Cornell Offers Flexible Academics on Your Terms

Statue of a Ezra Cornell against the light.

By: Amanda Madenberg, HE ’20

A large part of Ezra Cornell’s founding philosophy was the emphasis of Cornell being a place for any study. Since 1865, Cornell has been an environment that’s inclusive of all areas of study. In 2020, this translates to a collection of undergraduate colleges and schools, which contain 80 majors and over 120 minors. By selecting combinations from a course catalog over 4000 courses long, any study becomes anything you want to pursue. Two Cornell students enrolled in the same major will likely not have the same undergraduate academic experience because of the sheer number of possibilities available to them.

Prospective students must select an undergraduate college or school on their application, and if accepted, this becomes your academic home at Cornell. But you are not limited to that one college/school in any capacity. Not only can you take classes in other colleges/schools, but you can also pursue minors and concentrations in any other college/school. In fact, this is very common. Many Cornell students possess more than one academic area of interest, and this drive is valued on campus. Whether you’re an engineer interested in foreign languages or a history major wanting to learn more about sustainable sciences, Cornell allows you the flexibility to combine coursework in whatever way is most meaningful for you. Regardless of your academic home base, you may use all the resources of the University, including campus buildings, professors, and research opportunities. I have personally found Cornell’s academic flexibility extremely liberating. It was important for me to be able to pursue writing in college without necessarily being an English major. Combining a human development major with a creative writing minor allowed me to do just that. While human development is an ideal major for me because I am very curious about how people interact with one another and their environments, I have also had the lifelong dream of becoming a novel writer. Through my minor, I’ve had the unbelievable opportunity to pursue independent study with one of my professors, and I have almost completed my first novel. Additionally, I am completing a minor in education, which has allowed me the opportunity to pursue various kinds of fieldwork each semester. I’ve gained experience helping out in a Kindergarten class, tutoring adults one-on-one in English as a Second Language, and working with an autistic high school student on her budding resume.

Your college/school determines your graduation requirements. For example, in Human Ecology, some of my required coursework included taking classes within my college but outside my major, which I fulfilled by taking a class in nutrition and a class in Policy Analysis and Management. Other required coursework includes offerings in the humanities and social science; I explored introductory classes in sociology and social psychology. As a student, you work with your academic advising team to determine how many credits to take each semester. Your advising team will also help you plan which classes to take in future semesters. The absolute only class all Cornell students must take is physical education. Students need two credits of PE, which can be fulfilled in a variety of ways. You can choose something like yoga or meditation, deep-water scuba diving or rock climbing, sailing or fishing, or any other sport from an exhaustive list of options. Many students often elect to take more than the required two physical education courses.

After you have settled into your major at Cornell, if you decide that you don’t like what you are studying, have no fear. Switching majors within the same college is as simple as filling out a form and obtaining a signature from your faculty advisor. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of undergraduates do decide to switch their college/school. If you have maintained a respectable grade point average in your former college/school for at least one semester, and you have a sense of why you’d like to switch your academic focus, you may work with your advisors to move forward with your desire to change colleges/schools after one year in your home college/school.

Studying at Cornell is all about the choices you make. Each and every student brings something unique to the student body, and thousands of courses are available so that you can blend your own personal interests together. If you stay true to your curiosity and challenge yourself, you will leave Cornell after your undergraduate experience feeling like you had a curriculum specifically catered for you.