By Joseph Schenker
I decided to make a more user friendly version of my earlier post that is hopefully easier to read! I have added in a bit more information too, so if you're looking for some summer reading material....As CalSO begins to roll around and a lot of you are deciding on your schedules, I have been seeing a lot of questions...first of all, ASK MORE AND ASK OFTEN!That’s definitely the way to do things as you adjust to your second semester. However, I would like to address one question in some general detail; I have seen quite a few people asking “is ____ hard/doable?” There is nothing inherently wrong with this question, but it is very hard for us current and past students to answer because the word “hard” means a wide variety of things to a lot of people. Also, the difficulty of a course is not necessarily the same as the difficulty of getting a good grade in the course! Most courses at Berkeley can be described as “hard” for one reason or another, and whether you find it difficult will depend completely on your skills (and your instructor’s ability). The reason I bring this up is that I came into Berkeley thinking that science courses were a lot harder than humanities, so I took a variety of both and...oddly enough…my science GPA is higher than my humanities GPA.
With that being said, labeling courses as “easy” or “hard” to get a good grade in is trickier because it brings in other outside forces. Some courses at Berkeley are graded with cutoffs, like in high school. In other words, if you earn a 90% on all coursework in the class, you get an A, 87% a B+, 84% a B and so forth. There are a variety of classes that decide letter grade based off of cutoffs that curve the exams based on their averages, so sometimes getting a 50% raw score on a final means you get something much higher in your final grade calculation. Other courses don’t curve exams, but rather curve the entire raw grade. These classes generally set a certain percentage (say 80%) to a B, and then use historical data for how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds/Fs the class has given in the past to calculate your letter grade based on how the rest of the class did in comparison to the “B” percentage.
This is extremely general, and so I will go into a variety of examples to help illustrate the point. Most of these examples draw from lower division/introductory courses, although I do mention upper division courses later on. However, know that I am not even close to an expert, and a lot of what I will tell you changes from semester to semester. There are many exceptions to some of the generalizations I will make. With that being said, here is an answer to “is ___ hard?”
NON-PREMEDS/SCIENCE MAJORS SCROLL DOWN A BIT
Chemistry: Berkeley’s chemistry department is THE NUMBER ONE in the world, and any class you take in chemistry will be difficult because of that. Chemistry is a somewhat abstract subject to begin with, and requires a lot of logic and a lot of visualization. Often times, chemistry requires heavy applied math…which isn’t to say you have to be good at math to find chemistry manageable. The more important thing is understanding the chemistry principles that go behind using such and such equation in such and such situation…after that it’s pretty much “plug and play” as they say (Bobby Flay). Chemistry courses that are analytical or general, i.e. Chem 1a, 1b, 4a, etc. often do not lecture at the level that they test. In other words, the lecturers will provide you with explanations of the principles and a handful of solved “simple” problems, but they will not tell you how to put it all together in the complex problems you'll see on homework and exams. You may learn how to solve A, B, and C in chem 1a, and then on the midterm they will test you on D… which is some combination of A, B, and C and your ability to connect the dots. If you struggle with chemistry at Berkeley, it does not mean you are “bad” at chemistry. Some people find connecting the dots easy, and others find it takes hours of studying every day. Either way, expect to put in A LOT of work for chemistry courses at Berkeley, but if you do so you will likely find that the classes aren’t as hard as you have been told. If you are a PREMED, struggling in chem 1a does not necessarily mean you will struggle with the rest of your premed courses…the course is really one of a kind in the premed track. Once you get to OCHEM (chem 3 series)…the game changes and the course material becomes more visual, less mathy, and a lot more abstract. Practice for ochem like you would for a marathon, and do not fall behind.
