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How do I get into CSC 151?

Topics/tags: CSC 151, academia, advice for current students.

This week, first-year students are preparing to register for classes. I’ve written about first-year registration before. I may not have mentioned that many students need to discuss their placement as they plan their prospective schedules. Math has the most visits, but CS has a bunch, too.

Yesterday, a student stopped by to chat about CSC 151 [1], the first course in the CS curriculum. Although they had taken prior CS classes, they understood that the design of Grinnell’s curriculum is such that it makes sense to start in 151. Then they said I’m worried about 151. I prepared to reassure them that although CSC 151 has a reputation as a challenging class, even for students with some background, nearly everyone who takes the course does well.

But that wasn’t their worry.

The followed that first statement with I’m worried that I won’t get in to CSC 151. Unfortunately, that is a reasonable worry. Large numbers of students are interested in CS and, although it looks like we will soon have enough faculty to support interest, that still doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get into 151 in your first semester. I thought it would be worthwhile to document the advice I gave. Let’s see ….

You probably won’t get into CSC 151 in the fall unless you make it your first choice in the first round [2]. I’m pretty sure I’ve said that to students for the past few years. Last year, CSC 151 filled midway through the first round. I think we have a few more slots available this year, but it’s unlikely that slots will be available in the second round.

Every first-year student who wants to take CSC 151 will get it in spring if they don’t get it in the fall. I realize that some of our peer institutions have reached the stage that they don’t guarantee that every interested first-year student can enroll in CS. I would raise a ruckus if we reached the stage that did not provide the course to all interested first-year students [3]. We had no trouble meeting that goal last year, and we are offering one more section this year.

It doesn’t matter if you start the CS major in your first semester or your second semester. We’ve tried to design the curriculum so that it’s relatively straightforward to complete the CS major in six semesters. That means that you can start in your second semester, study abroad for a semester without studying CS [4], and still complete the major. We’ve even had students complete the major in five semesters. One outlier found a way to complete the major in four semesters, but it’s almost certain that no one could repeat that achievement. I didn’t tell the student, but it seems that the students who start in their first semester and those who start in their second semester tend to form separate communities. In my experience, the communities unify in their third year, and the active students tend to be comfortable in both.

It’s worthwhile to put your name on the waiting list. We sometimes have people drop. This year, I think we may be doing a few other things that will allow us to take people off the waiting list. However, at least for fall semester, I think the only people we will allow on the waiting list will be people who put us first in the first round.

One of the purposes of a liberal arts education is to explore a wide variety of topics; if you don’t get into CSC 151, try something different. One reason to attend a place like Grinnell is that you aren’t completely certain what you might study. Give other disciplines a chance. Just as we have some CS majors who did not plan to study CS when we came to Grinnell, those who study CS might find that they are equally passionate about, say, Philosophy or Sociology.

Ask to be added to the CS mailing list. Being on the list won’t increase your odds of getting into CSC 151, but it will help you be part of the community. Even if you don’t take CS your first semester, you can still participate in our social activities and attend the various talks and such.

[1] Yes, I realize that I’m on sabbatical. But I needed to be around the department and, as long as I was around the department, it seemed valuable to talk to students.

[2] You can see the prior musing on registration for what that means.

[3] I would even consider giving up my sabbatical if necessary. But I don’t expect it to come to that.

[4] Increasingly, our students are finding ways to take CS while studying abroad.

Version 1.0 of 2019-01-27.