The "Distribution Requirement"

April 1, 2020

I’m a tour guide with Orange Key, Princeton’s student tour guide service. Other than “What is your most commonly asked question?” the question I am most frequently asked is about the different kinds of classes required for Princeton students. It makes sense: coming from high school, where courses for students are mostly pre-determined, many students are itching for the opportunity to take courses in subjects they’re passionate about. Oftentimes, students aren’t excited about a potential new slate of mandatory classes. 

My answer is always the same: there’s only one required class at Princeton, but even that is largely up to you. Every student has to take a Writing Seminar, a semester-long course that teaches students to formulate researchable questions in preparation for junior and senior independent work. Not every writing seminar is the same, however. After being assigned to either the fall or spring semester, students are sent a list of the different seminar options to choose from. Usually, these fall into clear interest areas: seminars offered this semester include “The Future of Food” and “Justice Beyond Borders.” The customizable nature of the writing seminar tailors even this required class to student interests.

Princeton’s set of distribution requirements also affects students’ course choices. These are different for students in the Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) and Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E.) programs. Students enrolled in A.B. programs — which I describe to my tour groups as “(A)nything (B)ut” Engineering — must take ten courses of their choosing across seven different broad ‘distributions,’ in addition to achieving proficiency in a foreign language. These distributions include categories like “Social Analysis,” which covers everything from psychology to politics to journalism. For B.S.E. students — our engineers — the situation is a bit different. In addition to general math and science courses relevant to their chosen disciplines, engineering students must take four classes among the non-quantitative distribution areas.

I tell my tour groups that I think Princeton’s distribution requirement system captures the best of both worlds. On one hand, it clearly frees you from the monotony of high school classes: with the exception of the customizable Writing Seminar, there’s nothing you have to take. I didn’t want to see math in college, and aside from a Politics-y statistics course, I haven’t! But the distribution requirements also push you out of your comfort zone: I’ve taken classes on everything from bridges to audio journalism (complete with an expenses-paid trip to Alabama and Mississippi) in fulfillment of my distribution requirements, and they’ve allowed me to enjoy disciplines I never dreamed I would.