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Impractical? Perhaps, but the liberal arts curriculum is also illuminating

If you thought you came to college to learn something practical, forget it. Princeton is one of the last bastions of the high-minded, esoteric and abstruse — the liberal arts education.

Come September, when you arrive at this small liberal arts university in central New Jersey, it will be time to begin your new life as an A.B., a candidate for Princeton's Bachelor of Arts degree.

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Ignore your calculator-toting roommates when they casually mention their course load of "Electromagnetic Field Theory and Optics" or "Mechanics of Solids and Fluids," ad nauseam. They are only engineers. In a few weeks, they will be so busy working that you will not even see them.

You will not find any professional schools at Princeton, either. Instead, buckle your seatbelts for an experience in the purest form of learning — "Modern Political Theory" and "The Arts of Medieval Europe," to name a few classes.

To graduate, A.B. students must take at least 30 courses in four years and complete two semesters of independent work and a senior thesis within their departments.

The University suggests that students take four courses each semester of their first three years and three courses in each of their senior semesters to fulfill the four-year course requirements.

No A.B. student should feel unduly bound by this system, however, since different permutations will meet the total course load. Some students take more than four courses per semester early in their academic careers to take fewer courses later.

Though such behavior is not officially encouraged, many second-semester seniors breeze through "guts" — courses that demand minimal work and time investment —while cranking out their theses.

Smorgasbord

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Additional courses may be taken by the A.B. who merely wishes to sample eclectically from Princeton's veritable smorgasbord of academic dishes. The University offers 78 departments and certificate programs, and many students take advantage of this academic diversity.

For example, a student majoring in molecular biology can take VIS 311: Introductory Video and Film Production or an art history major can sample MAE 223: An Introduction to Thermal Fluid Engineering. Usually, however, students stick to their general fields of interest, particularly in their upperclass years, when departmental requirements must be fulfilled.

To prevent A.B. students from focusing too early on a narrow field of study, the University enforces a system of distribution requirements that it revised in the fall of 1996. Students must take a total of 10 courses spread over seven categories to fulfill the requirements.

Under the guidelines, A.B. candidates are required to take at least one course in each of the following areas: Epistemology and Cognition, Ethical Thought and Moral Values, Historical Analysis and Quantitative Reasoning. In addition, A.B. students must take at least two courses in the categories of Literature and the Arts, Science and Technology (with laboratories) and Social Analysis.

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For the non-scientists among you, the lab requirement can be satisfied through fairly painless and occasionally fun lab courses such as "Physics for Poets" and "Rocks for Jocks."

The writing requirement — usually completed in a student's first year on campus — is somewhat more limited. All A.B.s must choose from such courses as "Shakespeare," "Modern European Writers" and "Major American Writers."

WRI 151: The Craft of Writing offers a bit more practice for those wishing to hone their writing skills. Other freshmen fulfill their writing requirements through specially designated freshman seminars.

Language proficiency

Another demand on all A.B. students is the foreign language requirement, from which B.S.E. students are exempted.

Achievement test scores of 700 or higher, or a four or five on the Advanced Placement exam, will allow a student to place out of the requirement. Even if they do not meet those standards, students may exempt themselves from the requirement if they score well on one of the language placement exams administered during freshman orientation week.

If you are unable to place out, you will have to take 100-level Princeton language courses until you are proficient.

A pass/D/fail option — which equals a final grade of A+ through Cis marked as a pass, a D counts as a D and an F is a failure — is available for a sizable but decreasing number of courses. The University only allows students to take up to four p/D/f courses — and only one per semester. Additionally, students have the option to rescind the p/D/f option in favor of a letter grade as late as the ninth week of the semester.

Unfortunately, neither foreign language courses nor lab requirement courses can be taken p/D/f. Courses that can only be taken p/D/f, such as creative writing classes, do not count toward a student's budget of four.

Another way to sample courses is to audit them. Though audited courses do not count toward the 30 required for graduation, if a student passes the final exam he or she receives credit for auditing the course — without having to do the papers and problem sets or even attending class.