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Should I Take Biology or Chemistry First in College?

As a university student, you’ll most likely need to take at least one science course during your college career. But deciding on which classes to take depends on a variety of factors, including what your major is.

You should take chemistry first in college because biology builds on the ideas taught in chemistry unless you don’t require the course for your major. You can take biology first if you tested out, have credits for chemistry from a high school AP equivalent, or your school doesn’t have requirements. 

Choosing your classes for the semester can be overwhelming. This article will explain the difference between chem and bio, the difficulty level of each, and which you should take first. You’ll learn if it’s possible to take biology first and the factors that go into your decision, such as high school classes, college requirements, and future career plans.

The Difference Between Chemistry and Biology

Chemistry and biology are two scientific subjects offered at most universities. Deciding between the two is easier when you have an understanding of the differences. Biology studies living organisms, while chemistry studies matter, elements, and compounds. 

Though there are areas that cross over, they join together in biochemistry.

Biology vs chemistry for first-year college students.

What Is Biology?

Biology is the study of living organisms, or flora and fauna, in our world. The study includes examining evolution, analyzing behavior, classifying organisms, data analysis, experimentation, the scientific method, and more.

It builds on knowledge of other science and math subjects, such as chemistry, physics, statistics, algebra, and graphing are just a few. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in biology can lead to a variety of careers, and is the basis for jobs in healthcare, engineering, nutrition, marine biology, microbiology, and other fields.

What Is Chemistry?

Chemistry is the study of matter, such as substances, molecules, atoms, the periodic table, and the chemical properties of things in our world. It’s also called a “central science” because it links other areas like biology, physics, medicine, environmental sciences, and math.

In college, chemistry courses can be exceptionally challenging. One study looked at chemistry class as a barrier for underrepresented groups. The study found that because the class is so complex, it can determine whether STEM majors continue their studies or switch concentrations.

A chemistry degree is useful for forensic chemistry, chemical engineering, development research, medicine, toxicology, hazardous waste, and other industries.

Source: University of Washington: Passing Crucial, Challenging Introductory Chemistry Course Gives Biggest Boost to Underrepresented Students

What Is Biochemistry?

When discussing biology versus chemistry in college, it’s important to note where the two studies align the most.

Biochemistry is the study of chemical reactions in the scope of biology. Our biological systems rely on chemicals, so biochemistry covers human gene and disease research, for example. Majoring in biochemistry can help you in lab research, medical technology, pharmaceuticals, and medicine design.

Which Is Harder, Biology or Chemistry?

Each subject is complex, challenging, and a rigorous college course to take. The study of living beings is extensive and involved, making biology a challenge for some students. Lectures and labs are both essential components in a biology class, the second of which causes the most stress for students.

On the other hand, chemistry covers numerous areas and includes the challenging components of math and memorization. The answer is: 

It’s impossible to compare two different sciences in terms of difficulty.

You might find that biology is a breeze compared to chemistry, while other students find the opposite. In general, science classes are notably hard for many students – it takes more effort to excel in science classes than other courses. 

However, biology builds upon the information and skills in chemistry.

Can You Take Biology Without Taking Chemistry First?

You can take biology without taking chemistry first, but teachers and college administrators don’t usually recommend it. Both college courses are famously challenging, but biology builds upon the concepts and skills you learn in chemistry.

Because of this, most schools recommend you take chemistry first to gain the foundational concepts, then take biology. However, a few other elements will determine whether you can take biology first at your school.

You Took AP Chem or AP Biology in High School

You might be exempt from these introductory science classes if you took AP Chem or AP Bio in high school. Because AP classes are universal across the U.S. and designed to work at a college level, many universities accept AP classes as credits.

You need a certain grade to get credit for an AP class, depending on your college, which usually means a 4 or 5 on the exam. 

As you’ll read later, your major will also determine whether an AP science class works toward your degree. For biology or chemistry majors, an AP class will allow you to skip the introductory level course, but you’ll need to take the next level.

Some schools don’t accept AP classes for course credits. In that case, you’ll at least have a foundation for understanding the subject when you take the class in college.

You Took a Placement Exam

Most universities have students take a series of placement exams before the school year starts. Depending on the school, you may have an option to take a placement test for subjects other than math and English, including foreign languages, chemistry, and biology.

Placement tests are different from the SAT and ACT, which college applications sometimes request. 

You likely already took either or both the SAT and ACT in high school. Your grade on those tests doesn’t help determine what math or science class you’ll start with, so colleges use the placement tests instead.

