physical?” If so, when?

You heard Dua Lipa; the answer is “yes!” But don’t worry, you only need to take two classes total to complete this section of the Core Curriculum, and each class is only 2 credits, so it won’t max out your schedule limit. Easy.

Realistically, you’ll probably get your Physical Education classes at the beginning of your junior year, unless you’re really intent on getting into one before. I say this because everyone, without exception, puts it off until junior year, so the class sections fill up within the first two days of course registration. By the time you pick your classes this semester, every class would have probably been filled up.

The difficulty ranges for each class, depending on the activity you want to do. I suggest you do something that you either like or have always wanted to try (fun fact: you can get a SCUBA license if you take SCUBA lessons during the semester). If you don’t like running, then don’t take the “self-paced running” class, even if everyone says it’s the easiest way out. If you did ballet your whole life and want to keep your skills, go take classes at Barnard! Undergrad is probably the first and only time you’ll actually get to do whatever you want and have special time allotted for it; you genuinely should do things that are fun!

With this requirement, you can kill three birds with one stone (if you have enough room and your course selection time is a lucky one): first, you can take two Phys Ed classes in one semester. Second, one of them can be a swim class. That way, you can get your requirements in one fell swoop AND pass the swim test at the same time.

What do I do about the Swim Test?

Either take a swim class for a semester or sign up for the test whenever. There’s nothing more to it. Oh, and steer clear of the British in case they invade and actually make this tradition useful.

One of the Many Loves of My Life via Victoria Borlando