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BE Advised

The place to go for undergraduate advising in biological engineering

Liberal Studies and Freshman Writing Seminars

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Cornell has a rich curriculum in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, enabling every engineering student to obtain a truly liberal education. Courses should be chosen with as much care and foresight as courses from technical areas. Details for Liberal Studies courses are listed here.


  • At least 18 credits.
  • A minimum of six courses must be chosen from at least three of the following seven groups:
    • Cultural Analysis (CA)
    • Historical Analysis (HA)
    • Literature and the Arts (LA)
    • Knowledge, Cognition, and Moral Reasoning (KCM)
    • Social Behavior and Analysis (SBA)
    • Foreign Language (FL, this is language training, not literature)
    • Communications in Engineering (CE)
  • At least two courses must be at the 2000 level or higher.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: I grew up speaking some Portuguese at home (or Korean, Igbo, Turkish, Quechua, Vietnamese, Créole, Ukrainian, Tamil…). Is there some way to get liberal studies credit for this knowledge? 

A1: Heritage speakers can take Cornell departmental exams to gain foreign language credits toward their liberal studies distribution. Ask about “CASE exams” at the department that teaches the language you speak. Cornell also has specific foreign language classes for heritage speakers in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese (and maybe others) to help you retain your heritage language and improve your reading and writing skills so that you can use the language in further study or on the job. Finally, the modern language departments have independent study classes that you can use to advance your knowledge of your heritage language. After all those long afternoons at Japanese or Hebrew school, or helping out Babička or Opa, why let your proficiency lapse?

Q2. Do liberal studies have to be approved by the engineering school? If a course is not on a list, is there still potential for it to be approved as a liberal studies?

A2. Liberal studies courses taken at Cornell by BEE students must be approved by the College of Engineering. A list of all approved courses may be found here.  Don’t forget the “Other Yes” and “Other No” tabs, which list courses proposed by students for liberal studies credit that have been either approved or disapproved by the College of Engineering.

If a course is not on any of the approved lists, it may be approved under the following conditions:

  • It is NOT on the “Other No” list (which is a black hole)
  • It is NOT offered by CALS or Arts & Sciences (except for fine arts and foreign language courses, which may be petitioned)
  • You submit a liberal studies petition to the CoE including the course number and description, a syllabus, a statement from the instructor that s/he is willing to have the course taken by engineering students for liberal studies credit, a proposed category (e.g. HA, SBA) for the course and a brief statement justifying the merit of the course as a liberal studies for engineers in general, and supporting the choice of category. Once a course is approved or disapproved by Engineering it is added to the Other Yes or Other No list.

Liberal studies courses transferred in or taken during study abroad are approved by the BEE department. However, neither BEE nor the CoE can approve FWS course substitutions taken after you begin study at Cornell. That is the prerogative of the Knight Writing Institute.

Note that the College of Engineering is contemplating a shift in the way liberal studies courses are approved. Its curriculum committee has this issue as an agenda item, starting the academic year 2018-2019.

Q3. Can I put off my First-Year Writing Seminar (FWS) until after my first year? 

A3. Details are at the FWS info page at the Knight Writing Institute website.  As an engineer you must take 2 FWS, replacing a maximum of 1 with a score of 5 on the AP English Lit & Comp or English Lang & Comp exams. Try to take your FWS during your first year, or at the latest during your second year.  Juniors and seniors are not eligible to enroll in First-Year Writing Seminars under any circumstances. Students who have not fulfilled their college’s writing requirement during their first four semesters at Cornell must seek either transfer credit from another institution (hard to get and must be requested after the course is taken) or must petition the Knight Institute to substitute an appropriate upper level Cornell course such as ENGL 2880/2890, “Expository Writing”. This petition is generally granted. However, if ENGL 2880 or 2890 is used to fulfill the FWS requirement, it can NOT double-count toward upper level liberal studies credit (the requirement that two liberal studies courses out of the required six, have course numbers >2000)

Correction to our update from June 2018: According to the director of the Knight Institute (late August 2018) the following courses  are NOT considered appropriate replacements for expository writing/FWS

  • ENGL 2800, Creative Writing
  • ENGL 2810, Intro to Creative Writing
  • ENGL 3820, Narrative Writing
  • ENGL 3830, Intermediate Narrative Writing
  • ENGL 3840, Poetry Writing
  • ENGL 3850, Intermediate Verse Writing

despite counting for Written Expression in non-Engineering CALS majors.

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