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What is Chemistry?

Chemistry involves understanding and manipulating matter at the molecular and atomic level. It is an experimental science, guided and inspired by theory. Chemists use careful reasoning and trial-and-error experimentation to create new molecules in order to explore new materials, study biological processes, and develop therapeutics, with the common goal of ultimately improving everyday life.  

Most of what we now know in chemistry has been discovered in the last one hundred and fifty years. There remains enormous room for creativity. The field continues to evolve at a rapid pace, with discoveries being made at universities, companies, and government laboratories. Chemists are a large, collaborative scientific community with high professional standards supported by active, worldwide professional societies.

Chemistry is moreover a central science, with strong connections to Biology, Geology, Engineering, and Physics. These connections are evident in the designations of the subdisciplines of Chemistry, which the American Chemical Society presently lists as Analytical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Physical Chemistry.

The undergraduate Chemistry degree at Cornell is designed to teach students both the art of chemical experimentation and the conceptual framework used by working chemists to understand and manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic level. The major’s core courses are organized around the subdisciplines of Chemistry, supported by required Mathematics and Physics prerequisites. Students supplement this in-depth, core training with upper-level courses chosen from a broad, diverse set of electives. These electives are designed to allow students to explore their own interests while examining the application of chemical thinking in related scientific disciplines.


There are a number of routes to completing the requirements of the Chemistry degree.  

For a student entering Cornell with at least one year of high-school chemistry preparation, we offer an Honors Curriculum track. The distinguishing feature of the Honors Curriculum track is a rigorous set of laboratory and Physical Chemistry courses. These courses are strongly recommended preparation for those planning to pursue research in chemistry.

We offer an Accelerated Honors track for students having two years of high-school chemistry and a high Advanced Placement Chemistry exam score. This track enables the student to complete the major’s core requirements by the junior year.

In addition to the Honors Curriculum track, we offer the option of a Individualized Curriculum that gives the student even more flexibility to explore related disciplines. The core laboratories may be combined with laboratory work in related disciplines such as Biochemistry, Molecular Biomedical Engineering, Neuroscience, Geology, and Physics.

Representative course schedules for the Honors, Accelerated Honors, and Individualized Curriculum tracks are shown here.

Career Paths & Alumni

The Chemistry major offers a near-unique combination of intellectual rigor and laboratory experience — thinking, making, and measuring. The undergraduate chemist will learn to design experiments thoughtfully, acquire data carefully, and draw firm conclusions from incomplete and diverse information.  Roughly equal fractions of each Cornell chemistry undergraduate class goes on to pursue graduate work in science and engineering, matriculate into a medical school, or pursue their own path. The major’s rigorous training is an outstanding launching point for a wide range of careers encompassing teaching, business, economics, law, and government service.

How to Apply

Prospective Freshmen

Students interested in applying for admission to Cornell University can indicate their desire to major in Chemistry & Chemical Biology (CCB) on their application to the College of Arts & Sciences. Information on applying to Cornell can be found at the College of Arts & Science and the main Cornell Admissions site.

Current Cornell Students

Admission to the Chemistry major requires the satisfactory completion of a number of introductory courses which, when taken together, demonstrate an ability to complete the major. Students who have completed the following courses with grades of C or better are almost always admitted to the major:

  • Introductory Chemistry: CHEM 2070 + CHEM 2080 or CHEM 2150.
  • Organic Chemistry: CHEM 3570 or CHEM 3590 or CHEM 3530 
  • Mathematics: MATH 1110
  • Physics: PHYS 2207 or PHYS 1112

Students who are second-term sophomores or beyond who have completed all but one of these requirements may also be admitted to the major provided that they have a plan for completing the requirements for the major on schedule. Students with a grade of C– or lower in one of the required courses may be considered for admission to the major after additional coursework (typically one semester) has been performed satisfactorily. Students who have received more than one grade below C in the required courses are not encouraged to apply for admission to the major.

To apply for admission to the Chemistry major:

You will be notified of the decision on your application and your major advisor by e-mail.

Students are also welcome to contact or to stop by the undergraduate office, 131 Baker Lab, to discuss pre-major course selection. Students can gain provisional acceptance into the major in the semester in which they expect to complete the requirements and thereby have the benefit of their major advisors help in course planning.

Visiting the Department

Students and families visiting Cornell are welcome to attend a Chemistry lecture. Prospective students will typically attend CHEM 2150, CHEM 2070, or CHEM 3570 in the Fall semester or CHEM 2070 or CHEM 3580 in the Spring semester.

Additional information about exploring campus and help with planning your visit can be found here.