First semester classes

8 minute read

This article discusses how to decide which classes to take as a CIS freshman. For an overview of the mechanics and deadlines of registering for classes, see this helpful page from the College.

The task of picking the right classes for your first semester can be a bit daunting. You have probably received lots of advice already - perhaps some suggestions from your OPA and/or your peers, or you’ve seen our sample 4-year schedules - but the reality is that everyone’s situation is different. No single set of suggestions can work for every student, and what worked for your OPA won’t necessarily work for you. Perhaps you have some AP credit that they did not, or vice versa. Perhaps you love Physics, and they hated it, or vice versa. This is why we have collected some fairly detailed advice for you below.

Please think about your choices carefully. During your first semester you won’t just be taking classes, you’ll also be adjusting to life in the university, on your own, and in a different city. So it is important not to take on too much, and to pick classes that will get you on the right track for the next couple of years.

Here are some questions you should think about before you start picking specific courses:

  • How much Math and Computer Science do you already know? Depending on the answer, you may be able to skip some of the lower-level MATH and CIS courses.
  • How much work are the courses you are picking? If you take on too much, you will have a terrible semester and won’t be able to learn the material well.
  • How confident are you that CIS is for you? If you are sure, that’s great - jump right in! If you aren’t completely sure yet, or if you are Curriculum Deferred but interested in CIS, the advice will be somewhat different.

More about each of these points is below.

How many courses should I take?

Course load at Penn is measured in course units (CUs); most courses are worth 1 CU, although a few are worth more or less. A normal course load is 5 CUs, but you can take as few as 4 or as many as 5.5. In general, 4 CUs is a good choice for your first semester. You will have a mix of 4 and 5 CU semesters on your way to getting the 37 CUs you need to graduate.

We sometimes get questions from incoming freshmen about taking more than 5.5 CUs. This is such a bad idea that it is not allowed. Dual-degree students may need to take more than 5 CUs at some point, but the first semester is definitely not the right time.

Should I start with CIS 1100 or CIS 1200?

We strongly recommend that you take at least one CIS course in your first semester, so you can get started on your major right away. Typically, this means CIS 1100formerly CIS 110 or CIS 1200formerly CIS 120. However, the question which one to take is tricky enough that it has an entire article of its own. Briefly, if you have little or no prior programming experience, you should start with CIS 1100formerly CIS 110. If you have AP credit for CIS 1100formerly CIS 110, or if you are very sure that you already know all of the material in CIS 1100formerly CIS 110, you can start with CIS 1200formerly CIS 120 and later take some other, higher-level CIS or NETS course to replace CIS 1100formerly CIS 110.

Both CIS 1100formerly CIS 110 and CIS 1200formerly CIS 120 have recitation sections; please don’t forget to register for both the lecture and recitation!

Should I take CIS 1600?

CIS 1600formerly CIS 160 is a course on the mathematical foundations of Computer Science. It is a prerequisite for CIS 1210formerly CIS 121, which most students take in either their second or third semester. (The standard sequence of introductory courses is CIS 1100formerly CIS 110, then CIS 1200formerly CIS 120, then CIS 1210formerly CIS 121.) So, if you have decided to take CIS 1200formerly CIS 120 in your first semester, you should also take CIS 1600formerly CIS 160, otherwise you will not be able to move on to CIS 1210formerly CIS 121 and may have to delay some higher-level CIS courses, which tend to require CIS 1210formerly CIS 121.

Please keep in mind that most students find that CIS 1600formerly CIS 160 is difficult and requires a lot of time and effort; some even say that it is the most difficult course they have taken at Penn. This means that, if you do take CIS 1200formerly CIS 120 and CIS 1600formerly CIS 160, you should not take too many other workload-heavy courses on top of that.

Which MATH courses should I take?

