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Universities in the USA: The General Education Curriculum Explained

26 Jan, 2023
Universities in the USA: The General Education Curriculum Explained

General Education (Gen Ed) — also known as the Core Curriculum or Course Distribution — requirements exist at nearly every higher education institution in the US and they make up for almost half of credit requirements of a bachelor's degree. The courses and requirements change from university to university and often by department of the same university.

Universities consider the big ideas and skills that students will need to succeed in their future courses when designing this plan.

Further, these courses give students a chance to explore diverse subjects in their first few semesters before they decide on their major.

The common categories of courses at many top universities are briefly explained below.

Writing Skills

Every university requires students to take courses in college writing; often these courses are called English Composition I and II. Students learn how to write different types of essays — analytic, argumentative, reflective and research — to prepare them for the rigorous coursework in their major. For international transfer students, good grades in these courses can also lead to some schools waiving required English Proficiency tests like TOEFL or IELTS.

Quantitative Reasoning

Improving student math skills is currently a key focus at US universities. Courses in Statistics or Calculus enable students to take on so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors. Students develop crucial skills for their professional careers including the ability to sort and interpret quantitative data.

Natural Sciences

Students should expect to choose from Biology, Chemistry, Geology or Astronomy courses to fulfill their natural science requirements. These courses help students to better understand the natural world and consider their place in it. Further, Natural Sciences can help students be prepared for Engineering or Technology majors.

Social Sciences

Social science courses in Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology or Economics provide students with perspectives on how we have lived from the past to the present. By better understanding the political, social, cultural and economics factors that impact humanity, and using tools to measure and analyze trends, students can develop more responsibility to their communities and be inspired to improve conditions around the world.


The American poet William Carlos Williams once wrote: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." By studying Philosophy, Literature, History, Religion and Languages, students will encounter the major questions that humanity has struggled with since its beginnings and connect to these deep ideas across time and cultures. Humanities help us to develop analytic skills and dig deep below the surface to find our own meaning in the world.


The arts engage students in creative thinking and problem solving, which is essential for future career endeavors, but they also connect us to a deeper level of experience not found in traditional academic classrooms. Students will be expected to explore their creative passions in Painting, Drawing, Photo, Theater, Dance or Music courses. Busy students will find that these courses reinvigorate their academic pursuits and give them a chance to explore the full range of human emotions while at university.

Non-Western Traditions

Students at US universities are expected to understand the world beyond America and, as such, students will take coursework in multicultural perspectives and non-Western traditions. Courses in Latin American Literature, World Religions, Chinese History or the African Diaspora help students to experience the world from a global perspective and understand the valuable contributions from world cultures.