Advice for incoming exchange students

7 minute read

First of all, welcome to Penn! We are delighted that you are spending some time with us, and we hope you’ll enjoy your time here!

What courses can I take?

As a general rule, you should be able to take between 4 and 5.5 course units (CUs) at Penn. Most courses are 1CU, but a few are 0.5CU or more than one CU. Of these courses, you can take at most two outside the School of Engineering. Penn students can take an “overload” and register for more than 5.5CUs under certain circumstances, but this is not possible for exchange students. In some cases, there are additional restrictions in the agreement between your home school and Penn.

If you are in the U.S. on a student visa, keep in mind that, in general, you need at least 4CUs to maintain your visa status; if you are thinking of taking fewer than 4CUs, or if you are registered for 4CUs and are thinking of dropping a course, please check with both your advisor and the international student office (ISSS) first.

In general, courses numbered 5000 or above are graduate-level courses. You have probably been told that you should not expect to be able to take graduate-level courses as an exchange student. This is true in general, but individual SEAS departments can make exceptions. If you would like to take a graduate-level course, you should contact your academic advisor. Notice that some graduate-level courses are “cross-listed” and have both an undergraduate (4xx) and a graduate (5xx) course number; in this case, you can avoid the issue entirely by registering for the undergraduate version.

Which courses should I take?

When picking courses to take, please make sure that you’ll be able to count them towards your degree back home. If you haven’t already done this, now would be a good time to get syllabi for all the courses you are going to take at Penn, and to get your home school to promise that these courses will count towards the requirement(s) you are hoping to use them for. Most courses should have syllabi either in Path@Penn or (more commonly) on the relevant course web page; if you can’t find one there, you can also ask the instructor directly.

If a course has both lectures and recitations, you should sign up for both.

If you have a choice between multiple courses, or multiple sections of the same course, you may want to have a look at Penn Course Review, which contains data from past course evaluations and will show you key metrics for previous instances of each course: chief among them the course quality, the instructor quality and the difficulty level. The numbers are on a scale from 0 to 4; they do not mean much in absolute terms, but you can use them to compare different courses. Keep in mind that the quality of a course can vary quite a bit with the instructor who teaches it; thus, if someone (e.g., a current Penn student) recommends a course to you, you may want to double-check that they took it with the same instructor.

Two other web sites that may be useful are Penn Course Plan, which shows similar statistics as Penn Course Review and can also help you put together a schedule, and Penn Course Alert, which can alert you when a spot becomes available in a course that is full (other than waitlisted CIS courses, more about those below). All three systems are built by the good folks at Penn Labs, a student organization at Penn that has created a number of other useful web and mobile apps as well.

If you are not sure yet which of several courses you want to take, you can always attend additional classes at the beginning of the semester, talk to other students and/or the instructor, and then adjust your enrollment if necessary. You can always add more classes until the end of the “Course Selection Period”, and drop classes until the end of the “Drop Period” (which is later); please see the Penn academic calendar for the specific dates. This kind of “shopping for courses” is routine and, as a result, spots often become available during that time, as other students switch from one course to another. Keep in mind that, if you accidentally drop a course that is waitlisted or heavily oversubscribed, you may not be able to get back in!

Don’t forget that you can generally take up to two courses outside the School of Engineering - e.g., at the Wharton School, or in the College of Arts and Sciences. Penn has many great schools and departments, and, as a result, there is a wide variety of excellent courses. Even within Engineering, there are great courses that students often overlook, like the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program.

When should I register?

In general, you should register as soon as possible. Unfortunately, several Computer Science classes are oversubscribed, and many of the spots are filled during Advance Registration, which happens halfway through the previous semester. By the time you have an academic record and are able to register, the Penn students have already had something of a head start, so quite a few classes will have wait lists at that point.

You’ll want to read more about the CIS department’s waitlist system. For some courses, to join the waitlist you must enter information about your academic experience, like whether you’ve taken the appropriate pre-requisite courses. As an exchange student, you will of course not have taken these Penn-specific pre-req courses. You should consider the courses you’ve taken at your home institution and examine the course web page (slides, homeworks, etc.) for the Penn pre-req course. If you feel you have satisfied the pre-req, you can check the pre-req box on the waitlist form. Otherwise, you do not satisfy the pre-reqs for the course and should consider a different course instead.

You may also want to contact the instructor(s) of waitlist courses directly and explain that you are an exchange student and that this will be your only chance to take their class. There is no official policy, but many instructors will consider prioritizing you for a spot in the class.

If you are on the waitlist for a course, it is important to have a fallback plan in place in case you do not get into the course. For instance, you can register for a different course that is open in Path@Penn, and you can drop that other course later if you do get a permit via the waitlist. Although as a CSCI student you will be near the top of the list, getting a permit is not guaranteed, especially in the case of “hot topic” courses such as machine learning or data science. Keep in mind that, as an international student, you must always be registered for at least 4CU. If you find yourself on several wait lists, you must enroll in some other classes in the meantime to get to the 4CU minimum.

If you are staying at Penn for more than one semester, you can and definitely should participate in Advance Registration for your second semester. Check the Penn academic calendar for the specific dates.

It says in Path@Penn that special permission is required. How do I get one?

For CIS and NETS classes, this typically happens because a course uses the CIS Waitlist mechanism, which you should read more about.

If you see a “special permission required” course that is not a CIS or NETS course, then the course is offered by another department. These courses probably use Path’s built-in “permission request” functionality, see instructions on the Penn Registrar’s site.

You should contact the department that offers the class you are interested in to see what their policy is. If you are not sure who to contact and can’t find this information on the relevant department’s web page, please ask your academic advisor.

Are there research opportunities I can participate in?

Absolutely! Many of our faculty are doing research projects with undergraduates, and you are definitely eligible to participate. There is no central repository of research opportunities, however, so the best way to get started is to find a few faculty members who are working in the area(s) you are interested in, and to contact them directly.

What else should I look out for?

There is a lot more to Penn than “just” taking classes! For instance, you may want to have a look at the many student clubs and societies, at Penn Labs, at PennApps, at the Computer Science Society, etc. There are interesting talks every day in the department, in SEAS and across the university, and there are many labs that do interesting research that you can participate in.

Beyond Penn, the city of Philadelphia itself has a lot to offer, and it is in a central location on the East Coast, with many bus and train connections to other major cities that you could visit, e.g., on weekends or during breaks.

What if I have questions?

For family emergencies, health or wellness concerns, etc., please contact Dr. Sonya Gwak. For questions about the exchange program specifically, please send email to

For all other questions, your first point of contact should be your academic advisor. If you are not sure who your advisor is, have a look at Path@Penn; they will be listed as your “Major Advisor”.