General Education Requirements

Princeton is committed to offering an academic program that allows each student to achieve a truly liberal education. Although each department and school has its own requirements, the University requirements for graduation transcend the boundaries of specialization and provide all students with a common language and common skills. It is as important for a student in engineering to engage in disciplined reflection on human conduct, character, and ways of life or to develop critical skills through the study of the history, aesthetics, and theory of literature and the arts as it is for a student in the humanities to understand the rigors of quantitative reasoning and to develop a basic knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of scientific inquiry and technological development.

General Education Requirements for A.B. Students

  • Writing Seminar--one course
  • Foreign Language--one to four terms to complete, depending on the language students study and the level at which they start
  • Epistemology and Cognition (EC)--one course
  • Ethical Thought and Moral Values (EM)--one course
  • Historical Analysis (HA)--one course
  • Literature and the Arts (LA)--two courses
  • Quantitative Reasoning (QR)--one course
  • Science and Technology (STL/STN)--two courses. At least one course must be a science and technology course with laboratory (STL). Students may elect a second laboratory science course, or a nonlaboratory science course (STN).
  • Social Analysis (SA)--two courses

General Education Requirements for B.S.E. Students

In addition to the School of Engineering and Applied Science requirements of four terms of mathematics including multivariable calculus and linear algebra, two terms of physics, and one term each of chemistry and computer science, candidates for the B.S.E. degree must fulfill the writing requirement by taking a writing seminar in the first year and take a minimum of seven courses in the humanities and social sciences. The humanities and social science courses must include one course in four of the six areas listed below:

  • Epistemology and Cognition (EC)
  • Ethical Thought and Moral Values (EM)
  • Foreign Language (at the 107/108 level or above)
  • Historical Analysis (HA)
  • Literature and the Arts (LA)
  • Social Analysis (SA)

Language courses beyond the first year also count toward the seven; a language course at the 107/108 level or above counts toward the seven and satisfies one of four distribution requirements. Students majoring in Chemical and Biological Engineering are required to fulfill one distribution area with a course in Ethical Thought and Moral Values (EM).


Undergraduates at Princeton are expected to develop the ability to write clearly and persuasively. Toward this end, all students, without exception, must fulfill the University writing requirement by taking a multidisciplinary writing seminar in the first year. Writing seminars have a common goal--for students, through practice and guidance, to master essential strategies and techniques of college-level inquiry and argument. In addition to writing frequently and completing several major assignments of increasing complexity, students receive intensive instruction in academic writing, submit drafts for review, and participate in one-on-one conferences with the instructor. While writing seminars focus on the skills necessary for effective critical reading and writing, they differ in the topics and texts assigned. Students request their seminar based on their interests and schedule; they may drop their assigned seminar only in exceptional circumstances and with the approval of their Dean or Director of Studies as well as the Director of the Princeton Writing Program.

Foreign Language

Proficiency in a foreign language is required for graduation under the A.B. program. Many undergraduates satisfy the foreign language requirement by demonstrating proficiency when they enter the University; proficiency is demonstrated by documenting the results of AP tests or SAT Subject Tests, or by taking placement tests administered by academic departments at Princeton. Those tests can also determine whether a student is eligible to elect advanced courses (200 and 300 level). See the individual department entries for further information.

Foreign language study is required through successful completion on a graded basis of courses normally numbered 107 (or 108) in a language taken at Princeton, or through demonstration of an equivalent level of competence (for instance, by completing an upper-level course that has been determined to require foreign language proficiency at or above the 107 level as a prerequisite). When an undergraduate begins a language at Princeton, three or four terms of study will usually be necessary. If continuing a language begun elsewhere, the student is placed at an appropriate level. All A.B. candidates should begin meeting this requirement as soon as possible because students are expected to develop proficiency in a foreign language by the end of junior year.  Students with questions about particular courses and their relationship to the language requirement should speak with their residential college dean or director of studies.

Foreign language competence is usually necessary for any student who proposes to earn graduate degrees in arts and sciences. Certain professional schools also expect applicants to have ability in one or more foreign languages. There are also increasing opportunities to study a language in a country in which it is spoken through term-time and summer study abroad programs. For these reasons, each student should anticipate language needs and plan a program of study accordingly. Many descriptions of departmental programs of study make reference to the languages appropriate for graduate study in that field.

