How “x” does academics: x = Stanford

October 30, 2006 at 4:38 pm 2 comments

Posted by John

To begin with an unbiased statement, Stanford is a school known for the well-balanced academic and social lives of its students, its top-tier academics in both fuzzie and techie fields, and its beautiful and enormous campus.

Stanford really is one of the most flexible schools in the US. Students are encouraged to take a wide variety of classes and to combine majors in new and unique ways. Let’s start with an overview of the academic requirements at Stanford, and I’ll then elaborate on how those promote flexibility and such.

Stanford runs on a quarter system rather than a semester schedule. This means that there are three major divisions to the school year: fall quarter (before winter break), winter quarter (until spring break), and spring quarter. There’s also summer quarter, which is about the same length (hence, “quarters”), but that’s primarily used by students doing study abroad (which is immensely popular, highly recommended, and highly subsidized at Stanford).

Within each quarter, students must take 12 units and can take up to 20 units. Most people take around 15 units each quarter. Each unit equates to about an hour of class per week, but some classes, like engineering units, take a lot more time and effort than, say, religious studies units.

There is a pretty small set of required classes for each person to take. Everyone has to take 1 year (3 quarters of a 5 unit class) of Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM), which is a reading intensive course that focuses on classic works and close reading (don’t worry- the excellent professors tend to make it worthwhile). Students have a choice between a variety of IHUM classes, ranging from Visions of Mortality to Journeys to Technological Visions of Utopia. The second major requirement is PWR, Program in Writing and Rhetoric. This is a two quarter, writing intensive class. Finally, there are breadth class requirements each student must take in 6 major core areas like math, sciences, and humanities. The good news is that the IHUM courses and many classes can count for these requirements, so if you never want to take math again, you could take a course on solving rubix cubes that fulfills the requirement.

These are the standard requirements for all students, but each student also chooses a major out of about 80 that Stanford has available or makes one of their own. The process for making your own major or double majoring or minoring is very easy on the student. In fact, professors and the set of academic advisors that each student is provided with will almost bend over backwards to help you combine fields as diverse as Russian history and symbolic systems. Stanford’s flexibility goes beyond flexibility in majors though. Students are encouraged to take courses in any of the undergraduate schools (engineering, humanities, earth sciences, etc.) regardless of major as well.

OK, lets recap before I move on to what each class is like. Students get to take a whole lot of courses (up to 1.5 times more) due to the quarter system. Students can take a wide variety of classes outside of their major or their school. Students can major in basically whatever they want and don’t even have to declare a major until spring quarter of sophomore year.

OK, so individual classes. Each class averages 3-4 units (introductions are usually 5 units). Another major exception is introductory seminars, which are small classes (10-15 students) taught by high-level, often graduate, professors. These typically are 2-3 units, and are open to freshman and sophomores regardless of students’ majors. Most classes typically have a lecture (usually large for introductory level courses like Economics 1a), then a section with a maximum of 25 students. For example, I have my IHUM class of about 200 students and a section of 15. The sections are led by TA’s, but these faculty members are screened to make sure that they know the topic and can speak English, so there really aren’t any horror stories about the TA from hell. Above introductory level classes, most lecture sizes drop down to 50 or less, so class size really is not an issue here, even during the first couple of quarters. The TA’s are also very helpful because they generally grade homework, teach any material that was unclear in lecture, and provide their own office hours in case you couldn’t make those of the professor.

As for tests, most classes have 1-3 midterms and a final. The classes are mostly graded on a curve, so all of the classes are challenging, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll end up with a poor grade in the course.

Overview time: College choices have been overanalyzed for years, and every trait of a college has been turned into a pro or a con. Class sizes, grade inflation, research vs. non-research schools, everything seems to make such a big difference, but when you get down to it, what matters is just what you want to get out of school. I feel like Stanford is a great academic fit for me for the following major reasons: 1. Flexibility 2. a great sense of balance between core classes, classes that move me towards a major, and classes that are just enjoyable and 3. The great access to the excellent peers, professors, and yes, even TA’s that a school like Stanford affords.


Entry filed under: Academics, Admissions, California, Classes, Curve, Double major, Earth science, Education, Engineering, English, Environment, Essays, Faculty, Final, Flexibility, GPA, Grade inflation, Grades, Graduate school, History, Humanities, Lecture, Major, Mathematics, Midterm, Minor, Motivation, Quarter, Reading, Religion, Research, Rhetoric, Rubik's cube, Russian, Science, Seminar, Stanford, Study abroad, Summer, Teacher, Technology, Units, Writing.

Choosing UC’s extended response, and more What you need for this Saturday’s SAT

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Helen  |  October 31, 2006 at 2:07 am

    Wow! What a great idea for posts! This is incredibly useful in learning what distinguishes schools from one another and the “feel” of each school. That’s something you really can’t find in viewbooks or on tours. Very unique and excellently executed.

  • 2. Gloria  |  November 8, 2006 at 3:56 am

    I like your site


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