Physics: Most of what I said about chemistry also applies to physics, with one caveat. In chemistry courses at Berkeley, you can often put in an immense amount of work and brute force push yourself to connect the various concepts, thus getting the grade you deserve. Physics tends to test a bit more of your intuition and imagination about the subject, and thus you can put in tons and tons of work and STILL not do well if the concepts aren't connecting intuitively in your mind. Physics also takes more “math” than chemistry, and less “plug and play”. The size of physics and chemistry “technical” courses also bears mentioning, as it means that there will be plenty of resources available to you that do not include the instructors. In other words, the student has to take a lot of time outside of class to learn the material and seek out help. If you put a gun (or a potato) to my head and asked me whether chemistry and physics were “hard”, I would say "OK YES" because of the nature of the courses; they really want you to be able to synthesize the information presented. CHEMISTRY and PHYSICS courses also move really darn fast, so falling behind is a no-no if you want to do well; and they give a whole lotta homework for not a lot of grade...but this homework is vital to preparing for the exams! Don't think that 5% of your grade being "homework" means 5% of your grade depends on the homework problems; odds the midterms and finals will draw on the homeworks in some fashion.
Biology: Hi premeds! Welcome to memorization and multiple choice exams. Physics and Chemistry tend to give free response exams with partial credit, and they do require much more practice and synthesis than memorization. Biology will test your ability to understand some overarching concepts, and then your ability to retain a variety of details and processes that branch out from the concepts. If you hated chemistry’s lack of memorization and emphasis on applied thinking, then you’ll probably find biology a bit easier to deal with. However, biology does not offer much if any partial credit, and these classes are almost always on curves (whereas chemistry tends to have cutoffs). That means that there is a lot more at stake when you walk into your exam. It’s a lot like an all or nothing—either you know what’s on the test or you don’t, and the former takes some time commitment to studying, reading, and testing yourself. It is quite hard to know how well you are doing in this class based on your raw scores because the curves are pretty much unknown. Keep track of as many details as you can in these classes
Labs for the first three subjects: Labs are separate grades and courses for MOST of the classes listed above (minus physics, bio 1b), and they are designed quite differently. Instead of testing you a few times during the semester, they test you in one or two ways during EVERY lab period (either through lab quizzes, graded lab observations, or the rare lab report). The labs also test a very different type of science to the lectures; one is theoretical and one is real. In other words, lecture courses will ask “what happens in ___ situation?”. Lab courses will instead ask “this happened…why did it happen?” That can be harder and easier depending on how you think about science. Chemistry labs tend to be “easier” than lectures, whereas the bio labs tend to be “harder” than their lectures. I have a theory about why this is….basic chemistry is better suited for lab study than basic biology. Basic chemistry in the lab is a lot easier to comprehend than basic chemistry in the lecture, and basic biology is a lot easier to comprehend in lecture than it is when you get into a lab. Biology 1AL is a course that strikes fear into the hearts of premeds everywhere because it is more time consuming than the actual lecture, has practical lab exams (instead of paper exams in chem labs), and often has weekly quizzes that test very specific information. FOR ANY SCIENCE COURSE, keeping up with the pace of the lectures, homeworks, labs, etc. is key to doing well in the course. And since these courses move very quickly, this can be a challenge. Fall behind in biology labs and you won’t be able to retain the plethora of super cool information that flies in yo face. Fall behind in physics and chemistry labs and you might light yourself on fire and/or get 300% yield (I joke, I joke…), or more likely you’ll struggle with the lab that week. Labs will also drop your lowest grades, so if you miss a lab or bomb it, no big deal!
