Choosing First-Year Courses

A liberal arts education involves expanding your breadth of knowledge. Your course choices will reflect your interests and background, but do not be afraid to try courses in areas that are totally new to you. The curriculum offers a diverse array of subjects, many of which aren’t available in most high schools. Your first two years, in particular, should be times when you experiment, try new fields, and expose yourself to a wide range of disciplines.

You will be assigned a First-year Academic Advisor in May. They are eager to help you during registration and are available to answer any questions you have, continuing on throughout the summer. You will meet with them when you arrive on campus in the fall to review your schedule. You will be able to change courses into the first week of classes, but pre-registration is your best chance at getting into the courses that interest you, so take this opportunity seriously. Be thorough in your exploration of the course catalog as you choose your first year courses.

The Departments and Program Descriptions link will help you get started choosing classes in whichever department interests you. There you will also find links to department and program web sites. Feel free to contact the department and program faculty as well as your first-year advisor any time you have questions over the summer or once you arrive.


Department and Program Descriptions

  • Tips When Choosing Courses
    • Read course descriptions carefully: make sure you fulfill the prerequisites of a course before you sign up. Try to pick courses with varied forms of course evaluations. For example, avoid having too many final papers which will push your course load to the end of the semester.
    • Understand that pre-registration is a request for the classes you would like to take, but you may not be enrolled in all the courses you pre-register for. The Registrar’s office will let you know if you need to choose a different course.
    • Consider classes outside of your comfort zone. A liberal arts education is about stretching your knowledge and experiencing new things. Williams has many resources to help all students, so feel free to experiment with your class schedule.
    • Plan with your spring semester in mind: many classes offered during the fall semester are not offered in the spring semester, and vice versa. Make sure you are taking prerequisite courses required for a class you want to take in the spring. Keep in mind that in subjects like math, sciences, and foreign language, you may be placed into a class that is not offered in the fall.
    • Limits on first-year concentrations: To encourage you to explore the breadth of the Williams liberal arts experience, first-year students may take no more than one course with the same prefix and no more than two courses in the same department in a semester. For example, you cannot take two English courses in the same semester since all English courses have the prefix ENGL. You could, however, take both Art History (ARTH) and Studio Art (ARTS) in the same semester because they have different course prefixes.
    • Pass-Fail option: if you want to take a course but are not confident in your skills in that subject, consider the pass-fail option if it’s available for the course (check the course listing). Students may take up to three courses during their time at Williams on a pass-fail basis, but no more than one in a semester. At any time after drop/add up to the tenth week of the semester, a student may designate a course pass-fail, assuming the option is available for the course. This way, the course will count as one of the 32 classes required to graduate, but will not hurt their GPA. Courses taken pass-fail cannot subsequently be used to fulfill distributional requirements (divisional, W, Q, and EDI). No course counting toward a major, certificate, or concentration can be taken pass-fail unless this course is the first one taken toward that credential. (In rare circumstances, chairs of programs or departments may grant exceptions to this rule.)
    • Preparation for the Health Professions: There is no pre-med or pre-health major at Williams. However, if you are considering applying to medical school after Williams, you will need to complete the courses required by professional schools. You should take these courses into account when planning your first-year load. The Health Professions Office within the Office of Career Counseling serves all students with an interest in medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, public health and any allied health field.
    • It is not too early to think about Study Away
    • Also, not too early to think about Experiential Education Opportunities 
  • Rules and Regulations
    • Completion of a Major: Usually 9 or 10 courses in one field. What you think you might major in now is likely to change once you start taking classes! You won’t declare a major until the end of sophomore year, so you should explore many possibilities as well as taking the basic classes for departments you may be interested. Read the requirements for any majors you are considering in the Course Catalog.
    • AP, IB, A-level, or college-level courses: these classes will not count towards the 32 classes needed for graduation, but may exempt you from some prerequisites. Individual departments have specific policies for AP and IB If you have yet to receive results from tests, you should make a best guess on an appropriate level course. If you have taken college-level courses, you should contact the pertinent department chair to discuss how that prior work might impact course selection.
    • Full-year courses: courses with a hyphenated odd and even number are full-year courses. This would include the introductory Art History class and first-year language courses. Both semesters of these hyphenated courses must be completed in order to receive credit. ex) if you take ARTH 101, you must take ARTH 102 to receive credit for ARTH 101.
    • Divisional Requirement: Three graded (not Pass/Fail) semester courses from each of three divisions, with two in each division completed by the end of sophomore year. The courses used to meet the divisional requirement must be from at least two different subjects in each division.The divisions are: 1. Languages and the Arts (Div. 1) 2. Social Studies (Div. 2) 3. Science and Mathematics (Div. 3)
    • Exploring Diversity Initiative (D): These courses encourage a life-long engagement with the diverse cultures, societies, and histories of the United States and the rest of the world. Students are required to complete at least one Exploring Diversity course.
    • Writing Requirement (W): Writing is an important skill that all students are expected to develop while at Williams. Students must complete two writing intensive courses. One of these courses must be completed by the end of the sophomore year and the other by the end of the junior year.
    • Quantitative/Formal Reasoning Requirement (Q): Students must take one class that develops quantitative and formal reasoning skills.
    • Winter Study: students are expected to complete 4 Winter Study courses. First-years cannot participate in an off-campus, travel, or independent study(99) course.
    • Physical education: You are required to complete four quarters of Physical Education credit by the end of your sophomore year. You will register for a section of Physical Education upon your arrival on campus in the fall. 
  • Writing at Williams

