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Courses for First-Year Students

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Overview for First-Year Students Taking Chemistry
Chemistry Assessment and Placement Exams
First-Year Students Considering the Chemistry Major
Tips for Success in a University Chemistry Course

Overview for First-Year Students Taking Chemistry

Many Northwestern undergraduate students will be required to take chemistry courses due to pre-professional or specific major program requirements.  It is therefore common for a large fraction of the first-year class to enroll in a chemistry course in Fall Quarter of the first year. Incoming first-year students at Northwestern University who want to take chemistry have several options.

Please note that all course placements are made by the department's online assessment exams, the Initial Chemistry Assessment and the Chemistry Placement Exam.

Most first-year students will start in one of three standard general chemistry sequences; some may start in organic chemistry:

Any of the general chemistry sequences below (Chem 110, 131/141, 132/142; Chem 151/161, 152/162; Chem 171/181, 172/182) cover the equivalent of a full year of general chemistry material.

General Chemistry
Fall CHEM 110; Winter CHEM 131/141; Spring CHEM 132/142

The CHEM 110, 131, and 132 course sequence with associated lab courses 141 (Winter) and 142 (Spring) provides a three-quarter path through the general chemistry curriculum. The CHEM 110 course emphasizes problem-solving skills and foundational chemistry topics. Whether a student would benefit from taking the CHEM 110 course will be determined from the online Initial Chemistry Assessment. 

This sequence is most suitable for students who had limited or no chemistry coursework in high school. Students who have taken AP or IB Chemistry are not eligible for this sequence.

Accelerated General Chemistry
Fall CHEM 151/161; Winter CHEM 152/162

Many students demonstrate sufficient background in the topics of CHEM 110 to qualify instead for the two-quarter general chemistry course sequence, CHEM 151 and 152 with associated lab courses 161 and 162.

Advanced General Chemistry
Fall CHEM 171/181; Winter CHEM 172/182

Students with a qualifying score on the Chemistry Placement Exam may be eligible to take the two-quarter advanced general chemistry sequence—CHEM 171 and 172 with associated lab courses 181 and 182.

Organic Chemistry (two sequence options, both are Fall/Winter/Spring)

Students with a strong high school background in chemistry may qualify to skip general chemistry completely and go directly to the organic chemistry sequence (CHEM 215-1, -2, -3 with associated lab courses 235-1,-2, -3 or if you are considering being a chemistry major, CHEM 212-1, -2, -3 with associated lab courses 212-1, -2).

Chemistry Assessment and Placement Exams

There are two online chemistry assessment or placement exams; the first is mandatory and the second is optional. All course placements are determined by a student's score(s) on these assessments. Credit from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate (HL) exam scores may be considered when making placement decisions, but they do not guarantee course placement.

Both placement assessments will open on May 1 and must be completed by the end of the day on June 15. Both assessments are administered through a Canvas course site. When the exam course site is made available on May 1, you will be invited to join. This Canvas course site (Chemistry Placement Assessments 2021) will then appear under your courses when you log in to Canvas. The Canvas link can be found in the top menu bar on the Northwestern University home webpage.

Your first-year advisor will be notified about your chemistry course placement after the assessments close. Placement information will be shared on Canvas in the second half of August.

Initial Chemistry Assessment (MANDATORY). All incoming first-year students intending to take a chemistry course are required to take the online Initial Chemistry Assessment. This assessment tests basic problem-solving skills and quantitative aspects of foundational chemistry material typically covered in high school chemistry courses. It is a timed exam that will determine whether a student should start the General Chemistry sequence with CHEM 110 or CHEM 151.

Chemistry Placement Exam (OPTIONAL). The Chemistry Placement Exam is an online, timed exam covering the course material from CHEM 110, 131/151, and 132/152. The exam is optional and only necessary for students who wish to place into the CHEM 171 sequence or organic chemistry. Students who took Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or other honors/advanced chemistry coursework in high school are recommended to take the Placement Exam to receive the most appropriate course placement.

Please also note the following important guidelines:

  1. No student may begin any of the general chemistry or organic chemistry course sequences except with the first course in the sequence.
  2. All chemistry course sequences begin only in the Fall Quarter, with the possible exception of organic chemistry. Therefore if you want to take a general chemistry course at any time during your first year, you must take chemistry during Fall Quarter.
  3. Any student who is placed into organic chemistry but wishes to take general chemistry may only take the CHEM 171 sequence.
  4. Any student who places into organic chemistry but decides to take general chemistry must complete the general chemistry sequence before proceeding to organic chemistry.

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Exam Credit

Students will earn credit in chemistry for certain Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate (Higher Level) exams according to the Weinberg College AP/IB Credit Policies, but these credits do not fulfill prerequisites for other chemistry courses. These credits will be considered when course placement decisions are being made, but course placement is ultimately determined by a student's score(s) on the Initial Chemistry Assessment (and the Chemistry Placement Exam, when applicable).

Some general chemistry courses have equivalency with the course credits a student may receive from their AP or IB exam score. Students should consult with the Undergraduate Academic Catalog for information on course equivalencies and credit impact. Students should contact their academic advisor or the Department of Chemistry's Director of Undergraduate Studies with any questions about the impact of their course placement on their exam-based credit.

First-Year Students Considering the Chemistry Major

First-year students who may be considering the chemistry major start with the same chemistry courses as first-year students who are pursuing a pre-health program. In addition, the chemistry major program requires a full-year of calculus-based physics (PHYS 135-1, 2, 3) and 4 quarters of calculus (MATH 220-1, 220-2, 230-1, 230-2). Courses taken during the typical first 2 years of the chemistry major program are:

Students seeking more information about the chemistry major program should contact Prof. Fred Northrup, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Chemistry.

Tips for Success in a University Chemistry Course

Students often ask how a general chemistry course at the university level is different from the general chemistry course(s) they took in high school. While it is certainly likely that the course material is covered in greater depth than in high school, the primary difference is in the way knowledge of the material is tested. Typical test questions usually require application of more than one chemistry concept to solve an integrated, quantitative problem. Therefore you should brush up on your problem-solving skills and especially on properly reading a “word problem” to understand what is being asked and to determine the chemistry concepts you must use to address it. You should begin all such problems by asking yourself:

Don’t forget that we are here to help you succeed in your chemistry courses and we provide many resources to accomplish this. You should take full advantage of all opportunities available to you, including seeking help from the course instructor, the graduate student teaching assistants who will hold regular tutor sessions in the chemistry resource center (you may attend the tutor sessions of any TA, not just the person who supervises you in the lab), and peer tutors who will hold regular sessions at a time and campus location to be announced once classes begin. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if a concept is unclear. If you wish to hire a private tutor for chemistry, contact the Undergraduate Program Coordinator ( for a list of graduate student tutors.

If you have any questions about the chemistry course for which you should register, the Canvas-based online assessment or placement exam, or the chemistry major program, please contact Prof. Fred Northrup, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Chemistry.

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