Computer Science and programming: These classes are probably the most well known “time sinks” of any freshman courses. First of all, computer science requires a logic at its least obscured form; if A, then B…but not C, etc. (SIDE NOTE: I would recommend taking Philosophy 12A--symbolic logic--at some point in your Berkeley career if you are interested in programming AND/OR math, as it makes a good philosophy breadth and introduces you to computer thinking you use in programming). Second of all, computer science requires you to learn by DOING STUFF more than anything else. It often gives you instant feedback, and you should use that to your advantage and try your best to understand what is correct and most efficient come exam time (because exams will be on paper, not on computer). The averages in these classes tend to be quite low, so don’t stress about letter grades if you have a really low percentage. The third thing that makes CS tough is something called “debugging”; that is being neurotic and catching your mistakes before they build on each other. If you’re not a programming wiz, odds are you’ll need to leave about as much time for debugging your code as you used for writing it; and this is where a lot of people sink or swim. However, the skill of debugging code can do you wonders in your math classes, and in CS a buggy code is much less detrimental than it is in math because you can actually figure out what is wrong while in the process of writing your code. These courses are HUGE, so either form study groups, practice a lot on your own, or attend discussion sections/GSI office hours whenever possible. The more feedback you can get, the better you'll do. Finally, CS often has little-no "self-contained" course content. In other words, they will build from the ground up; often starting with simpler topics/languages that help you understand more complex ones later. If the class doesn't seem like a challenge at first, odds are it will not stay that way.
Math: Math is hard for many people and not hard for many others. You probably (think you) know by now whether you’re a natural at math or not. Luckily for you, being a natural at math doesn’t always mean being good at Berkeley math…and being bad at math doesn’t necessarily mean Berkeley math will tear a hole in your face (wut am I saying). The reason I mentioned CS before math is because the “debugging” aspect is super important for math at Berkeley as well. But first, let’s talk about Berkeley math versus BC calculus. It is safe to say that Math 1AB is harder than BC calc. It goes more in depth into calculus, and tests not only your ability to connect a lot of dots, but also your ability to do a lot of tedious calculus without making mistakes. That’s right, math 1ab will test your ability to DEBUG! I cannot tell you how many people come out of math 1AB exams and say “dang, I just realized I made this mistake!” It Is very important to understand the various methods in calculus so that you can spend the rest of your time catching mistakes. I honestly cannot say that math 53 and 54 test the same thing. Math 53 and 54 are more abstract, and often move a bit faster than math 1ab, but they don’t usually make you debug your mistakes. Instead, they test your ability to read math (just because it looks complicated doesn’t mean it will be), and your ability to use common math sense. For example, if you’re calculating an area it cannot be negative (unless you put a hole in the universe). If you got a 5 on BC calculus, I would seriously consider skipping the math 1 series because the level of calculus that is required for math 53/54 is the mastery of BC calculus...not the mastery of Math 1AB. With all this being said, I do not think math at Berkeley is one of the “harder” subjects because the professors, GSIs, textbooks, and people in your classes tend to be excellent resources. The hardest part about math is catching your mistakes and knowing definitions for some abstract concepts. Some math classes drop your midterm scores if you do well on the final, and this is because the final often builds off of all of the earliest concepts. Thus, an upward trend can save you if you struggle early in a math class. Look for good professors in math courses!!
Statistics and Economics: Statistics and economics generally use less math than the aforementioned subjects (until you get to higher level courses), and both subjects tend to have some very useful applied concepts. If you hate math and make a lot of mistakes while doing it, then I would look in statistics and economics courses as "easier" choices. If you love math and find solving algebra fairly easily, then these classes will probably be easier than all of the above. BE WARY however, that statistics and economics are counterintuitive and often appear arbitrary, so they take a different kind of skill than science (not to say science isn’t counterintuitive or arbitrary at times). Stripped down to its basics, stats and econ are almost entirely algebra with a bit of simple calculus sprinkled in here and there, but a lot of times the counterintuitive aspects can make it seem like it is much harder! Be prepared to see some real life examples right off the bat too (remember word problems from high school math? those were created to help you with stats and economics!)
