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Do I Have to Take Physics?

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Brian Swann College Coach

Written by Brian Swannon May 30th, 2023

I started my career in higher education as program coordinator at the Center for Excellence in Urban Teaching at Hamline University’s School of Education. My interest in diversity, equity and inclusion work took me to the Carleton College admissions office, where I initially served as Assistant Dean of Admissions & Coordinator of Outreach Programs. While in this role, I directed the Carleton Liberal Arts Experience (CLAE) summer program, worked closely with the POSSE Foundation and read applications from students all over the United States. After I was promoted to Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions & Coordinator of International Recruitment, I became responsible for crafting the strategic direction of our international recruitment. This included developing in person and virtual recruitment strategies, revamping application review policies, making final decisions on applications, and managing the financial aid budget for international students. While serving in this capacity, I also served as the men’s athletic liaison for our office.
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by Brian Swann, former admissions officer at Carleton College Every spring, many high school students go through one of the most important rites of passage: choosing their schedule for the next year. (Admit it, you thought I was talking about prom!) In all seriousness, I hear lots of questions from students and parents around course selection. When debating the importance of particular courses and how they’re viewed by admissions officers, one class in particular seems to drive lots of questions: physics. Often, the questions boil down to a central one: “Do I have to take physics?” And, like many things in the college admissions process, there isn’t a cut and dry answer. Understanding Core Academic Requirements and Recommendations First, let’s think about this from a broad perspective. Most undergraduate admissions office websites include a list of recommended or required subjects they expect students to take during their high school years. Here’s an example:
  • English, 4 years
  • Math, 2-3 years
  • Science, 2-3 years
  • World language, 2-3 years of one language
  • Social studies, 2-3 years
You’ll often see that specific courses in these areas aren’t listed—and that’s on purpose. Admissions offices know that every high school in the U.S. (let alone in the same city or county) has different curricular offerings. By keeping the general recommended curriculum broad, admissions offices help students and families from a variety of high school settings plan effectively. Going Beyond the Minimum With that in mind, let’s return to our question regarding whether or not to take physics. It’s true that, without taking physics, you may still be able to meet the standard admissions requirements for many institutions. However, it’s important to know that admissions officers aren’t just looking for students to take the bare minimum recommendations. Often, they’re looking for students to go beyond these recommendations when possible. When I reviewed applications, one question I always had in mind was, “Did this student take advantage of the courses made available to them at their high school to prepare for college-level academics?” Students who only met the minimum requirements in core academic subjects were often at a disadvantage in the application review process. This isn’t just true for science courses, but for all core academic subjects! Even if they were aspiring science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) majors, I always appreciated applicants who would still take four years of social studies, English, and world language! In addition to examining your transcript for these core academic subjects, admissions officers will review the rigor of the courses you’ve chosen. This is particularly important for colleges with selective admissions practices. When I reviewed applications I wanted to see students pursue rigor when given the opportunity. In the sciences, that often included taking biology, chemistry, and physics, plus an additional science elective. If you’re considering applying to selective colleges, know that it's much more common for admission officers at those schools to see applicants with four years of science instead of three—and those applicants are typically more successful in the admissions process. When Is It Okay to Skip Physics? But what if you really, really cringe at the thought of taking physics, and you’re not intending to major in a STEM related field? Is it okay to skip physics and take some other science instead? Most admissions offices will say it is, as long as you’re meeting the other academic subject recommendations. (I encourage you to check the admissions websites for each of your prospective colleges to review their subject recommendations.) Relatively speaking (pun intended), continuing to pursue core academic subjects across the board beyond minimum requirements will be beneficial to you as you prepare for college, and will make you a more competitive applicant. Who Should Definitely Take Physics? If you’re intending to major in a STEM field, including health sciences, I highly recommend taking physics. In fact, physics may be required for admission to your intended major if you’re considering engineering or computer science at selective colleges (see Carnegie Mellon’s stringent requirements). Even if it’s not required for admission, having exposure to physics during high school gives you a stronger foundation for when you’ll encounter it in college (advanced physics is a required course for almost every STEM major). This understanding of physics can also assist you in developing a problem-solving mindset which can help you down the road when studying in an engineering, computer science, or pre-medical pathway.

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