Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
College introduces you to new friends, new music, new room-decorating possibilities, and new opportunities to copulate with adventurous, intellectually engaged young people. The Gazette is of the firm belief that you should take advantage of all the extracurricular opportunities that Swarthmore offers. Make new friends, listen to new music, decorate your room, and by all means do your best to have a lot of sex.
Sometime around Friday of orientation week, however, it will hit you that the reason you’re at Swarthmore is because Swarthmore has a faculty, that the faculty teach courses, and that these courses are ones you’re expected to attend. Along with attending, you’re expected to write papers, take tests, and, if you make a number of wrong decisions in your academic career, even do problem sets. This fact is sometimes known as the “Great Catch.”
Swarthmore, as you’ll get tired of hearing, is academically quite rigorous. Because you’ll spend so much time in class or studying, it behooves you to make good academic decisions. Here I will dispense 6 pieces of advice:
1. All your courses are pass-fail first term, so try to get some distribution requirements out of the way. Don’t go overboard—you want to enjoy your first semester and that means taking courses you like—but if you’ve never been too good at the Humanities then get your Intro to Philosophy out of the way. You may even find that you enjoy the course more when you’re hyperventilating about your grade less.
2. Freshmen seminars are overrated. Swarthmore socializes you quite powerfully, and many students become more intellectually engaged as they grow older. Freshmen seminars are very redolent of high school.
3. Just because you’re certain you want to be a History major doesn’t mean you’re going to be a History major. You’ve likely never taken a Philosophy, Political Science, Soc/Anth, or Economics course before—and if you have, you’ve probably only taken one—so how could you know what you want to major in? (You couldn’t, is the point.) So absolutely don’t take more than one course in any one discipline during your first two semesters. It’s extremely easy to satisfy requirements for most majors, so you should really use freshman year to explore.
4. You may think that all Swarthmore professors are going to be great, because the great advantage of liberal arts colleges is that you get professors who are more interested in teaching than they are in achieving renown. You’d be wrong. Most professors are dedicated to teaching and awesome in the classroom; some really aren’t. So be sure to ask upper-classmen about professors before enrolling in their classes.
5. Relatedly, take advantage of the shopping period to sit in on a lot of classes. The first couple of classes are a pretty good indication of what the course is ultimately going to be like. Remember that if you don’t enjoy the professor, you’re unlikely to enjoy the class.
6. There is lot more good academic advice out there. Take advantage of Student Academic Mentors (SAMs), upper-classmen, and your faculty advisor.