UChicago First Year Experience

My son was offered a surprise acceptance to UChicago, and more generous financial aid than we could have imagined. And while this mother is over the moon thinking of the opportunity he has in front of him, S21 is nervous that he can’t handle it. Like other students at UChicago, he’s extremely bright, curious, intellectual, and creative. But he’s not a terribly hard worker which explains his 1580 SAT score alongside his 3.6 UW GPA. He loves learning, reading, and writing, but doesn’t have patience for much of the busy work assigned in high school, hence the low-ish grades.

I’m wondering what kind of support is provided to first year students. S21 and I share a concern that with the fast pace of the quarter system, he’ll get behind and have a terrible experience. Is it a sink-or-swim environment, or do they provide support to ease students into the pace and rigor of this world-class institution? My son told me this morning he’s not sure if he can be successful there. I know he has the intellect, but I don’t know if he has the discipline to handle the workload. He’s also not a very good advocate for himself and tends to suffer in silence when he’s struggling. He wants to go into a research career in genetics and biotechnology so would be studying something like biological sciences. He would also audition for a place in the symphony orchestra so I hope that would be a place where he could connect with others and make some friends. He also wants to be involved in undergraduate research and can’t wait to get into a lab coat.

To those in the know, what’s the overall academic experience like for first year students? What kind of advising and academic support are available? Are there safety nets to ensure students don’t fall through the cracks? What else should we know as he considers his decision?

Autumn quarter is an adjustment. The quarter runs quick, though fortunately now TG week is a full week off with no additional work assigned. If your son is worried about not having formed the study habits, he should consider taking three not four courses. Hum will be required, then he’ll want to take whichever Math he places into (likely a calculus) and then perhaps one of the sciences like gen’l chem which many find very challenging. Students are encouraged to form study groups and he’ll find plenty in his house who are taking the same courses. The professors will all have office hours. He should absolutely take advantage of them as well as problem sessions with the TA. Hum will include a required writing seminar with the assigned tutor and that person is also available throughout the quarter to help with your essays. And there are peer tutors available as well. So lots of academic support, as long as the student is willing to use these resources.

The student will be assigned a general academic advisor and a career advisor when they matriculate; a major advisor will be added on once they declare their major (usually it’s the undergraduate program coordinator or someone working for that person).

Not sure when the bio major would begin but I have the impression that most in the major or in premed begin their bio sequence in winter quarter. Then he’ll need to take four courses. His bio placement will depend on his AP score (if he took or is taking AP Bio). He’ll get a chance to meet with his summer advisor via phone or remote, and he can also peruse the gen ed and major requirements here in the catalog (it’ll update in the spring for his class): http://collegecatalog.uchicago.edu/

My kids are good evidence that if you just plug away at it and understand your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll do all right and likely do fine. Most students don’t drown; rather, they make choices - maybe trading off more time on calc for a B in Hum as just one example. Both of mine took Hum and Sosc together because close reading and writing was their forté; both also took calc but offset all that work by taking non-major science. The resulting schedule wasn’t a breeze, but it was definitely doable.

Some kids don’t do as well in high school as they will in college because the former bores them. If your son is excited about the opportunity to be part of the intellectual community at UChicago and is willing to devote his time to the sheer love of learning, then he’ll probably be fine. IMO, a kid who is properly motivated intellectually is a great fit for UChicago. However, kids who simply don’t want to put academics at the forefront of their collegiate experience might find the place to be too much.

The university orchestra is a great group of kids, from what I understand. Very very talented. They haven’t been able to perform or practice this year, but they still meet weekly via Zoom. My son has been involved in the ensembles since he came to campus and my D was in one of the chorale groups her first year (too busy with her part time job after that). They made friends in these groups but also with others in their house. If things are back to normal in the fall, then hopefully O-Week will return and your son will have lots of opportunity to socialize, meet his fellow housemates and generally have a great time before the start of the academic year. Don’t look at last fall as the norm. Covid made things very difficult with stay-at-home or even mandated quarantine, etc. Usually O-Week is a blast and a great time to hang out and meet others. The dining rooms all have house tables, too, and my kids always ate at theirs (not this year though, sadly - again due to Covid).

