Welcome potential STEM first-year and transfer students! Periodically, Bwog has advice on how to start your college career off on the best foot. Science Editor (and maybe Microbiologist-in-Training) Kyle Murray has gathered tips for Chemistry!

Ah, Chemistry. The branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed; the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change; and the use of these processes to form new substances, (as Oxford defines it). What a mouthful.

Chemistry is a widely taken course at Columbia. It’s required for many STEM majors as a basic prerequisite. Resultantly, many students take it during their first year. However, not all first-year Chemistry courses are made equal, both in the material it covers and the duration of the class. Here, Bwog offers an explanation.

Who needs to take Chemistry?

If you’re a STEM major in Columbia College or General Studies, there’s a high chance that you need to take Chemistry for your degree. And if you’re an engineer, there’s a 100% chance you will take Chemistry. 

When to take it?

It is highly recommended for Columbia College and General Studies to take General Chemistry during their first year. Chemistry is a prerequisite for many upper-level science courses, or even introductory classes in other fields. For example, Chemistry is a prerequisite for BIOL 2005 and BIOL 2006 Intro Biology.

Chemistry is in SEAS’s Technical Core, a collection of courses to provide background about the pure sciences. SEAS students are required to take a minimum of one semester of Chemistry during their first year. A second semester may be necessary, depending on a student’s intended field of study.

What are the tracks?

There are three tracks for first-years to take Chemistry:

  1. Chemistry UN1403 & UN1404 – General Chemistry (2 Semesters). 
  2. Chemistry UN1604 – Intensive General Chemistry/2nd Term General Chemistry (1 Semester).
  3. Chemistry UN2045 & UN2046 – Intensive Organic Chemistry-For 1st Years (2 Semesters), sometimes straddling first-year Spring and Sophomore Fall.

How do I get into the tracks?

During the first few weeks of the semester, usually during the New Student Orientation Program (NSOP), the Chemistry department offers an online placement exam covering material in General Chemistry (Chemistry UN1403 & UN1404). Depending on your performance on the placement exam, you can get recommended for Chemistry UN1604 or Chemistry UN2045.

AP Credit: 

Students with a 4 or 5 on their AP Chemistry exam can qualify for credit depending on their grade in track 2 or 3. For Chemistry UN1604 – Intensive General Chemistry, achieving a C or better grants 3 points of credit. For UN2045 & UN2046 – Intensive Organic Chemistry, achieving a C or better grants 6 points of credit.

Lab Courses:

There are two Chemistry Laboratory Tracks: Chemistry UN1500 – General Chemistry Laboratory, and Chemistry UN1507 – Intensive General Chemistry Lab. For track 1 and track 2, these courses can be taken at any time during a student’s course of study. Students in track three, Chemistry UN2045 – Intensive Organic Chemistry, are required to take CHEM UN1507 – Intensive General Chemistry Lab concurrently.


Chemistry classes at Columbia often have corequisites. These are classes that must be taken concurrently, if a student has no previous study of them. For Chemistry UN1403 – General Chemistry, Mathematics UN1101 – Calculus I is a corequisite. For Chemistry UN1604 – Intensive General Chemistry, Mathematics UN1102 – Calculus II is a corequisite. Luckily, most STEM students are already taking their required math courses during their first year.


Chemistry UN1403 & UN1404 – General Chemistry: ~150-200 students in each section.

Chemistry UN1604 – Intensive General Chemistry: ~120 students maximum, usually much less.

Chemistry UN2045 & UN2046 – Intensive Organic Chemistry: ~35 Student maximum.

Testimonials on each track:


  1. (Intended) major.
  2. Background in Chemistry (High School Chemistry background—whether a standard Chemistry course, AP Chemistry, or higher level Chemistry).
  3. Course Opinion.
  4. Why did you take this Chemistry level?
  5. General format of the course (Homework, exams, quizzes, etc.).
  6. Who do you recommend this Chemistry level for?
  7. Who do you NOT recommend your Chemistry level for?
  8. Any pointers?
  9. Any other information?
  10. For General Chemistry: Which professor do you recommend?