English, Philosophy, Rhetoric: We’ve moved into the realm of “humanities”, and I’ll start with the three that I have heard are the “hardest”. Right off the bat I’ll tell you that these subjects are a bit harder than science for people who like objective grading as opposed to subjective grading. In science classes, if you have a natural ability for the subject and work hard, you can often get the grade you deserve. However, in these subjects you come up against the so called “evil” GRADER. Ok, they actually aren’t scary or evil…but they do introduce a subjective challenge that will require a bit more attention. These three courses often do not have homework like the aforementioned subjects, and most of the grade consists of papers. On the one hand, this means a lot less time commitment from day to day, and thus an “easier” course. On the other hand, this means a lot more time spent figuring out what is being said and why/how it is being said outside of class. These classes generally do not post notes online!! (most if not all of the classes I am aware of in the aforementioned subjects share notes with the class), so attending lecture and paying serious attention becomes much more important. These classes also have a heavy discussion aspect, which may or may not count in your grade. Finally, these three courses in particular are a bit different than other humanities because they test the methodology behind the subject. For English, that means being a good “close reader” and a clear, but innovative writer. For Philosophy, it means using sound reasoning and knowing your readings almost word by word. For Rhetoric, it means using logical, clear, and non-verbose language to convey your point. You may find these classes “read into” the text too much for your liking, so be prepared to "caress the details" as Vladimir Nabokov would say.
Psychology and Sociology: These courses are so wide and varied that it is extremely hard to label them as “hard” or “easy”. Both subjects use a lot of statistics, and make use of a lot of research ("studies show..."), so be ready to interpret numbers and know the processes behind the studies in these classes. Also be ready to memorize certain definitions and then apply them to certain situations ("Barry turns blue on Fridays, is he a) a cheese, b) an oompa loompa, or c) Chancellor Dirks?"), and be ready to apply the skills of other humanities too. In summary, these classes draw on a wide variety of skills and information, and that is part of the fun!
History, Political Science, Anthro, and the like: These courses require quite a bit more reading than any of the others I have mentioned (in general…once again they are quite variable). They will often have a debating or discussion aspect and a heavy subject tinge, along with a requirement for very clear and skilled writing. Finally, they require you to retain a lot of information ACCURATELY. There is no partial credit when recounting an event and its implications, so if this suits you then you will find the memorization that is required to be a lot of fun. Also be prepared to explore a wide variety of subjects here. For me, these subjects tend to be the hardest and least fun…so take all of my advice with that grain of salt!
Business and Haas: Okay Pre-Haas folks, here's the deal with classes like UGBA 10. These classes have a stigma of being cutthroat, serious, intense, dark souled, etc. etc. It can be very hard to get accurate information about the way these classes work for two possible reasons. The first, and probably most likely reason is that every professor who teaches each class has the freedom to apply their own style...that is a lot of what business is about, right? The second reason may or may not be true, but if the people who have taken the class in the past are truly cutthroat, then they may or may not skew your view of the class to scare you. I am in no way saying that no one who is giving Haas advice is trustworthy, but I am saying that you may be better off entering the class without any set expectations. Nor do I actually believe that these courses are truly cutthroat because of the students. They are likely intense because...well...they are full of people who are essentially re-doing their college applications, but that shouldn't mean that everyone in the class is out to get you. However, here are some overarching things you should know. A) The courses tend to have "less complex" material and concepts than others--you could say that they refresh your common sense. B) The course is graded on a bell curve more often than not. A+B) = "hard", and possibly misconstrued as cutthroat, and here's why. No, the class won't tear a hole in your brain like physics might (I joke, I joke), but it will be very tough to get a good grade in. With material that is not all that difficult, and professors who still want to use a bell curve, your grade depends heavily on how others perform around you; a high percentage grade may actually correspond to a low letter grade; and a missed question or two on an exam can actually hurt your letter grade in the class. Does this mean you should come into the class and memorize every single word anyone says? I'll leave that as a rhetorical question.
