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Getting Started

Answers to frequently asked questions by new students at Middlebury.

I know what my first year seminar is. How will I select my other courses?

Your first-year seminar class will meet during Orientation. At that time, your First Year Seminar professor, who is also your academic advisor, will go over course selection and registration and you will sign up for individual meetings with him or her during the week. Some professors structure this first class to be a broad introduction to Middlebury’s academic environment, while others choose to begin exploring the seminar topic immediately. You may even get some homework for your second class meeting, the following week!

Following your seminar, all students interested in taking classes in departments that require placement exams will take exams; see your Orientation materials for more details. The results of these tests will help you to plan your class schedule.  

There will also be drop-in 90-minute pre-advising sessions held in the Commons.  If you don't have a placement exam, go to your commons headquarters (where you first came the day before) in order to participate in the pre-advising.  You are strongly encouraged to do a pre-advising session at some point during the pre-advising period, and BEFORE your appointment with your academic advisor.  If you do have placement exams, or if the pre-advising sessions are full when you arrive, don't worry.  Sessions will be available at other times.  Make sure, as well, that you let the session organizers know if you have an imminent meeting with your advisor.  They will then make it a priority to get you in to a session before that meeting.  

You should also attend the Academic Forum in Kenyon Arena, where Middlebury’s academic departments and programs will have faculty representatives available to answer questions you may have.  If you need to meet with department representatives before you can come up with some course choices, it might be a good idea to sign up for advising sessions that occur AFTER you have a chance to attend the course forum.

After taking placement exams, attending a pre-advising session, visiting the Academic Forum, and talking through your interests with your advisor, you will register for your remaining courses on-line. You will receive additional information about registration via e-mail.

A normal course load is four courses. Classes meet for a minimum of three hours each week. Some classes, especially in the languages and sciences, meet more often for intensive language drills and laboratory work, and others have evening film screenings.  You’ll need to spend some time experimenting with different course schedules. The whole process can resemble a jigsaw puzzle at times as you figure out what courses actually fit with each other.  You may use the My Schedule Planner available at to help you consider your options.  Or you may use hard copy of the catalogue, which your commons pre-advising sessions will supply, along with a blank paper schedule on which you can write.  You should also take advantage of the First Year Registration Booklet sent to you by email before you arrive, which has all the information you need, as well as lists of courses that Middlebury departments and programs have suggested for First-Year students.

The Middlebury campus is large for a school of its size (240 acres), so we allow fifteen minutes between classes. Don’t hesitate to take classes that meet back-to-back; there is ample time to get from one place to another.

What kinds of courses should I consider in my first semester?

First-year students should seek to balance their course loads by both interest and type. Different kinds of courses have different rhythms during the semester. We recommend that, where possible, you observe the precepts for first-year course selection forumulated by Yonna McShane, at Middlebury's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research:

--1 course in your major (or possible major);
--1 course you enjoy or are good at, or to fulfill a distribution requirement; and
--1 course that stretches you by introducing you to something new.

We also suggest that you balance your course load among:

--Courses with dense reading, 1-4 major papers, and exams (e.g. Literature, History, Religion, Philosophy, Sociology-Anthropology, Geography, Political Science, and Art History);

--Courses with daily homework, frequent quizzes and drills, presentations and tests (e.g. Economics, Mathematics, Computer Science, and Natural Sciences)

--Courses with some reading and with time-intensive "hands-on" tests, presentations, group work, and concerts or performances (e.g. Music, Studio Art, Theater, Dance, and Film).

Will I actually be able to get into the classes I want or need?

It’s entirely possible that you won't get exactly the class schedule you want most. Courses and sections are limited in enrollments to ensure classes of a reasonable size, and courses do fill up and close.

It's also possible that courses may not be open to you because of prerequisites or because they are too advanced for first-years.  When you look at the catalogue, begin by examining what each department says, above its listing of courses, about its policies on course admission.  Then you will know broadly what courses are open to you, and best for you to take in your first year, in that department.  Also check the course descriptions themselves for courses that must be taken concurrently or before the course you are taking. For instance, in History, first-year students are clearly welcome to take 100-, 200-, and 300-level courses, and only the 400-level courses require special permissions in order to be taken in the first year.  In Physics, on the other hand, even some 100-level courses have co-requisites or prerequisites, while others are open to everyone, regardless of prior classes. Again, the First-Year Registration Booklet that you receive by email before you arrive may be helpful in this regard.