Chemistry UN1403 & UN1404 – General Chemistry:

Testimonial 1: Chemistry UN1403 – General Chemistry with Professor Savizky:

  1. Sophomore studying Computer Science in SEAS.
  2. “I took AP Chemistry and AP Biology in high school. I went to a charter public school with decent funding in a rural/suburban area. Classes were like 20-30 people most of the time sometimes more sometimes less”
  3. “The difficulty of the course was about what I expected, I wasn’t really a fan of [Chemistry] in high school and it was just as difficult. The first half of the class was [material] I remembered from AP Chemistry and the rest was stuff we speedran and smushed into the last couple weeks of AP Chem that wasn’t tested as much.”
  4. “I took General Chemistry because I don’t really have an interest in Chemistry and I just wanted to fulfill my Chemistry requirement as easily as I could.” 
  5. “In the class we had weekly homework assignments online which were really not bad. I spent about 2-4 hours on them which I think is really reasonable and we had weekly quizzes about the content in the previous week’s homework. The quiz difficulty varied heavily based on the TA that were randomly assigned and my quizzes ended up being a lot easier than other quizzes I heard about. We had 3 Midterms and a final. The midterms were not bad but the Final was really tricky.” 
  6. “I’d recommend just staying on top of all of the work and going to lecture. I think it’s really just a lot of memorization so flashcards/Quizlet would probably be good to study.”
  7. “I would not recommend taking General Chemistry unless you need to. I wouldn’t go to any of the higher levels unless you really have a deep interest in Chemistry or are majoring in it, there’s not really a point of stressing yourself out when General Chemistry will fulfill what the other classes fill anyways.”
  8. No pointers. 
  9. No additional information.
  10. “I would recommend Savizky as a professor. I heard nightmares about some of the other professors and his class was the most streamlined format. Other classes had clickers and mandatory attendance and no study guides for exams and sounded a lot more stressful. Savizky is kinda boring but he is funny sometimes.”

Testimonial 2: Chemistry UN1403 – General Chemistry with Professor Wei Min:

  1. Sophomore studying Chemical engineering or Environmental engineering in SEAS.
  2. “Chemistry background: 2 years, General Chemistry and AP Chemistry (cut short by COVID-19)” at a “below average, rural, public high school.” 
  3. “It was exactly as I expected it to be. The content itself was not difficult (especially in comparison to AP Chemistry), but the professors and class structure was really hard to work with. If I could go back (aka knowing now I want to major in an engineering field that required General Chemistry) I would take Intensive General Chemistry.”
  4. “I come from a high school in the middle of nowhere with a middling reputation. I did not trust my background to get me through intensive General Chemistry.”
  5. “Three midterms, 6-ish quizzes, weekly recitation, and a final. In General Chemistry, I had no homework, General Chemistry II had recommended practice problems. This varies wildly based on professor.” 
  6. “For engineering, you don’t get a choice but to take General Chemistry I.” 
  7. “As for continuing the sequence, if you do not dread doing Chemistry homework or reading the Chemistry textbook, continue. That’s rare and “not dreading” is about as much love Chemistry gets. Do not look at your grades. That’s a horrible way to gauge if you should continue on. look at your interest and willingness for the subject instead.”
  8. “Go. To. Office Hours Do. Lots. Of. Practice. Problems. Be terrified but also grateful for the curve 
  9. “General SEAS advice: this is an ivy league college! not high school! it’s ok if your grades aren’t straight A+ like you’re used to. If you’re pre-med and biomedical engineering, keep that shit to yourself. And don’t fuck mechanical engineering men.” 
  10. “DO NOT TAKE WEI MIN. I’ve heard great things about Savizky and Kaufman! Parkin you either hate or love. Beer is atrocious.”

