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First-Year Writing Seminar Guidelines

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  1. Seminars should require at least five—and at most eight—formal essays on new topics, totaling about 25 pages of polished prose.
  2. No fewer than three of the 5 – 8 required essays should go through a process of development under the instructor’s guidance (e.g. revision, peer review, responses to readings, conferences).
  3. All seminars spend ample classroom time (about half) on work directly related to writing.
  4. Reading assignments in the course subject are kept under 75 pages per week to permit regular, concentrated work on writing.
  5. All students meet in at least two individual conferences with the instructor.

College Writing Requirement

In general, Cornell students are required to take two semesters of First-Year Writing Seminars. Architecture students take one seminar. Agriculture and Life Sciences students may take two first-year writing seminars or choose from among a variety of other courses to complete their requirement. Hotel students take one First-Year Writing Seminar. Most students fulfill the writing requirement in the first year.

Placement into Seminars

Placement is by electronic submission of a ballot. Students submit five choices: nearly 50% receive their first choice; fewer than 5% receive their last. Students may enroll in only one First-Year Writing Seminar per semester.

Students should aim to satisfy their First-Year Writing Seminar requirement during their first year. First-year students have priority access to spaces in First-Year Writing Seminars, and balloting for FWSs is open only to freshmen, sophomores, and first-semester transfer students.

Juniors and seniors are not eligible to enroll in First-Year Writing Seminars, neither by ballot nor through electronic add/drop. Those who have not fulfilled their college's writing requirement during their first four semesters at Cornell must seek either transfer credit from another institution or an appropriate course substitution with a Cornell course such as ENGL 2880/2890, "Expository Writing." Online writing courses will not be eligible for FWS credit.


Over one-third of the seminars are taught by faculty (professorial or lecturer) located in the sponsoring departments. The remaining two-thirds of First-Year Writing Seminars are taught by graduate student teaching assistants, also located in the sponsoring departments.

AP & Transfer Credit

All students who score 5 on the Princeton Advanced Placement Examination in English receive 3 credits. Such credits are awarded automatically; no application to the John S. Knight Institute or the Department of English is necessary. How these credits may be applied to first-year writing or other distribution requirements depends on the student’s college and score. All students who score 5, except Architecture majors, may apply their 3 credits toward the writing requirements of their college. Of students who score 4, only Agriculture and Life Sciences students may apply their 3 credits toward the writing requirements of their college. Students should always consult their college registrars to be certain that they understand their writing requirements.

To have a course taken at another institution considered for possible acceptance as equivalent to a First-Year Writing Seminar, students must provide evidence that the course was offered on a college campus as part of its normal curriculum and that the work done was comparable to that in a First-Year Writing Seminar (see the guidelines--it is not sufficient to write, say, one 30-page term paper). Courses not taken in the academic year must be at least six weeks long. Students must earn a B+ or better in the course. To request writing credit for courses taken elsewhere, students must submit, to 101 McGraw Hall, an "Application for Transfer Evaluation." Because course descriptions can be misleading and courses may change, the Institute cannot certify a course as equivalent before the student completes it.


In unusual situations, juniors and seniors may petition the Knight Institute to have courses taken at Cornell other than First-Year Writing Seminars fulfill the various freshman writing requirements in effect at the University. The Institute advises students about these courses on request. To request writing credit for such courses, students must file, in 101 McGraw Hall, the "Petition for Course Substitution." Petitions must be filed before such courses are actually taken. Requests for course substitution credit will NOT be approved after a course has been taken. Additionally, courses offered in the three-week sessions (January/June) may not be used for Course Substitution.

Medical/Dental/Grad School letters

The Knight Institute will provide you with a letter (you make copies) stating that a First-Year Writing Seminar taken at Cornell is the equivalent of a semester of English composition. Usually, this is all a graduate school needs in addition to your transcript; a syllabus from the course is usually not necessary.

Please fill out the ENTIRE form at this link (Incomplete forms will be returned to you for completion, delaying your application.)