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The Hardest College Classes in the Country

What exactly makes a class difficult?

Is it a professor with indecipherable handwriting who mumbles through lectures and refuses to curve a test with a 47% average score? Is it hours upon hours of complex proofs or twelve-page research papers covering abstract concepts? 

There’s no exact science for makes a class tough. It’s all subjective, to a point – what’s a breeze for one student might be painful for another. But what we do know is that fighting through a semester with a truly difficult class is a rite of passage in college. The academics are supposedly why we’re all here, after all, and you can’t earn that diploma without putting in a little blood, sweat and tears. We can all relate to that one class that makes us feel like maybe dropping out and working at the local car wash wouldn’t be the worst idea ever. 


With that said, some classes are undoubtedly tougher than others. That’s why Her Campus wanted to know: What are the hardest college classes in the country? We talked to students, viewed grade distributions and scoured college rankings to find some of the absolute toughest classes out there. So the next time you’re up to your eyeballs in homework, cursing the professor who assigned you 60 pages of reading for one night, take a look at this list and thank the heavens your schedule doesn’t look like this: 

1. Thermodynamics II--Purdue University

If you’re looking for courses to boost your GPA, signing up for a course in Thermodynamics (the science of heat transfer) is probably not the way to go. “At Purdue, the engineering courses are notorious for being particularly hard,” says Amanda, a sophomore at Purdue. “Because Purdue is known for its engineering program, the standards for getting into the program are extremely difficult and the ‘weed-out’ courses are especially difficult.”  But engineering students beware: even if you’ve made it through Thermodynamics I, don’t expect to find any relief in the next level. On MyEdu.com, the workload for Thermodynamics II is ranked as “heavy” and the official grade record shows 50% of the class received a C or lower (4% Fs and only 17% As.) 

2. Topics in Metaphysics and Epistemology--New York University

If you’re partial to numbers and concrete answers, this class will send you running in the opposite direction: “the nature of cause and the existence of universals” and “the distinction between appearance and reality” are just a couple of the topics tackled in this advanced philosophy course. “I definitely wouldn’t recommend this class to anyone who isn’t comfortable with basic philosophic thinking and looking for a challenge intellectually,” says Erin, a senior at NYU who took the class last year. With this course, NYU’s top-ranked philosophy department proves that difficult classes are definitely not limited to the fields of math and science.  


3. Organic Chemistry--California Institute of Technology 

Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the infamous organic chemistry. “The synthesis, structures, and mechanisms of reactions of organic compounds”  – this one-sentence description might sound simple enough, but the word “orgo” strikes fear in the hearts of college students nationwide. “Organic chemistry is known for being hard based on the volume of information to memorize and the nature of the subject,” says Emily, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill. Many students find organic chemistry hard because it’s so different than previous chemistry classes – there’s not a lot of math, it’s very visual, and it requires a ton of studying. In CalTech’s competitive chemistry program, consistently ranked as one of the best in the country, you’ll find one of the toughest orgo classes in the country. 

4. Math 55--Harvard University

A freshman survey math class – how hard could it be? If you ask anyone who’s taken Math 55 at Harvard, they will tell you: as hard as it gets. Called “probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country” on the math department’s website, this is not your average math class. “The class aims to cover what would normally take two years for another honors math sequence at Harvard to finish, and what would probably constitute a typical full undergraduate math education,” says Tony Feng, a T.A. for Math 55. Don’t expect to have much of a social life if you’re in this class – According to the course description, problem sets can take anywhere from 24 to 60 hours a week to complete. “The material itself is dealt with at a high level of abstraction and generality,” Feng explains. “Some of the problems are actually major theorems that took mathematicians a while to discover. After Math 55, one could potentially jump straight into graduate-level classes.” This class’s reputation precedes it, and only the most bright and determined students in Harvard’s top-ranked math department go through with it: From about 40 students who showed up for this year’s the first day of class, only 9 people stuck with it, Feng said.

5. Advanced Topics in Quantum Mechanics--Stanford University

Time-dependent perturbation theory, scattering theory, partial wave expansion, relativistic quantum mechanics…do I even need to say more? Stanford’s top-ranked physics department tackles some of the most difficult concepts in science in this upper-level course. On a basic level, quantum mechanics is about the interaction of matter and energy. But this isn’t the physics you’re used to. Quantum mechanics takes physics to another level – highly theoretical and often contrary to classical physics, this course combines math and abstract theories for a truly challenging experience.  

6. Calculus III--Columbia University

Covering “complex numbers and the complex exponential function with applications to differential equations” and “scalar-valued functions of several variables,” among other topics, Calculus III at Columbia is a challenge even for those who enjoy complex mathematics. Patricia, a sophomore at Columbia, says the upper level math classes at Columbia are notorious for being difficult. “They are big lecture classes taught by professors whose English is difficult to understand, there is little explanation by the professors, and students are forced to teach themselves based on the book,” she says. 

7. Statics and Mechanics of Solids--Cornell University

“Principles of statics, force systems, and equilibrium; frames; mechanics of deformable solids, stress, strain, statically indeterminate problems; mechanical properties of engineering materials; axial force, shearing force, bending moment, thermal stress, stretching; bending and torsion of bars.” If the description of this engineering course doesn’t scare you enough, check out the grade distribution: One of only two classes whose median grades from Spring 2009 dipped into a C+ (all of the rest were B- or above), engineering students in Cornell’s competitive program find one of Cornell’s most challenging classes in Statics and Mechanics of Solids. One thing’s for sure, this isn’t the type of class where you can get an A with a little bit of studying and the help of a curve.

8. Intro to Philosophy--Boston University

It may seem counterintuitive that an introductory course could be that difficult, but Intro to Philosophy at BU will prove you wrong. This class covers topics including “the relationship of mind and body,” “the foundations and limits of human knowledge” and “the nature and structure of morality,” and it does so with heaps of reading and memorization. Ben, a senior at Boston University, says Intro to Philosophy was the hardest course he has taken in college. “The professor could not be understood and the tests were impossible,” he says. 

9. Monetary Economics--UT-Austin

Covering “major issues in the monetary field,” the course description for this upper-level econ class doesn’t sound too bad. But don’t be fooled. Ranked as a top undergraduate business school by the U.S. News & World Report, UT-Austin doesn’t go easy on its business students. “The material is extraordinarily disorganized, and the professor cares little to none about the overall progress of the class as a whole,” wrote one student on MyEdu.com. “If you ever miss a class it’s extremely hard to try to learn what he was talking about, even by reading through other's notes. All in all, unless you're already well read on classical and neo Keynesian models I would not even consider taking this course.”  If that’s not convincing enough, the official grade record shows a workload ranked as “heavy” with grade distribution at 14% Fs and 18% each for As, Bs, Cs and Ds. Ouch.


College students across the country

Tony Feng, T.A. at Harvard

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Laura is a senior (class of 2011) at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Journalism and French. She spent two years writing for her campus newspaper and interned at USA Weekend Magazine in D.C. this summer. She is also a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and recently spent a semester studying abroad in the south of France. Besides reading and writing, she loves being outdoors (particularly hiking and backpacking, ideally in the N.C. mountains), traveling, coffee, and attempting to play the guitar and/or ukulele. Her major life goals include learning to salsa dance and swimming with manatees. Though the thought of entering the real world still terrifies her a little bit, she plans to pursue a career in the magazine or publishing industries.
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