Testimonial 3: Summer ChemistryUN1403-4 Summer General Chemistry

  1. Junior majoring in Environmental Biology.
  2. “I took advanced Chemistry as a sophomore in high school and AP Chemistry as a senior in high school. I went to a local private, non-boarding school.”
  3. “This class was pretty much exactly what I expected! It was the same as General Chemistry I and II in normal semesters, but much, much faster. We had class for three hours every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so it went super quickly. Because I already took AP Chemistry in high school, much of it felt like a review.”
  4. “I was planning on taking General Chemistry I and II during my freshman year but didn’t want to take it online during quarantine. I wanted to have it done, however, by my sophomore year because I thought it would help in my other classes. So, I opted to take it during summer.”
  5. “Five quizzes and three exams per summer session (basically a shortened semester). Nightly uncollected/ungraded problem sets that were pretty much just practice.”
  6. “I recommend this Chemistry format for anyone who finds it easier to focus really hard on only a few things at once. Because we could only take two classes per summer session, I could dedicate a lot of time every day just to Chemistry. This really worked for me, and I did a lot better than I think I would have if I took chem with a normal course load.”
  7. “I do not recommend this Chemistry format for anyone who gets behind on work easily. Because we met every day M-Th, if you got behind, it very quickly became realllllly hard to catch back up. Before you knew it, you had an exam the next day and were four units behind in the material.”
  8. “Do the practice problems every single night!!! This is the easiest way to stay up-to-date with the course content and practice what you need to know for the exams.”
  9. “When I took this class, it was online, but the exams and quizzes were closed-note and used a proctoring system, so I feel like it was pretty close to a normal General Chemistry experience exam-wise. Also, even though people expected the curve to be huge because of how accelerated the class was, our grades were only curved by one sign (like B to B+).”

Chemistry UN1604 – Intensive General Chemistry:

Testimonial 5: Chemistry UN1604 – Intensive General Chemistry with Professor Ann McDermott:

  1. Sophomore studying Medical humanities.
  2. Regular Chemistry and AP Chemistry in high school.
  3. “Difficulty was as expected, placement test is a good indicator of that.”
  4. “I took it just in case I wanted to go pre-med.”
  5. “Format is a weekly quiz not worth much, homework assigned per unit but not checked or graded, exams were 15 multiple choice and we got formula sheets.”
  6. “I recommend it for anyone who doesn’t want to take 2 semesters of Chemistry”
  7. “I don’t recommend Intensive General Chemistry for people who actually want to understand chem in depth.”
  8. “Read the textbook and do the homework!”
  9. “Professor McDermott is really nice but her lectures are dry and confusing. But she gives solid extra credit and on our final she let us essentially retake our 3 midterms (and she took the highest scores only).”

Testimonial 6: UN1604 Intensive General Chemistry with Professor Ann McDermott:

  1. Sophomore planning to major in Chemical Engineering. 
  2. “I took AP Chemistry in high school.”
  3. “I thought Intensive General Chemistry was fine difficulty-wise, but [I] ended up teaching myself over half the class, which makes me wish I had taken Intensive Organic Chemistry (probably would’ve learned something new and exciting, and the studying would’ve been more fun).”
  4. “I took Intensive General Chemistry because that’s what my advisor recommended after seeing that I had taken AP chem (had no idea about the chem tracks before!)” 
  5. “Course was pretty much just midterms & final (and homework that we went over in recitation but was never collected).”
  6. “I think if you’re confident in Chemistry, are ok pretty much learning material on your own (our professor didn’t teach it, she just presented slides that were under-explained and not particularly useful), but don’t want to deal with the stress of Organic Chemistry [during your] first semester, Intensive General Chemistry would be ok; but honestly, I think General Chemistry is a great choice (you lose nothing, especially if you’re not a Chemistry major, and end up learning the same material—although those professors are also challenging).” 
  7. “If you’re not a fan of Chemistry, don’t need to take this class, and want to save time, just skip it!”