Depending on the program you are in, you will need to take at least Calculus I and II, and possibly Calculus III (e.g., if you are a NETS student). It is typically a good idea to take one MATH course in your first semester, but the correct choice depends on a number of factors:

  • The default is to start with MATH 1400formerly MATH 104 (Calculus I). There are many different sections available, and you should pick wisely, e.g., by looking up the instructors’ ratings in Penn Course Review, or by asking other students who have taken these courses before.
  • If you have sufficient experience in Calculus, you could take MATH 1410formerly MATH 114. This is a good idea if you have AP credit for MATH 1400formerly MATH 104. Even if not, the MATH department grants retroactive credit for MATH 1400formerly MATH 104 if you get a high enough grade in MATH 1410formerly MATH 114, or you could take their internal placement exam. Please carefully review the MATH department’s current policies.
  • If you love mathematical analysis and are good at it, you could take the honors section of MATH 1410formerly MATH 114, which is MATH 1610formerly MATH 116. This will be significantly more work, but, depending on your preferences, you might enjoy it more.

As with CIS 1100formerly CIS 110, you may hear others recommend that you skip to MATH 1410formerly MATH 114, or even to MATH 2400formerly MATH 240. Please do not take this advice blindly - make the decision based on your own circumstances! For instance, the person who recommended skipping MATH 1400formerly MATH 104 may have had more mathematical background.

Should I take Physics?

It is often recommended that you take a natural science course during your first semester - typically PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150, which is a requirement for the CIS major, or PHYS 0151formerly PHYS 151 (if you have AP credit for PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150). This can be a good idea if a) you love Physics and would enjoy the course, or if b) you are not sure yet that Computer Science is for you. The reason is that many other SEAS majors also require Physics, so, if you decide to switch majors during your first year, your Physics courses will count for your new major as well. Note also that PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150 has MATH 1400formerly MATH 104 as a co-requisite (you need to have already taken MATH 1400formerly MATH 104 or otherwise gotten credit for it, or you need to take MATH 1400formerly MATH 104 at the same time as PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150). PHYS 0151formerly PHYS 151 has MATH 1410formerly MATH 114 as a co-req.

In most other cases, you may want to postpone Physics until later. The reason is that PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150 and PHYS 0151formerly PHYS 151 take a substantial amount of time each week, which is particularly problematic if you are planning to take other “heavy” courses (e.g., CIS 1600formerly CIS 160) at the same time. Even if you do not take CIS 1600formerly CIS 160, it is usually a good idea to keep your first semester on the lighter side, because you will still be adjusting to life at Penn, and because you are still learning how to calibrate the difficulty of college classes. So it may be a better idea to focus on your MATH and CIS courses initially.

The course numbering can be a source of confusion. PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150 is the same as PHYS 0140formerly PHYS 140, except that it includes a half-CU lab. Similarly, PHYS 0151formerly PHYS 151 and PHYS 0141formerly PHYS 141 are the same but the former includes a lab. In SEAS, you need to take the versions with the lab (0150formerly PHYS 150/0151formerly PHYS 151). PHYS 0170formerly PHYS 170 and PHYS 0171formerly PHYS 171 are honors versions of PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150 and PHYS 0151formerly PHYS 151, and they will count towards the PHYS 0150formerly PHYS 150/0151formerly PHYS 151 requirement as well. If you are very adept at Physics, you should consider the honors versions.

What else should I take?

To counterbalance the technical courses above, you may want to take one or two non-technical electives as well, such as a freshman seminar, a writing course, or a humanities or social science course. Many of these will satisfy requirements for your major, which you can read more about in another article. If you expect to have a fairly heavy workload, you can usually find courses that are not so difficult. You may also want to take at least one small class, to counterbalance the larger lecture classes, which are somewhat different from the more conversation-oriented classes you took in high school.

Always check out the course quality and difficulty ratings at Penn Course Review to get an idea of what you’re in for.

Can I take some Technical Electives?

In general, this is not a good idea for your first semester. The Technical Electives are supposed to be advanced courses that give you depth, and, as a freshman, you will not have the necessary prerequisites.

What if I am still not sure what to take?

If you still have questions, please contact your academic advisor or talk with the CIS Advising staff. We’re always happy to talk through your plans!