The Best And Worst Courses For First-Years

Enough underwear and socks so that you never have to do laundry? Check. Lacoste polos to “fit in” when you

Enough underwear and socks so that you never have to do laundry? Check. Lacoste polos to “fit in” when you go out at night? Check. Industrial-sized crate of Red Bull? Check. Enough Ramen Noodles to feed a medium-sized village in the third world? Check.

Completed study card?...? Wait, you say, what is that? Do I need to bring index cards? Well, not exactly, my frosh friend. Study cards are just Harvard’s way of registering what classes you are taking during any given semester. And oh the possibilities!

Ok, sweet dreams. Let’s face it: many of the courses you take will during the coming year be among the largest, broadest, and most boring you’ll ever sit through at Harvard.

For Harvard, your blank slate can often be an opportunity to overload you with overburdening, weighty requirements and excruciating introductory courses. But amidst the dull lectures, there are plenty of enjoyable options.

Leading off, you have that pesky Expository Writing requirement. It’s true that some of you will emerge from the one- or two-semester program (depending on your writing level) with improved writing skills, but others simply leave the classroom confused and disappointed.

You can try to get your first choice class, but if you are anything like me you will end up in your seventh choice, learning how to “better” your writing from someone whose first language was not English.

A second requirement you’ll face is a year of a foreign language—unless you can provide proof of significant previous experience. But this is one requirement that is worth your while. Odds are that you have taken some bit of language in high school, so you’ll be placed into the Ca/Cb level classes, or their equivalent.

These classes tend to be easy, fun, and are a good way to gain some traction in what can often be an uncertain year for the “new meat.” (Read: You will take most of your exams still drunk.) Or, if you’re feeling daring or have been living in a cave your whole childhood, take a language that you have never encountered previously—something off the beaten path. Classes in uncommon languages tend to be much smaller and involve a high degree of personal attention with top-notch professors.

While the language requirement can be fun, the core curriculum is often anything but.

On the off chance that something comes of the curricular review before 2010, you might not have to take as many core classes as your older peers, but, to be safe, you should get started on killing those requirements now.

Wait for the popular, big classes like “Justice” to roll around for some “gut”-sy goodness. Large classes like that give support to the notion that there is comfort in numbers. Also, even if you are not an Economics concentrator, Social Analysis 10 (i.e., Ec10) is a good bet for some useful knowledge, as Bush-lover Greg Mankiw has made the problem sets and exams much more straightforward and manageable. You also never know if you are going to apply for that job with Morgan Stanley.

If you still have some empty space left in your course schedule—and please, only take four classes (your sanity will appreciate it)—it might be worth considering a freshman seminar. Occasionally life-changing although sometimes over-hyped, these courses can provide unprecedented access to the best of the best Harvard faculty members in a small group setting.

Beware, however, that there is a limited number of actually interesting seminars, and that most of these have some ridiculously competitive process to get in.

For many more in-depth and helpful tips on classes, concentrations, and cores, watch for The Harvard Crimson’s Confidential Guide to Courses, due out at the end of your “Camp Harvard” orientation week.

—Staff writer Alexander H. Greeley can be reached at