UN2045 & UN2046 – Intensive Organic Chemistry:

Testimonial 7: Chemistry UN1604 – Intensive General Chemistry

  1. Sophomore “[planning] to study Biomedical Engineering (main major and course of study) and Applied Physics (as either a major or minor). I’m also considering Chemical Engineering, as either a major or minor as well.”
  2. “In high school, I took all of the chemistry courses available. In 10th I took the advanced/honors chemistry track through the STEM-specialized cohort and in my senior year I took AP Chemistry. I took their corresponding Chemistry lab classes as well. I also had the opportunity to take Honors Biochemistry through a partnership my school had with VHS (The Virtual High School). I also was part of my school’s science team and participated in science competitions/olympiads including Chemistry-specialized ones like the ACS (American Chemical Society) US National Chemistry Olympiad, so I was part of a series of training workshops for competition-level chemistry.”
  3. “The workload and difficulty of the course were expected. One can expect and has to study regularly for the class in order to be up-to-date with all of the weekly topics. Organic Chemistry is considered one of the branches of science to take the most time to understand and master, so given the nature of the class and it being the “intensive” version of a standard Organic Chemistry class (meaning more topics are covered in a shorter period of time), it can seem daunting at first, but after a couple of weeks you start getting the hang of the schedule and class format!! :))” 
  4. “I took Intensive Organic Chemistry because I’m really passionate about Chemistry and research. I love learning more every day about this fascinating field and having the opportunity to start learning about Organic Chemistry as early as my first year seemed like the perfect opportunity for me. I also wanted to challenge myself in a fun way and see how scientific creativity can take a protagonic role when learning about this branch of Chemistry.”
  5. “So in general, you can expect 3 to 4 midterms (depending on the professor), and also depending on the number of midterms and/or professor, your lowest midterm score would be dropped. Each midterm is 75 minutes in length. The final is 3 hours. There’s a series of quizzes as well, usually 5 or 6, depending on the number of topics covered. Usually what professors do is that they combine the scores of all of your quizzes and that would count as either an exam score or a specific percentage weight of your final/total grade. Depending on the number of quizzes and/or professor, your lowest quiz score may be dropped. Some professors also have group assignments that may add up to be the equivalent of a test grade. In my experience, I haven’t had homework that counts for your grade, but we’ve had PSETs and past quizzes/exams to practice the topics for the class.”
  6. “I recommend Intensive Organic Chemistry for people who are passionate about chemistry and/or are very eager and excited to know more about this beautiful field. I HIGHLY recommend taking Intensive Organic Chemistry if you’re going to do a major found within the Chemistry department and/or if you want to pursue research in this field. It’s also important for the student to have a very solid general Chemistry background, along with a good amount of knowledge in the fields of thermodynamics and electrochemistry.”
  7. “I do not recommend this class if you don’t like Chemistry, and/or if you feel that your general Chemistry background isn’t strong enough just yet to pursue the Intensive Organic Chemistry class. It’s very very important to have a solid Chemistry background since we start discussing topics from day 1 that require a really good understanding of General Chemistry.”
  8. “Some pointers would be to study regularly for the class. A little bit every day. For Organic Chemistry, you can’t study at the last minute and let all of the topics-to-learn accumulate over time. You have to understand the first topic to understand the next one, and so forth. It’s the type of class in which you have to understand everything sequentially because every topic builds off the next one. I also greatly recommend going to office hours as much as you can and go to all of the lectures. Attending recitation (which is a class section in which the TA gives topic reviews and also the quizzes for the days they’re assigned) is also very important for success in the class. And lastly, but definitely not least: Don’t be afraid to ask questions!! No question is stupid, especially in Organic Chemistry, trust me.”
  9. “The work and effort you put into this class is so worth it. The experience and skills you come out with is invaluable, and it will give you a very good foundation for knowledge that’s necessary to understand and be part of research in the chemical sciences. I’m very grateful to have taken this class. It opened up so many opportunities for me on-campus. You will also create a solid support system and network with the Chemistry department! I have been able to work as a Chemistry lab assistant for some Havemeyer Chemistry laboratories and I’m also currently an undergraduate researcher/member/research assistant at one of the Chemistry labs on campus!”

Final Words

Use the above for guidance on which Chemistry track is the best fit; the only person who knows their Chemistry ability for certain is you!

Helen West Heller’s Chemistry-Cosmic Ray via Artvee