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The 10 Hardest (& Easiest) Classes At Harvard University

It’s 11 pm on a Saturday night and your night has just begun!

Unfortunately, it is not quite as you envisioned in the days before you became a collegiette and realized that college is less like Asher Roth’s ‘I Love College’ and more like, well, work. Instead of partying, you’re sprawled on your bed or floor with textbooks, printed-out readings, and unfinished problem sets cocooning you. Oh well. You came here to work, right? Everyone is dealing with the same stuff, right?

But what about that girl across the hall — the one who parties all weekend, sleeps all week, and never seems to be behind on anything? Or, on the other extreme, that roommate of yours who seems to have moved out of your room and into the library (has she even emerged to shower this month)? It all comes down to this: not all courses, and not all course loads, are created equal, not even if you go to Harvard. So using Harvard’s “CUE guide”, in which undergraduates are encouraged to share their course experiences by rating their classes after they take them, we’ve put together a list of the hardest and easiest class at Harvard University. Because aren’t we all curious?

The Hardest:

1. Physics 16: Mechanics and Special Relativity

Aspiring to be a physicist? Or just a fan of lots of work and little sleep? Then Professor Howard Georgi’s class might be for you! You can plan on spending a solid 11 hours on Physics 16 coursework outside of class each week and, as a former student so eloquently said in his/her review, “Just know in advance that Physics 16 will sometimes control your life, especially on Wednesday nights.” Does it still sound tempting? Then go for it. Although the class is infamous as one of the hardest classes you can take, with 85% of former students rating it as “difficult” or “very difficult,” 93% of those that make it through would recommend it, to some extent or another, to others. As another anonymous former student said, “It is hard, you will be like ‘wtf’ more than you probably ever have for a (science/math-y) course…but, there’s really no other way to learn intro mech[anics] with as much (sometimes only just manageable) theoretical/math-y depth.”

2. Math 55a: Honors Abstract Algebra

If you sign up for Math 55a, stock up on Red Bull and plan on spending around fourteen hours on coursework outside of class each week. It’s not without reason that when someone announces that they’re taking Math 55a, it’s pretty much an announcement of being a hardworking math prodigy: 81% of former students polled rated this class as “very difficult.” On the other hand, 100% of former students would recommend the class to others. Maybe it’s world-renowned Professor Noam D. Elkies’ above-usual accessibility outside of class, or his reported ability to generate enthusiasm for abstract algebra (if that doesn’t count as a superpower, I’m not sure what does). Whatever it is, although the course’s workload is almost double the departmental average, it’s rating by students is slightly above the departmental average overall.

3. Social Studies 10b: Introduction to Social Studies

Before all you science/math concentrators start bemoaning your decision to forgo the (seemingly easier) humanities, let’s take a look at Social Studies 10b — the monster of the humanities beginner’s schedule. Sure, social studies may be touted as the “non-major major” at Harvard, suitable only for aspiring trophy wives, but don’t be fooled — this course is no joke. History buffs can plan on spending around ten hours per week on coursework outside of class and 76% of former students polled rated the class as either “difficult” or “very difficult,” with only 1% rating it as “easy” and 0% rating it as “very easy.” As seems to be the trend with these scary-hard classes, however, the course’s level of challenge seems to correspond directly with the level of satisfaction its survivors’ experience. Of those polled, 95% would recommend the course to others. One former student called it a “truly life-changing course.”

4. Computer Science 225: Pseudorandomness

Though information technology may be the way to bring home the bacon (Mark Zuckerberg, anyone?) you’re going to have to work for that degree. Plan on about 11 hours per week of coursework outside of class and be forewarned that 0% of students polled rated the class as “easy” or “very easy.” On the other hand, the work seems to be rewarding: 100% of students polled would recommend the course to others and the course received the ever-elusive CUE guide score of 5.00 out of 5.00. If you’re willing to take on the challenge, this class could be great! You’ll learn to generate objects that “look random” using techniques that involve little to no randomness. Is it just me, or does this sound like something that could qualify you for a career as a Vegas magician?

