General Education Requirements

Princeton’s general education distribution requirements represent different ways of knowing, all of which the University believes are essential for educated citizenship.  While each student will concentrate in a discipline, a broad exposure to other kinds of knowledge will enhance students’ ability to discern what questions can be answered through methods native to their own fields and what questions require other methods.

For example, a lab experiment can show how a biological process operates, while evaluating whether that process is morally right or wrong requires the incorporation of ethically informed reasoning.  A historical study can challenge widespread beliefs about events in the past, but it cannot explain how those beliefs shape human behavior in the present without the methods used in social analysis.

Exposure to a variety of academic disciplines not only helps us identify the right intellectual tools for the task at hand, but also deepens our respect for the variety of ways human beings seek to understand our world.  The general education requirements offer students the chance to develop both intellectual rigor and humility by considering the possibilities and limitations of all forms of academic inquiry.

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
  • Culture and Difference (CD)—one course
  • 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 and Computational Reasoning (QR)—one  course
  • Science and Engineering (SEL/SEN)—two courses.  At least one course must be a science and engineering course with laboratory (SEL).  Students may elect a second laboratory science course, or a non-laboratory science course (SEN).
  • 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 seven areas listed below:

  • Culture and Difference (CD)
  • 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 writing seminar in the freshman 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 select their seminar based on their interests.

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 for students who don’t demonstrate proficiency as described above 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 (link is external) for a given semester.  Where two courses are required within a distribution area, they need not be from the same academic department or program.  Some courses will carry two distribution areas; students may use one (but not both) to count for their degree progress.  The one exception to this is the Culture and Difference requirement, which students may elect to satisfy either independently or simultaneously with one other distribution area.

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 the following distribution areas: literature and the arts, social analysis, and science and engineering without lab.

Students participating in the study abroad program during the academic year may, with proper approvals, fulfill up to two distribution requirements abroad.

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.

Culture and Difference (CD)

The requirement in Culture and Difference begins with the premise that human beings experience the world through their respective cultures—the ideas, meanings, norms, and habituations – that are represented in the arts and literature, laws and institutions, and social practices of human societies whose histories and power relationships often differ from one another.  Found across a wide range of disciplines, these courses use cultural analysis to trace the ways in which human beings construct meaning both within and across groups.  Culture and Difference courses offer students a lens through which other forms of disciplinary inquiry are enhanced, critiqued, and clarified, often paying close attention to the experiences and perspectives of groups who have historically been excluded from dominant cultural narratives or structures of social power.  The requirement in Culture and Difference is the only requirement that may be satisfied either independently or concurrently with another distribution area.

Epistemology and Cognition (EC)

Courses in Epistemology and Cognition address the nature and limits of human knowledge.  The cognitive sciences and related fields study human reasoning as it is.  Epistemology — the philosophical theory of knowledge — studies human reasoning as it ought to be.  Both areas of inquiry focus simultaneously on the manifold sources of human knowledge and on the many ways in which human reasoning can be distorted or undermined.  Courses in this group are offered in a number of departments, but share the common goal of encouraging students to reflect on the linguistic, psychological, and cultural structures that make knowledge possible.  Individual departments may also offer courses in disciplinary “ways of knowing” that invite students to consider the epistemological assumptions and methodological principles that inform research in their fields.

Ethical Thought and Moral Values (EM)

Human beings often disagree about matters of right and wrong, and about how we ought to organize our lives together.  The ethical and moral conclusions we reach, however, are not mere matters of opinion.  Ethical decisions emerge from fundamental ideas about the nature and possibility of the “good,” our duties and obligations to one another, our aspirations for a virtuous and meaningful life, and the demands of justice.  These ideas, often shaped by ancient traditions of religion and culture, guide the moral questions we ask and the conclusions we reach.  Courses in Ethical Thought and Moral Values equip students to understand the basis of their own moral reasoning and ethical issues as they arise in social life, while also cultivating the possibility of a common ethical language among people whose traditions and values differ.

Historical Analysis (HA)

Historical analysis invites students to enter imaginatively into languages, institutions, and worldviews of the past.  It grounds us in the awareness that human life and culture are thousands of years old, and that the world we experience in the present is only a fraction of all that it ever was.  Fundamental to historical analysis is the study of change over time:  why and how did cities rise and fall, technologies develop, the social roles of men and women transform?  Because we can never directly experience the past, historical analysis depends on the subjective selection and interpretation of texts, artifacts, and other evidence, and from the same evidence many different stories can often be told.  Historical analysis requires students to make critical judgments about the conclusions we can draw from the traces of the past to which we have access.

Literature and the Arts (LA)

Human beings have always used imagination to create reflections and representations of ourselves and our world, from cave paintings to symphonies to video games.  In making these artistic or imaginative representations, we express ideas about our own nature and investigate the nature of the world around us, often in ways that push at the boundaries of what can be said in ordinary language.  In courses in Literature and the Arts, students may produce creative, imaginative works or practice interpreting them.  For example, they may choreograph dances or read Shakespeare plays or create performance pieces that use imaginative and interpretive skills critically and physically.  The skill of “close reading” is especially important in this area of inquiry:  what can we learn from careful attention to the precise words, colors, or tones that an artist has chosen?

Quantitative and Computational Reasoning (QCR)

Quantitative and computational reasoning engages students in the logic of mathematics and the manipulation of numerical and categorical information.  Quantitative reasoning asks us to describe and predict things that can be measured or counted such as population, speed, or cost.  Computational thinking informs the underlying structures of the codes and algorithms created in computer science.  Quantitative and computational reasoning is used to some degree in almost every area of learning.  A strong foundation in quantitative reasoning helps students think clearly and apply quantitative methods to a wide range of projects, and equips them to critically evaluate statistical claims.

Science and Engineering (SEN/SEL)

Science and engineering encompass the study of the natural and constructed worlds, their impact on humanity, and the human impact on them. These disciplines teach principles, methods, and systematic thinking, how to innovate theories and methodologies, how to test hypotheses and prototypes by analyzing data while managing uncertainty, and how to enhance the built world through creativity and design. Fundamental to science and engineering are the methods and habits of mind in which models are developed, critiqued, and refined, thereby enriching and expanding our ways of understanding – and fascination with – the natural and constructed environments, and our own positions within them. 

Social Analysis (SA)

Social analysis involves the study of the structures, processes, and meanings human beings create through our interactions with one another, and the networks and institutions through which human behavior develops and evolves.  The codes and narratives we share with others, often unspoken, produce our sense of “the normal” and structure our thought and behavior.  These components of social life are accessible through both quantitative methods, which involve the statistical analysis of data, and qualitative methods, which rely on the interpretation of data gathered through observation and interaction.  Social analysis enables us to make sense of the social structures and processes that shape individual lives, to understand the role of institutions—such as the family, government, schools, and labor markets—in society, and to define and respond to social problems, such as inequality and violence.