In short, there is ample opportunity for your son to make friends and have a blast of a time. But UChicago defines “fun” a bit different than other places. More gateway courses, less tailgating, if you catch my drift :nerd_face:


My D had the same concerns - she didn’t know anyone who attended and wondered how she got accepted. But once she started, she loved her small discussion classes and found attending office hours to be very very helpful. In the end she was able to handle the class load and still have time for her instrument (she didn’t get into the symphony orchestra but did join an ensemble and take lessons); and time to join other campus clubs and attend house fun events. Keep in mind that the work is certainly challenging, but the students aren’t in class all day either. If needed, the student wellness center offers support on general study habits (“Academic Skills Assessment Program”). My D’s RA also provided solid social and even academic support. Now my D loves the school and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Fingers crossed that next year will be closer to normal!

Thank you @JBStillFlying @seekingaid. Your posts give us comfort. My son is still reeling from the news and it’s sinking in that he could really go. It sounds like there’s lots of support to help him be successful academically.

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The thing to remember is that the freshman retention rate is like 99% (sometimes it’s 100%) and that they wouldn’t have admitted him had they thought he wasn’t up to it. Imposter syndrome is certainly a reality there, but the resources are numerous. TBH, I didn’t even know about the Academic Skills Assessment Program! That sounds like a fantastic resource! Many students worry coming in that their study habits aren’t well formed enough - it’s pretty typical for these high achievers in high school who were out-performing everyone including in the most rigorous courses to not have formed UChicago-worthy study habits! Another tip: the Core provides your foundation and the necessary intellectual training for higher-level work. Don’t try to put it off and don’t try to blow it off. The student who takes the Core curriculum seriously and strives to get out of it what they are supposed to will emerge very well-prepared for additional study. Unfortunately, there are also tales of luckless students who felt they didn’t need it - waste of time, not enjoyable, etc. - and ended up struggling. This is not an ability thing. It’s a mindset thing. Those who choose to embrace this intense and comprehensive version of liberal ed won’t be disappointed. Sounds simple and yet so many don’t know to do it . . .

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He thinks the Core is pretty neat. A few weeks ago he told me he wanted to take philosophy in college, which is in no way related to his intended major field of study. His favorite parts of high school were seminar-style discussions in his GT classes, and I saw more motivation from him in preparing for those discussions than anything else, so I can definitely see the Core courses being a highlight for him.

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It’s definitely a lot of hard work but essentially no busy work. Lots of the humanities classes were midterm, paper, and final. The math, econ, and cs classes had weekly psets but they were challenging and not repetitive or just for a grade bump. My kid who graduated definitely got in over his head a few times but you can withdraw with no penalty up until close to finals. He always took 4 classes and when he needed to drop something it was fine since 3 classes is also considered full time.

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Just one clarification: dropping a course after third week will result in a W on your transcript. If you want to avoid that then drop before that deadline; difficult to do since first midterms are usually in Week 4.

Course Withdrawals
The “W” (Withdrawn) grade means that the student has decided after week 3 of the quarter not to complete the work of the course. Students who wish to exercise this option must request a W from their adviser by 5 PM the Friday before finals week or the day before the final project/exam is due, whichever is earlier. When made before the deadline, a request for a withdrawal cannot be denied except in cases of academic dishonesty. A withdrawal may not be granted after completion of the course.

Once a student requests a W, it may not subsequently be changed to any other mark. W grades do not confer grade or impact GPA; however, they will count against the completion rate needed to maintain good academic standing.

Students who register for graduate-level courses are subject to the policies governing graduate grading. Students should discuss the implications of these policies with their advisers before registering for courses numbered 30000 and above. NOTE: Grades earned in graduate-level courses contribute to a student’s GPA as indicated earlier in this section.