Distribution Areas

The distribution areas described below should serve as a broad intellectual map for students to follow as they work their way through the curriculum. These distribution areas mark the boundaries of what the faculty believes are the important substantive fields of inquiry and methodological approaches that are integral to a rich and lasting undergraduate education. There are no required courses; instead, the areas encourage students to make choices that best suit their intellectual curiosity and academic goals.

Courses that fulfill specific distribution areas will be identified by the alphabetical letters that appear as part of the course information provided in this catalog or in Course Offerings for a given semester. Where two courses are required within a distribution area, they need not be from the same academic department or program.

Courses elected on a pass/D/fail basis will satisfy distribution areas; however, audit-pass courses will not. Student-initiated seminars, reading courses, and graduate courses do not fulfill distribution area requirements. A student may, for sound educational reasons and with the prior approval of the residential college dean or the director of studies and the appropriate departmental representative, complete certain distribution courses at another college or university. Approvals will be limited to one course in each of two of the following distribution areas: literature and the arts, social analysis, and science and technology. Students participating in the study abroad program during the academic year may, with proper approvals, fulfill up to two distribution requirements abroad, provided that the total number of distribution requirements fulfilled by the courses taken outside of Princeton does not exceed two.

Students usually complete their distribution courses by the end of junior year. Most undergraduates find that the distribution requirements are met simply through electing courses in a variety of departments and programs. Questions about the distribution areas should be discussed with the residential college dean or the director of studies.

Epistemology and Cognition

The requirement in epistemology and cognition introduces students to the critical study of the nature, sources, and bounds of human knowledge. While courses in other areas examine important modes of cognition or methods of inquiry in application to a particular subject matter, courses in this category take cognition itself as their subject matter, and explore its mechanisms, potential, and limitations from a wide variety of theoretical, historical, and empirical perspectives. The topics they examine range from the basic perceptual capabilities that humans share with other animals to the distinctively human capacity for language; from theoretical models of human knowledge to empirical models of an individual's cognitive abilities; from the historical record of collective inquiry in the sciences and elsewhere to informed speculations on the outer limits of what is knowable.

Courses in this category are drawn largely from the Departments of Anthropology, Philosophy, and Psychology, and the Program in Linguistics. They introduce students to the critical study of human knowledge and thought processes. Their focus is on human beings as seekers of knowledge and builders/creators of knowledge systems. These courses raise questions about the conditions, limits, and validity of our claims to “know” and approach critically the various claims about what we know and how we know.

Ethical Thought and Moral Values

The requirement in ethical thought and moral values is designed to engage students in disciplined reflection on human conduct, character, and ways of life. Through inquiry into questions of ethics and morality as presented in works from one or more cultural traditions, these courses will help students to discern, understand, and appreciate ethical issues and to articulate, assess, and defend moral judgments in an informed and thoughtful way. Source materials may include theoretical works in various disciplines, political deliberations, autobiographies, and utopian and dystopian novels, among others. Regardless of the particular genres and the traditions to which these works belong, courses in this area focus on the ethical thought and moral values that shape individual and collective life.

Every society draws distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, noble and ignoble. Courses in this category focus on ethical questions and moral deliberations, regardless of the historical, cultural, or religious context in which they occur. They are drawn largely, though not exclusively, from the Departments of Philosophy, Politics, and Religion. The aim of these courses is to help students explore and understand different value systems, to think about the possibility of commonalities across historical and cultural boundaries, and to introduce ways of making reasoned moral judgments.

Historical Analysis

Historical analysis begins with the problem of understanding the differences between the world of contemporary experience and the worlds of the past. Some courses in historical analysis focus on the distinctiveness of one or another part of the past, with the intention of bringing students to an understanding of political, social, and cultural configurations quite different from their own. Others stress the processes of historical change through which one configuration of institutions, ideas, and behavior is supplanted by another. Common to all courses in historical analysis is the presumption that the categories of social analysis are themselves historical and historically contingent, and that to understand the past requires entering imaginatively into languages, institutions, and worldviews quite different from those of the present day.