5. Philosophy 129: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Though this course’s weekly workload is below the departmental average (it only requires about 4 hours per week outside of class), 95% of students polled rated it is as “difficult” or “very difficult.” Focused on understanding Kant’s first Critique, the class has some heavy reading.  A real interest in philosophy is pretty much a prerequisite for enrollment, as this is no light foot-wetting experience, but aspiring philosophers may find that, as one former student said, “Kant is filled with magic.”

6. Government 1061: The History of Modern Political Philosophy

This certainly isn’t the course you would sign up for if you’re just trying to get a base-level understanding of politics. I wouldn’t be shocked to find the next Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice in this class, as its in-depth study of the rise and history of modernity will prepare political hopefuls for the kind of effort they’re going to have to put in to succeed. According to former students, you will need to “be prepared to give your life up,” but will also get to learn from the beloved Professor Mansfield, who (in a somewhat sacrilegious assertion) “is a god.”

7. Economics 1126: Quantitative Methods in Economics

It only seems fair that economics majors, who can earn up to six digits fresh out of Harvard, should have to suffer a bit. And with this course, they certainly do. Picture this: a 7-10 hour weekly workload outside of class, tough assignments covering everything from statistical decision theory to incidental parameters, and a pretty low CUE guide score of 3.06 out of 5.00 (as compared to the departmental average of 4.12). Yup, that sounds just about right.

8. Chemistry 161: Statistical Thermodynamics

The humanities have gotten their fair share of attention on this list, but don’t worry — I haven’t forgotten the sciences. With Chemistry 161’s 10-hour per weekly workload, you’ll be hard-pressed to forget, too. On top of that monster of a workload, its CUE guide scores are extremely low (an overall course score of 1.29 out of 5.00, as compared to the departmental average of 3.89) and 95% of former students would not recommend the course. The class may actually be a scarring experience, as one former student claims, “I was so terrified of this class. I am unbelievably relieved that it’s over. Thank God.” Yikes!

9. Medieval Latin 110: Latin Literature of the Twelfth Century

Who’s surprised that a Latin course made it onto this list? Let’s just say that I’m not. Taking this class means having about ten fewer hours per week to eat/sleep/socialize and 100% of former students rate this class as difficult. Astoundingly, however, 100% of former students also say that they are likely to recommend the course to others. It seems that the exceptionally well-led sections, which received a perfect score in the CUE guide, are this challenging course’s saving grace.

10. History 97: Sophomore Tutorial

91% of former students rate this course as “difficult” or “very difficult” and you can anticipate a workload of around 12 hours per week outside of class. This sophomore tutorial, a practical introduction to research in the humanities, seems almost like a rite to separate the weak from the serious, as far as history majors go. As one former student said, “If expos [a mandatory freshman writing course] is a friendly little puppy, [history] 97 is a grizzly bear that devours you.” On the other hand, another student says, “I had a love-hate relationship with History 97, but I think it actually was a very intellectually enriching experience.” Just be ready to work. Hard. 

The Easiest:

1. Neurobiology 95hfj: The Sleeping Brain

You probably didn’t think you would find a neurobiology class on this list, did you? And I know what you’re thinking right now. Those Harvard kids must be crazy! Neurobio’s what they consider a fluff class? But with just about three hours of work outside of class each week, and 0% of former students rating the class as difficult, this may really be one of those deceptive sounds-hard-but-is-easy classes that are pretty much transcript treasures. According to a former student, The Sleeping Brain is “nothing you’ll lose sleep over.” And the best part? It’s fun, too!

2. Swedish A: Beginning Swedish Language and Literature

Learning a new language sure doesn’t sound like a walk in the park. With the globalization of the modern world, however, it can really help any collegiette out to know something other than her first language. This class, though an immersive language course, has a CUE guide score of 5.00 out of 5.00 (meaning everyone thought the class was perfect) and boasts a mere three hours of work per week outside of class! Take it from a former student, “Be prepared to have lots of fun. Swedish is surprisingly easy to learn.” I don’t know about you, but Sweden is looking more and more appealing…plus, those Swedish boys are pretty darn cute.

3. Psychology 950: Psychology Live!

I’m no psych enthusiast, but who can resist a title that sounds more like the name of a late-night television show than a real academic endeavor? On average, students don’t spend more than three hours per week on this course outside of class and get to hear from top psychologists in the field during frequent guest lectures. In addition to helping keep that GPA up, and those stress levels down, Psychology Live! is a great way for students to get to know the department—laboratory position, anyone?