Don’t be afraid to take a calculated risk: the Middlebury curriculum is rich in subject areas which were not offered at your secondary school. You will be advised to explore alternatives and come to registration knowing three or four ways that your first-semester courses will satisfy your needs. You will also be able to take advantage of the add/drop period, which begins on the first day of classes and runs through the first two weeks of the semester.  During the add/drop period, faculty give students permission to add their courses by signing add cards. Add cards are available at the Registrar’s Office (Forest Hall) and in the Commons offices.

I'm confused by Middlebury’s distribution requirement.

Middlebury has a course distribution requirement based on eight categories of courses, and a cultures and civilizations requirement involving six geographical regions.  You must take courses in at least seven of the eight academic categories, courses focusing on at least three of the six geographical regions, and at least one course marked "CMP," for comparison between and among cultures and civilizations, OR comparison of the identities and experiences of different groups within cultures and civilizations. You can use one course to fulfil an academic category and a geographical/CMP requirement, but you CANNOT use one course to fulfill more than one academic category or more than one geographical/CMP requirement.

A listing and an explanation of these categories are in the hard-copy Catalog (the Catalog in its most up-to-date form can be accessed on-line through the College’s web page) and in the First-year Seminar Registration materials you received this summer.

It makes sense to keep course distribution in mind as you choose classes. But don't worry about it too much: the requirement that you cannot choose more than one course this term in any one discipline ensures distribution at this point.

Does the first-year seminar count toward the distribution requirement?

It might. Check the First-year Seminar Registration booklet (sent to you by email before your arrival) to see if your seminar covers any distribution category or categories (in bold-face capital letters).

Are there any idiosyncrasies in the Distribution Requirement?

You won't get Foreign Language credit for first-year French or first-year Spanish.  This is because many students have taken French and Spanish in high school, and might choose to repeat that work at Middlebury in order to satisfy the distribution requirement.

Other than that, it's pretty straightforward: one course in seven of eight categories. Note in the course catalog that distribution categories are listed after the course description.

I want to continue studying the foreign language I studied in high school. How do I know my level? How do I know which course to take?

You can take a placement test.  See the Placement Exam Chart in the First Year Registration Booklet, and on the First Year Seminar website, to learn the details.  You can also speak with faculty members from particular departments at the Academic Forum on Tuesday afternoon.  Note that, in the case of French, you must have an interview with a member of the French Department even to take the introductory course.

Does it make sense for me to begin a new language now, or should I wait until I have my feet on the ground?

If you want to study abroad in your junior year in the language you are considering taking, you should probably begin now. If you start next year, you will be required to come to come to Middlebury summer school in order to be qualified for study abroad.

Keep in mind, however, that studying at Middlebury in the summer is a great way to learn languages. Students who begin the "less-commonly taught" languages – Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, or Japanese - in their first year often take the third year of the language in the summer before going abroad in the junior year.

So if I want to study abroad, I have to be qualified to study in the language of the country in which I am studying?

As simply stated as possible, our study abroad policy is as follows:

a)  If you study in a country whose people speak a language we teach at Middlebury, you must qualify at the intermediate/advanced level (two years or more of college study).
b) If you study in a country whose people speak a language we do not teach at Middlebury (for example, in Scandinavia, Greece, Poland), your program of study must include language study.
c)  If you study in an English speaking country (i.e. the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia), you must be able to meet other conditions established by the Programs Abroad Committee.

Over half of Middlebury students study abroad in their junior year. Most of those students are taking classes in the language of the host country.

May I take two languages?

Yes, but keep in mind distribution concerns. DO NOT BEGIN TWO LANGUAGES IN THE FIRST SEMESTER. First year language study usually has an intense winter term component that would be impossible to accommodate in two languages. Wait until next year to begin a second new language.

May I take two lab courses in the sciences?

Yes, but keep in mind distribution concerns. The wisdom of taking two lab courses depends entirely upon your science background and aptitude.  If you are a very strong science student, and you have an ambition for a career in the sciences, go ahead.  In other cases, your high school record and aptitude scores might indicate that it would be wise to wait and not take two lab sciences immediately.

What should I do if I am planning a career in the health professions (medical, dental, veterinary, etc)? Or if I am interested in a major with lots of requirements?

If you plan to be pre-med, you should be sure to meet with Mary Lothrop or Hannah Benz, our Health Professions advisors, in order to familiarize yourself with the pre-med course requirements. You don't have to major in the sciences to be pre-med, but it's important that you start early and take the right sequence of courses.  Note that the First Year Registration Booklet, sent to you by email before your arrival, has information on these sequences of courses.  The full Health Professions Handbook has even more information, as does the Health Professions Website on which it is located.  Consult these documents, but do also meet with our health professions staff as early as possible.

Other departments, Economics and International Studies, for example, ask you to get started early in order to get through required preliminary courses.  Again, read the Catalog. Talk to your advisor.