Courses in this category are drawn largely, though not exclusively, from the Departments of Classics, East Asian Studies, History, Near Eastern Studies, and Religion. The aim of these courses is to explore the contingency, interconnectedness, and continuity of human institutions, and to introduce the complexities of historical interpretation. Some courses focus on a distinctive historical period or a specific region; others follow the development of ideas and institutions through time; and yet others focus on the inter-relatedness of events in many parts of the world.

Literature and the Arts

The requirement in literature and the arts allows students to develop critical skills through the study of the history, aesthetics, and theory of literature and the arts, and to engage in creative practice. Students may choose among courses in literature (in English, English translation, or other languages), visual and performing arts, music, architecture, film, and electronic media. In addition to courses emphasizing critical analysis, students may explore the creative arts through practice in creative writing; in the studio arts of architecture, painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography; in the performing arts of music, theater, and dance; and in the media of film and video.

Courses in this area fall into two groups: those that emphasize a variety of critical and analytic approaches to artistic expression and those that engage students in the creative practice of "making" art. Courses in the first group are drawn largely, though not exclusively, from the Departments of Art and Archaeology, Classics, Comparative Literature, East Asian Studies, English, French and Italian, German, Music, Near Eastern Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, and the School of Architecture. These courses emphasize the development of the skills of reading, observing, and hearing and frequently point to the complex interplay between individual talent, artistic tradition, and historical context. Courses in the second group are drawn largely from the Programs in Creative Writing, Dance, Theater, and Visual Arts, as well as from the Department of Music and the School of Architecture. These courses emphasize the interplay between technical discipline and creative imagination in the production of works of art.

Quantitative Reasoning

Quantitative reasoning is a process in which complex problems are described mathematically and solved within a structured mathematical framework. Courses in this area involve the manipulation and interpretation of numerical and categorical information and the quantification of inferences drawn from that information. Appropriate courses include those that address theoretical and empirical problems in the natural, social, computer, and engineering sciences.

The goal of courses in this category is to give students some understanding of basic mathematical methods and their applications; to provide them with an ability to understand and appreciate quantitative issues that have become part of everyday life; and to instill in them a lasting interest in quantitative methods and their applications. Courses in this category are drawn from the Departments of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Operations Research and Financial Engineering, as well as from other departments in the social sciences, the natural sciences, and engineering.

Science and Technology

The requirement in science and technology is designed to give all students a basic knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of scientific inquiry and technological development. Some understanding of the process by which science discovers new knowledge, and engineering applies that knowledge to practice, is essential to functioning effectively in modern society. Courses in this area are designed to foster an understanding of scientific concepts and to develop the student's ability to use experimentation and measurement in exploring and testing ideas.

The common purpose of courses in this area is to instill in students a lasting interest in science and technology; to impart some understanding of the value of scientific thinking and its relation to societal issues; to foster an appreciation of the essential role of experimentation and measurement; and to convey the excitement of doing scientific research. The laboratory component is essential to an understanding of how scientific concepts are tested and of the limitations of the scientific method, including the concepts of error and reproducibility. Students must take at least one course in science and technology with laboratory (STL). The second course can either be a laboratory science course (STL) or a nonlaboratory science course (STN). Courses in this area are drawn largely from the Departments of Chemistry; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Geosciences; Molecular Biology; Physics; Psychology; and Civil and Environmental, Electrical, and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, as well as from the offerings of the Council on Science and Technology.

Social Analysis

The requirement in social analysis is designed to familiarize students with different approaches to the study of social life and to introduce them to modes of thinking about social institutions and cultural norms and their interconnectedness with forms of human behavior. Courses in this area examine how individuals interact with, and are shaped by, social groups and institutions, including those associated with politics, economics, religion, family, the arts, health, and education; how and why particular forms of social organization and social relations emerge within a group or culture; and the origins, characteristics, and consequences of social conflict and change.

Courses in this area introduce students to some of the central concepts and methods of the social sciences and show both the variety and the interconnectedness of social institutions. Courses are drawn primarily from the Departments of Anthropology, Economics, Politics, Religion, Sociology, and the Woodrow Wilson School. Some take a comparative approach to institutions across historical, political, social, or cultural divides; others focus on the interface of several institutions--political, economic, artistic--in a given social context; yet others analyze a single institution--be it democratic education, a free market economy, or the nuclear family structure--and assess its role in society. Courses in this category look at institutions as shaped by human behavior and at human behavior as shaped, in turn, by social institutions.