Language courses: Language courses require practice, practice, practice, and more practice. They move fast, and often have a wide variety of student backgrounds. You may look at the grade distributions for languages and see mostly As and A-s, and you may think “wow, this must be an easy A.” Do not fall into that trap, as language courses at Berkeley are anything but an easy A. In fact, language courses are probably the closest you will get to “working entirely for your grade”. In other words, you put in enough work (and/or perhaps have a natural ability for languages) and get an A. Learning a language takes a lot of passion for the subject, and people at Berkeley usually don’t just take language courses for the hell of it. They either have previous experience, or they are extremely interested in learning it for fun or for practical reasons. Either way, unlike Chem 1A or math 1A, no one really has to take Spanish 1…so you get a much more selective crowd of students who want to do well; which affects the grade average. Language courses may be the most important courses to attend as well, because the best way to practice the subject is with an expert (the instructor). Again, do not fall into the trap of thinking these are Easy A’s, but don’t think that you will be at a disadvantage if you do not have prior experience in the language. Worst comes worst, you can always P/NP the class and then retake it if it fulfills some requirement. These courses tend to be quite small, interactive, and varied in their styles. The difficulty of the language (subjective as it may be) can dictate the difficulty of the class (i.e. latin 1 is likely "harder" than spanish 1 because the latin language has more intricacies).
Upper Division VS. Lower Division: Many people will tell you “the MCB upper divisions are easier than the lower divisions” or “avoid math upper divisions for your life” etc. etc. The truth is thus, upper division courses tend to be full of experienced students, and odds are you will be one of them when you get here. The subject material is often more in depth, builds off of prerequisite courses, and requires an ability to remember and synthesis material learned in previous courses. HOWEVER, the material also is often presented in a smoother fashion…i.e. its much less material in much more time…and with a much smaller class…i.e. more attention to each student. For science/math courses, odds are you should take the prerequisites for the classes before taking the upper division (unless you have a lot of knowledge in the subject or want to self study what you do not know yet)…but for humanities the upper divisions can be a really good way to become immersed in a subject and see if you like it! Just be wary of doing so in your first year, because you will likely be at a learning curve (also be wary that these classes tend to be really tough to get into with lower level standing).
Decals: Yes, decals are easy, fun, and worthwhile! They might have homework, but it shouldn’t be something that takes much time out of your schedule.
How many units should I take during my first semester?
I would now like to combine everything I have told you thus far to answer the question you've all been asking "why 13 units?" Here's the deal, its one thing to listen to me and retain the information I am telling you about the different subjects and the reasons why they are difficult, but it is a very different thing to actually take the course and see for yourself. The freshman advisers recommend 13 units based on the data that show that "students who take reduced course loads first semester perform better". Here's a little secret they don't tell you; the number of units given for a class do not correspond to its difficulty or its time commitment very accurately. I would instead look at the number of courses you are taking and the descriptions of what they entail (^^^). 3 "full" courses...that is courses not including decals, seminars, or labs, is what I would recommend starting with. And since the courses (and, for chem 1a + chem 1al) usually are 4 units, then you get 3x4 = 12. Add another 4 unit course and you get 16, and 4 "full" courses can be a lot for a new freshman. So, add an extra unit or two to the 12 from your three courses and you get.......13!! That's where that comes from, but don't use the 13 as a hard and fast rule. For example, many courses are only 3 units, and many language courses are 5 units. Taking chem 1a only gives you 3 units but, depending on how much time you put into the class, you may feel like you're taking 5. Taking courses in humanities may be less time commitment because of the lack of labs, and if you feel like you can handle a lot of reading and pace yourself then 4 humanities may be doable! In other words, you really don't know until you come here, and since 13 units also happen to be the number of units required for L&S students to be registered...then I would take 3 courses, add a decal/seminar, and call it a day. OR, I would register for 4 classes (i.e. 16 or so units) and have a backup plan to drop one in case it is too much (possibly add a decal to get you back to 13).
TL;DR, Hope this helps dispel and/or confirm some myths about the difficulty of courses at Berkeley. if someone tells you something is “hard”, consider asking them “why do you say that?” And if you ask whether something is “hard”, know that a lot of varied answers will come your way! Upperclassmen feel free to correct me or add on anything I missed! If you'd ever like to chat about courses, school spirit, food, and deep 2am "I've been awake too long topics" please add me on the facebooks (I love meeting ya'll new peeps). My instagram is @bear_schenks if you wanna see all the pictures that take away the credibility of this document... Go Bears, beat hard classes and beat Stanfurd!