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Image from gratisography.

When considering what colleges to apply to/attend, it is easy to forget about the little things like graduation requirements. That being said, they can actually have a huge impact on your college experience. Everything from study abroad to double majoring can be hugely impacted by what graduation requirements you have. While each college/university is different, graduation requirements can generally be categorized one of three ways. Here we are going to explore the pros and cons of each so that you can work to make a more informed decision.

Open Curriculum

When a school has an open curriculum they have no specific graduation requirements. Don’t like math and plan to be a philosophy major? Congrats you never have to take calculus. It is most common at small private schools, especially liberal arts colleges. When a school has an open curriculum your graduation requirements tend to be a major and a certain number of credits. Brown University does a great job of explaining the philosophy behind having an open curriculum. They say:

“Brown’s Open Curriculum is based on three principles. The first is that students ought to take an active role in their education by assuming responsibility for the direction of their learning. Secondly, an undergraduate education is seen as a process of individual and intellectual development, rather than simply a way to transmit a set body of information. Finally, the curriculum should encourage individuality, experimentation, and the integration and synthesis of different disciplines.”

Pros: If there is a subject area that makes you extremely uncomfortable or for some other reason will lead to a unpleasant college experience you can avoid it very easily. Additionally, having so few requirements makes it much easier to do things like double (or even triple major) and study abroad. It also means the graduating early may be more realistic and attainable.

Cons: Going to a school with an open curriculum (Smith College), one of the biggest issues I see is people who refuse to take anything outside of their comfort zone. You should use your time in college not only to explore your pre-existing interests but also other things. If you feel that academic exploration is necessary for you but you also know yourself well enough to know that you won’t leave your comfort zone, then an open curriculum may not be the best option for you.

Distribution Requirements

Distribution requirements are when courses fall into various categories like natural sciences and social sciences. You are then required to take a certain number of courses from each of these categories. There is a spectrum of how specific distribution requirements are. At Davidson College there are eight categories (ranging from liberal studies, to mathematical and quantitative thought) and students must take one course from each category. While at Wellesley College there are three categories of courses and students must take three courses for each of the categories.

Pros: If you are naturally interested in a range of topics then these requirements can be rather easy to meet. They can also push you outside of your comfort zone without making you take specific courses that you may really want to avoid. If a student plans early they also tend to be easy to fulfill.

Cons: If you are hesitant to take courses for certain distributions and procrastinate on doing so, you may later struggle with things like graduating early or studying abroad.

General Education Requirements

General education requirements are the most specific of the three. Again there is a spectrum in regards to just how specific they are. On the less specific side you will see schools that explicitly require you to take a certain number of courses from specific departments (like math or English), which isn’t actually very different than distribution requirements. The most particular of requirements will include specific courses that you must take (such as Introductory US History or Calculus).

Pros: Similar to with the distribution requirements, general education requirements will push you to explore a range of subjects making you more well rounded and knowledgeable. If you enter college completely undecided it will also help you to find some subjects that interest you.

Cons: Again, the main cons basically consist of potential issues with graduating early/studying abroad. Also if you truly hate a subject, general education requirements may be too specific for you to find around a particular course.

Hopefully all of this has helped you to better understand the pros and cons of different types of graduation requirements!

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the author

Samantha Linder is a sophomore at Smith College where she is double majoring in neuroscience and art history. Samantha's favorite words include hippocampus, logorrhea, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

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