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How to Navigate an Open Curriculum at a Liberal Arts College

It can mean you’re designing your own unique major, but it doesn’t have to.

by Karl Ortegon
September 21, 2021

It’s normal to be unsure about your major or concentration of study when you’re an underclassmen in college. Whereas some students know early on exactly what they want to study, others need more time to explore their options before settling on one. 

At many liberal arts colleges and smaller universities, that’s where the open curriculum system comes into play. Open curriculum means fewer requirements, especially for underclassmen, allowing for more flexibility in terms of course planning. Just because you are working towards one (or a couple) specific major(s), you can still study across a breadth of disciplines. In an open curriculum format, someone who ultimately will major in Psychology can take courses in Astronomy, English, History, Biochemistry –– you name it –– while still being able to complete their necessary requirements for the Psychology major. 

At a college with an open curriculum, you can combine many different disciplines, which can make for a more well-rounded experience. So, if you’re wondering how to take advantage of your open curriculum college, we’re here to help.

Understanding any requirements for your intended major

Different schools have different requirements for graduating in your intended major. For some colleges, open curriculum is the main system that most students follow, and for others, it’s a more intentional, alternative option for a smaller subsection of students. It’s important to read up on your specific requirements for your school and major!

At Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, you need 32 credits; that includes three writing-intensive courses, at least one quantitative course, a physical education requirement, and whatever else your declared major requires. It’s a similar story at Brown University, an Ivy League school –– you need to complete over 30 credits, with two writing-focused courses required, in addition to what your major calls for. 

Meanwhile, at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, open curriculum is a more intentional program for students that offers a more general liberal arts education than a rigid, standard curriculum does. It’s not the overarching course structure like it is at Hamilton and Brown.

Planning your classes by year

Many open curriculum schools do not require students to declare their major until sophomore year. You can work with your counselor to determine what you need to do to ensure you’re on track in your major, too. 

As a freshman or sophomore, you still want to try to prioritize courses in area(s) you are considering for your degree, but you have more freedom to choose other courses in other disciplines. Is there a class on the ethics of the Harry Potter movies that looks interesting? Something on marine life in the Arctic? Good ol’ Shakespeare? Now is the time to try some of these courses! That’s what open curriculum is all about. 

Using the open curriculum in a unique way 

Open curriculum is all about opportunity. Let’s say you and another student are both planning on declaring a History major –– their path might include a lot of math and science courses on the side, while yours might include music and art. You get to choose how you want to go about it!

This kind of college experience will work best when you can name your interests and pursue them, so take some time to really think about what you want to learn and what you want out of your time in college.