    Writing is a vitally important skill for students in all areas of study, and will be crucial in many aspects of life after college. We want all Williams students to develop their writing skills during their years here. Most 100 level Writing Intensive courses and some 200 level courses are geared towards preparing first-years to write at a college level. Students of all writing backgrounds are encouraged to take these classes. If you feel like you could benefit from extra attention with your writing, we encourage you to talk to your first-year advisor so that they can direct you to the appropriate courses.

    While at Williams, peer tutors at the Writing Workshop are available to work with students at all stages of the writing process.

  • International Education and Foreign Language Study

    Williams offers many courses for students who want to learn a new language, or continue their language studies. Foreign-language study enriches many majors and concentrations, and encourages an international outlook. In addition, many study-abroad and graduate programs require foreign language study at the college level. Students with foreign-language proficiency make themselves more competitive candidates for jobs in business, foreign-affairs, and many other areas. 

  • Williams Placement Exams

    There are a number of placement exams that first-year students take during First Days to help determine what courses they may enroll in. Only one of these exams—the Quantitative Studies diagnostic test—is required of all first-year students. The other placement exams should be taken by any students wishing to enroll in courses for which a particular exam is required.

    Foreign Language Placement Exams

    All students who wish to continue the study of a modern foreign language should take the placement examination in that language during First Days. Please indicate on the online Placement Information Form in PeopleSoft if you intend to take a language placement exam during First Days. Your advisor will have your placement results at your first meeting with him or her; you may also want to consult faculty of the language departments at the open house during First Days about proper placement. Note that the Spanish language placement test is offered online.

    Quantitative Skills

    Before arriving on campus, incoming students need to complete our Quantitative Literacy and Reasoning Assessment.  Your results, along with other indicators, will help us advise you on your paths to complete the Quantitative and Formal Reasoning course requirement as well as explore your desired major and career.

    Students who have concerns about their quantitative skills are invited to speak with a quantitative skills counselor during First Days. We will go over your personal history in mathematics, discuss the science and math requirements at Williams, let you know what resources and programs are available on campus, and set up a course of study to address your specific needs.

    Other Placement Tests

    Placement in mathematics courses will be based on the online Math/Stat Placement Form. Please complete this form online even if you are not enrolling in mathematics or statistics courses for fall semester. Placement in Chemistry courses will be based on the online Chemistry survey, which must be completed online by June 19, and a one-on-one consultation with a Chemistry faculty member, completed during First Days. See the First Days calendar, which is currently under construction and will be periodically updated prior to First Days in September, for times and places. 

  • Registering for Classes

    A.  Registration Timeline

    B.  Browse through the Online Catalog


    M = Monday T = Tuesday W = Wednesday R = Thursday F = Friday

    Fall (F)

    Spring (S)

    Lecture (LEC)

    Seminar (SEM)

    Studio (STU)

    Tutorial (TUT)

    Independent study (IND) (not available to first-year students)

    Conference (CON) and Lab (LAB): required in conjunction with some lectures or seminars.