Should I worry about my major now?

It's okay if you don't know what you want to major in. The first year is for experimenting, finding out about yourself and your interests.  If you hope to study abroad in your junior year, however, it does make sense to get started in your major this year, so you will have required courses out of the way by then.   Likewise, it is important to start pre-medical courses if you intend to take the MCATs during your junior year.

If you have two or three major possibilities, take classes in your first year in those areas, and you will end up knowing more about your direction at the end of the year. Read the Catalog closely so you know the demands of different departments in which you are interested.

I love Biology; I think I’ll major in it. May I take more than one course in Biology this semester? In any department?

No.  The first year is for spreading out, to experience liberal arts diversity, to "distribute" your courses over the curriculum. In the second semester, with your advisor's support, it is possible to take two courses in the same department, but keep in mind distribution concerns.

May I take five courses, or six?

No. First-year students take a maximum of four courses. No exceptions are made in your first semester.  The rule for five courses is, "Permission is granted to students who have maintained an average of B or better in the two preceding terms." If you think an exception is warranted for the spring, see your advisor and then your Commons dean. Five is the maximum number of courses allowed, and then only with authorization.

How about three courses?

Yes. It is your prerogative to take three courses.  For some students, taking three courses in the first semester makes good sense.  Usually, it is advisable to start with four courses, then drop down to three if the workload is too great, or if one course entirely eludes you. Remember that you have to make up that course credit at some point (unless you have an AP credit, or credit earned from some other college or university prior to coming to Middlebury). International students should take care to maintain whatever full course load your visas require.

A two-course load?

No.  Students must be registered for at least three courses at all times. They may drop to two only with the permission of the Administration Committee in the case of extreme personal circumstances (for example, a family tragedy or a serious medical problem).

Should I worry about writing-intensive courses?

Not yet.  Each first-year seminar is writing intensive.  Sometime in the next three semesters, after the first, you will have to take one more writing-intensive class.  They are listed in the hard copy Catalog and on the web. You cannot get writing credit for an additional course beyond your FYS in your first semester.

I’m not an ace on the computer.  Can I get help?

The Technology Help Desk in the Davis Family Library takes pride in being user friendly. There are student consultants who will work with you, as well as classes for beginners; also, students in your residence hall will be happy to teach you the basics. Make sure you look over the computer materials provided to you at the Welcome Center when you first arrive on campus. Drop in to the Technology Help Desk in the library during Orientation to discuss with the consultants your needs and concerns, call the Help Desk at 802-443-2200 or email the Help Desk at

Am I restricted only to 100-level courses in my first year?

No. It may make sense for you to take courses at the 200 and, in many cases, 300 levels.  Sometimes those numbers just indicate the scope of the course topic; sometimes they indeed indicate how advanced the material is.  In the natural sciences and languages, students often will place higher than the 100 level.  Be sure to talk to department chairs at the Academic Forum and to take the placement exams at their scheduled times. 400-level classes are not usually open to first-year students.

When will I find out about my AP credit?

AP credit will appear on your Banner Web transcript. You will be notified by e-mail when it has been posted to your record.  Your advisor will receive a copy of these results.  AP credit guidelines were spelled out in the First Year Registration Booklet, sent to you by email before your arrival.

I took college-level work before coming to Middlebury. How can I get that credit evaluated?

You should contact the Registrar’s Office in Forest Hall.  You should keep in mind that the rule of thumb is that this study has taken place in a college environment (that is, under the supervision of college professors, with college students in the class). Also, you may not have used this credit toward your high school diploma.

I’m an international student. How about the International Baccalaureate?

A limited number of AP and IB courses can qualify for credit. Please contact the Registrar’s Office for further information.

I have a certified disability. How does that information get to my professors?

Jodi Litchfield is the Coordinator of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Office. You should make it a point to see her right away to discuss your disability and the accommodations that make sense, and how best to communicate with your professors.

I need to earn money.  Can I succeed in my studies and still work?

Yes. The financial aid award, for those students who qualify, is based in part on the expectation that students can earn spending money. We wouldn't do this if it weren't possible.  Job obligations will, however, require you to be responsible when planning your time.

How about sports?  I love sports but I'm worried they will take up too much of my time.  Should I go out for a team?

Middlebury students should be able to succeed in their studies and commit themselves to a gratifying extra-curricular activity.  An extra-curricular activity is an important part of the education of many students. Sports practices begin at 4:30 p.m. at the end of the daily class schedule. The Athletic Department asks for a commitment from its varsity athletes, but understands and wholeheartedly supports the academic priorities of the College. If you play on a team, it will be important for you to manage your time carefully.