First-Year Writing Seminars

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John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines
John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines
101 McGraw Hall • Cornell University • Ithaca, NY 14853 • 607-255-2280

For first-year students, the Institute offers First-Year Writing Seminars in one of the country's largest and most diverse programs in writing in the disciplines: each semester, over 100 different courses are taught in more than 30 departments and programs located in the humanities, social sciences, expressive arts, and sciences. Through introductory work in each seminar's particular field of study, students learn to write in a range of genres and in ways that emphasize clarity, coherence, intellectual force, and stylistic control.

All seminars pursue this common aim through small classes, with a maximum of seventeen students, and adherence to a program-wide set of guidelines.


  1. Seminars should require at least six—and at most nine—formal essays on new topics, totaling ca. 25 – 30 pages of polished prose.
  2. No fewer than three of the 6 – 9 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.

First-Year Writing Seminar Learning Outcomes:

For a description of learning outcomes for FWSs, click HERE


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 transfer students; continuing juniors and seniors may add a FWS only during the add/drop period.


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.