Regarding enrollment in the core courses, are there certain humanities and civilization sequences that are super popular and fill up? S was browsing the courses and found some of particular interest. I wonder what’s the likelihood that he wouldn’t be able to get into that sequence.

My kids each had to pre-register for nine sections of Hum - top three choices with three sections of each - and probably six sections of Sosc. They want to make sure you get something your pre-registered for which is why you choose so many. My kids both did Greece and Rome for Hum and Classics for Sosc. Most likely the number of sections offered will indicate historical popularity but they typically offer several sections of each with an exception or two (such as Intro to Humanities or one of the specialized Social Science Inquiries). There are enough choices to gravitate to what sounds interesting, since all of them will accomplish the goals of the subject (analytical thinking and writing). Edit to add: your son should pre-register for what interests him and not worry about popularity.

@Culbreath you also asked about Civ so here are my thoughts on that. There are first years who do Civ but it’s more difficult unless you’ve already had the heavy writing-intensive courses of Hum and Sosc. There are some students who will disagree; this might be more of a YMMV issue, depending on which Civ you take. However, one definite complication for a first year is that their desired Civ may be full before they can register for it, since returning student registration occurs prior to first year pre-reg. W/r/t Sosc, the College ensures that there is space in each section for first years but that’s not the case for Civ. So your son’s choices may indeed be limited if he wishes to try Civ in first year. Again, it may well depend on the particular sequence offered.

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I think that concern is very common. My son was also very concerned. Since you said he enjoys reading and writing, that is a huge plus. As an FYI, my son got his 6 of 8th choice for his Hum class. He did get his top choice for Sosc.

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@JBStillFlying thanks for that perspective. I don’t think he’d necessarily want to take Civ his first year. It was more an exercise in looking ahead at the possibilities. I’m not sure how all of 1st year plays out but as far as I can tell it looks likely it would include the Hum sequence, calculus, chemistry and maybe biology.

That sounds about right. At the end of first year he’ll have hum, math, physical science and bio knocked off for his Core, at minimum.

Sorry for the off-topic question, but I figured it would fall under the umbrella of the ‘First Year Experience’. Trying to figure out the logistics of S’s move. Does anyone know if freshmen are allowed to bring a car and, if not, when that would be possible? Advantages/disadvantages?

We visited this past Friday. While we don’t intend to send a car with my son and therefore I didn’t ask that specific question, I wouldn’t send a vehicle his first year or two unless he lived within driving distance of home and planned to visit regularly. It seems like Uber is a better way to get around town given parking challenges and the expense of keeping a car. And public transportation is available too.

@JBStillFlying what has been your kids’ experience?


The College does not prohibit cars on campus but parking can be a real pain. I understand that the main garage on 55th street allows long-term parking but don’t know the details such as cost or availability. Your son may wish to get acclimated to the campus and neighborhood before bringing a car, and it usually works better for those who live off-campus and know where to find free parking nearby. It’s not at all necessary to have a car in Chicago - the vast majority of undergrads don’t have or need one and use public transportation or uber to get around.


@Culbreath my kids don’t have a car on campus. I had one as a grad student but the university is notably larger now and parking isn’t easy to find when I drive into town! I have my parking app and pay for it but that’s not really feasible for someone who has a car there 24/7. Frankly, I just hop on the 55 whenever coming from or returning to Midway, and I use local busses to get through HP. There is also UGo. My kids tend to walk. I wouldn’t recommend a car for the first couple of years, as you were advising.

Thank you Culbreath and JBStillFlying. Not prohibited but also not encouraged. Got it. I also think the best thing to do is wait at least until he knows his way around the city. But it’s good to know they actually allow freshmen to bring their cars. At my older son’s school, they had very strict rules about that.

@Culbreath, we have a tour scheduled for next Friday. Were you allowed to visit the dorms?

Just another voice to say that, unless they have some unusual circumstance, students do not need a car. IMO, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. My 3rd year has never even considered bringing a car. Plus, students ride public transportation for “free” (pass is included in students fees). I lived in Chicago for 15 years, and many young professionals who lived there still didn’t have cars.