Core Curriculum and Distribution Requirements: erm, what?

Students used to choosing a university based on entrance grades for a particular subject - I need A*AA for History at Oxford, or BBC for Business at UWE - can find the US college process highly complex. If you have been through the A Level system, which makes you choose the right combination of subjects needed to enter a university, it can often seem bewildering:

Hang on, I’m not applying to study one single subject? When I get there, I’m going to study more than just my subject? I might even have to study things I didn’t even like at GCSE?

When choosing which US universities to apply to, students not in the US system can often overlook this factor, but students in the USA (and those from outside the US with good advisers) will be paying close attention to this. As a very basic point of ‘fit’ in the college process, what a student will have to study at one university can be radically different from that at another. Different universities will specify in different ways the range of subjects students are required to distribute their classes across, as well as a core curriculum which every student - regardless of major - must study. A major is not a degree subject as in the UK or Europe, and at some colleges only about a third of what a student will study will actually be classes within their major.

To flesh this out, these links explain how the curricula at MIT and Harvard are constructed and the range of subjects students must study:

https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/mit-curriculum-guide/

https://fdo.fas.harvard.edu/harvard-college-curriculum

Yes, there are some similarities, but also some key differences. And, if you were being honest, did you expect the requirements at MIT to include so much that’s not science or Maths? Or, as this link shows, that to get a degree from Columbia you are going to have to take a swimming test:

https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/classes/physed.php

Then, there are some US colleges which don't have any requirements to study a broad education, famously Brown is one:

https://www.brown.edu/academics/college/degree/curriculum

On the other hand, there are colleges such as Georgia Tech, Rochester Tech and Olin which allow students to have a much more STEM-focused education, for example:

http://www.olin.edu/academics/curriculum/

And beyond these there are even quirkier options, with St John’s College being my favourite:

https://www.sjc.edu/academic-programs/undergraduate/great-books-reading-list

Too many international applicants overlook these issues when drafting their college list, and then run into problems when writing their application essays for each college: it’s hard to explain why you want to go to a college when you don’t truly understand what that college’s curriculum is going to be like.

In my counselling, and that of my colleagues, this process has to come first. The amazing thing about the variety of educational provision at US universities is that there is so much on offer: there truly is something for everyone. One of the greatest pleasures of my work is helping people find the college that fits them.

USADavid Hawkins