4. Engineering Sciences 139: Innovation in Science and Engineering

Not only does this class not require a background in science, but it also provides students with an opportunity to learn from field leaders in science, business, and the arts. So why are its CUE guide scores below departmental averages and why would 15% of students polled not recommend the class? “This is a saddening course,” says a former student, citing disorganization, unclear assignments, and a missing focus as major problems that prevent students from learning much. Another student says, “If you only want to take it because you heard it’s ‘easy’ then you won’t get anything out of it…you get out of the class what you put into the class.”

5. Anthropology 1010: The Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods and Reasoning

With a workload of just about four hours per week outside of class, this course is an easy way to learn a bit about a fairly interesting field. As one former student said, “The class is great. It teaches you things that you have not known before, but does so in a relaxed manner, without pushing you to study, study, study.” Where else can students fulfill a math requirement by cooking Mayan chocolate and making stone tools and clay pots?

6. Visual and Environmental Studies 71: Silent Cinema

Silent Cinema, with a reported workload of just around three hours per week outside of class, is an easy way for Harvard students to fulfill a core requirement. According to former students, not only is the course “painless and very interesting,” but also “a good way to learn some of the important developments of the silent era.” Even if you aren’t particularly interested in going into something with cinema, the films featured in the course are supposed to be quite good. Hey, how come Harvard kids get to watch movies and call it homework?

7. African and African American Studies 90r.m: Somali

Yes, you’ll probably spend less than three hours a week on this course, outside of lecture. And yes, taking an African American Studies course could be a great way to expand your horizons and add a bit of diversity to your transcript. Before you rush to sign up, however, bear in mind that the course’s CUE guide scores are consistently below departmental averages. This may be due to the strength of the department in general, but it may also be a red flag: easier isn’t always better.

8. Folklore and Mythology 106: Witchcraft and Charm Magic

Witchcraft and Charm Magic? Really? Maybe that first impression of Harvard as Hogwarts-esque, with Annenberg’s (the freshman dining hall’s) stained glass windows and all, wasn’t that wrong after all. This class won’t take much work outside of class, but it also might not be as fun as you would expect — its CUE guide scores are below departmental averages and instead of learning hexes, you’ll examine witchcraft and the “magical world view” from cross-cultural, historical, and literary perspectives. On top of that, chances are it won’t even be offered this term—this course is only offered every few years. You might have better luck stopping by Brown if you want to learn some cool magic.

9. Computer Science 105: Privacy and Technology

I’m about as technologically challenged as they come, but even I make use of Facebook, Twitter, and other such social essentials of the 21st century. So yes, my eyebrows launched themselves skyward when I tried to imagine a computer science course as easy, but they started to return to my own stratosphere when I realized what the class is really about. With a focus on privacy laws and concerns as related to technology, there are plenty of opportunities to apply what you learn to real life. And the best part is still to come — the class has a light workload, great sections, and NO MIDTERM OR FINAL. Can I sign up?

10. East Asian Studies 160: Writing Asian Poetry

WOW! I have saved the best for last with this one — just about three hours of work outside of class per week and a perfect 5.00 out of 5.00 CUE guide score for all five categories (section, feedback, assignments, materials, and course overall). It seems that this is a true gem, hiding out in the underappreciated East Asian studies concentration. Take it from former students, who unanimously recommend the course with enthusiasm, and check it out! 

So there you have it: the most, and least, challenging classes at Harvard University! But before you plan on looking for classes that are exclusively like those from the latter category, I hope you bear in mind that a challenge isn’t always a bad thing. As a bright young collegiette, you are fully capable of taking on all kinds of challenges—from wardrobe malfunctions to boy troubles to, yes, that really hard class.

Now get back to studying!

Danai Kadzere is a Human Evolutionary Biology Concentrator at Harvard College. In addition to Her Campus, she blogs at http://living-learning-eating.blogspot.com and loves acting, reading, writing, fashion, trying new things, yogurt, apples, and life. After college, she's being absolutely ridiculous and moving at NYC to be an actress or a poor writer (whichever sounds more plausible to you).