College placement tests determine your level of skill and understanding in a particular subject. 

So, if you’ve taken high school biology and chemistry and excelled, you may find that you “test out” of the introductory level of either class. The scores you receive on your placement test can also give you insight into which course might be better for you to take first.

Source: Yale College: Placement Exams and Information

Your School’s Policy

Your college will have a set of requirements for each course listed. Depending on your major and your background in chemistry, your university will give you direction on which route to take first.

Some colleges have strict guidelines about which should come first. 

For example, many schools require students to take chemistry because it covers skills used later in biology. The idea there is that biology uses chemistry similarly to how physics uses math.

If your school doesn’t have a policy or strict requirements, your counselor’s office is a great place to go. A counselor can help you determine the best route for your major and give you insight into the level of difficulty for each course.

How to Determine If You Should Take Biology or Chemistry First

There are three factors in determining which subject you should take first. 

  1. Consider your high school classes, including AP Chem and AP Bio. 
  2. Your major. 
  3. If you plan on going to graduate school.

If you took AP science in high school, you might be exempt from the introductory level of that science in college. 

At the same time, your major might require a specific sequence of chemistry and bio courses, as will medical school or other graduate programs. Learn more about why each of these questions factors into your decision.

1. The High School Classes You Took

As you read regarding AP classes, the rest of your high school science classes may also give insight into which course is better to start with. If you took both courses in high school and excelled in one but struggled in the other, take that into consideration.

In college, you’re in charge of forming your schedule of classes. If your school has no requirements about which course to take first, you have an option of your class order. 

That means that if you expect to struggle in chemistry more than biology or vice versa, you can take the tougher course during a lighter semester. In other words, take the more demanding course when you don’t have many other challenging classes simultaneously.

Again, consider your AP experience in high school. If you took AP Bio or AP Chem and don’t plan on majoring in either field, you may be able to skip the class altogether. 

However, if you’re majoring in a science or related field, that won’t apply.

Source: CollegeBoard: Getting Credit and Placement

2. Your Major

Degrees in science and medicine unsurprisingly require many biology and chemistry courses. 

With that, most colleges have a guideline for the sequence of classes, as some need introductory chemistry first and then biology, while some suggest taking them both concurrently.

Typically, science majors should take chemistry first, then biology. Biological science, biology, biochem, and even environmental science majors often take chemistry as the first science class at their school’s suggestion. Additionally, universities usually offer biology and chemistry courses for non-science majors. 

These are often introductory courses that build upon and reteach from your high school chemistry and bio classes.

Again, the best advice is to meet with your career counselor. Every college has trained staff members who can guide you on choosing a major and finding the best route to obtain your degree in 4 years.

3. If You Plan on Going to Graduate School

If you’re planning on going to medical school or another graduate program, the discussion looks slightly different. Medical schools have specific guidelines for what college courses are and aren’t accepted to enter a graduate program. 

Additionally, your concentration will also determine which classes you should take.

Medical schools usually require one year of each science, including chemistry and biology. That’s in addition to your other major-dependent science courses. To obtain your degree in four years and get into graduate school, you’ll want to start your science courses as soon as possible.

The guidelines are still the same but consider your future graduate school plans when deciding between biology and chemistry. 

You’ll have to take both courses to get a medical degree and enter a graduate program, but the order you take them is up to you. Go back to your school’s policy, your experience with each subject, and the difficulty of other classes each semester to determine which is best.

The Reason You Should Start With Chemistry First

Though many colleges suggest or even require chemistry before biology, high schools are the opposite. As you may know, the typical sequence for high school students is to take biology first, then chemistry second.

High school biology is considered less challenging than high school chemistry. Schools want older students with more learning experience, study skills, and responsibility to take the more complex classes.

But college is the opposite. You’ll find that most schools you apply to require chemistry to be taken before biology. Again, this is because college-level biology builds upon chemistry. 

Unless your school’s guidelines are different than most, the suggestion is to take chemistry first. That way, you can either prepare for biology, get your science credit done for the year, or be ready for future chemistry classes.

Conclusion

If you’re not a science major, biology and chemistry will likely be challenging for you, and you should plan the order in which you take them accordingly. Read up on your school’s requirements to learn if you have to take one first. 

Science majors may have an easier time with these classes, but you still need to explore the requirements for your major and the suggested timeline.

When in doubt, most schools suggest taking chemistry first. You’ll learn some crucial skills that will come in handy for biology.