Introductory Chemistry Courses and Placement

There are multiple options for introductory chemistry, and the best choice depends on the student’s academic background and goals. See below for information about advanced placement, which semesters courses are offered, requisites, and the typical backgrounds of students who take each course.

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Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry

A student who earns a 4 or 5 on the AP Chemistry exam will receive three credits for CHEM 103 General Chemistry I. If the student also meet the math requisite for CHEM 109 Advanced General Chemistry (below), they are usually advised to take CHEM 109 to complete their general chemistry requirements. Learn more about how to earn credit at UW-Madison from AP and IB coursework.

CHEM 103/104 General Chemistry I/II

This course sequence is the traditional one-year introductory chemistry sequence that the majority of students needing chemistry will take. CHEM 103 (4 credits) is taken first, followed by CHEM 104 (5 credits).

  • Offered fall, spring, and summer terms
  • Math Requisite: Placement out of MATH 112 on UW Math Placement Test, which means at least 470 on Math Fundamentals and 540 on Advanced Algebra; completion of MATH 112, MATH 114, MATH 171 or equivalent also satisfies the requisite, as does calculus credit from AP/IB exams.
  • HS Chem: The vast majority of students have had at least one year of high school chemistry.

CHEM 108 Chemistry in Our World

CHEM 108 (5 credits) teaches chemistry through contemporary topics such as air quality, energy, food, plastics, nuclear chemistry, and global climate change. This course is intended for students who need just one semester of chemistry with laboratory. Students majoring in nursing, business, life sciences communication, agricultural and applied economics, rehabilitation psychology, and wildlife ecology are among those who select CHEM 108. This course (like all chemistry courses) counts towards College of Letters & Science breadth requirements in physical science. CHEM 108 does not serve as a prerequisite for any further chemistry courses.

  • Offered spring semesters only
  • Requisites: None

CHEM 109 Advanced General Chemistry

CHEM 109 (5 credits) is an accelerated introductory chemistry course recommended for students with an especially strong high school chemistry and math background. The course covers the breadth of the material from CHEM 103/104, skipping the more basic concepts and focusing in depth on the more comprehensive topics, such as atomic and molecular structure, biomolecules and polymers, equilibrium, thermodynamics, kinetics, acid-base chemistry, and electrochemistry. Students are expected to be familiar with these prerequisite topics and to have strong college-level study skills.

  • Offered fall semesters only
  • Math Requisite: Placement into MATH 221 (1st semester calculus) on UW Math Placement test, which means at least 470 on Math Fundamentals, 540 on Advanced Algebra, and 560 on Trig and Analytic Geometry; credit for calculus from course work or AP/IB exams also satisfies the requisite.
  • HS Chem:  Most students who complete CHEM 109 have had two years of high school chemistry. Students with one year of high school chemistry are welcome in CHEM 109, but they will need to work harder to perform satisfactorily. About 77% of students who completed CHEM 109 reported scores from AP or IB Chemistry exams.
  • HS Math: About 64% of students who completed CHEM 109 reported scores from AP or IB Calculus exams.
  • Average Math ACT: 31

CHEM 115/116 Chemical Principles I/II

CHEM 115/116 (5 credits each) is a two-semester honors sequence designed for well-prepared and highly motivated students with an interest in science or engineering. Course enrollment is by invitation only. The sequence satisfies both the general and analytical chemistry requirements for any major on campus. CHEM 115 includes quantum theory, molecular structure and bonding, kinetic theory of gases and phase transitions. CHEM 116 includes thermodynamics, chemical and physical equilibrium, kinetics and spectroscopy, in addition to a research-based laboratory experience.

  • CHEM 115 is only offered fall semesters and CHEM 116 is only offered spring semesters.
  • Math Requisite: Placement into MATH 222 (2nd semester calculus) or higher and a 33 or higher on both Math ACT and Composite ACT. First semester calculus proficiency required.
  • HS Chem: One year of high school chemistry is required; two years are strongly recommended.
  • HS Physics: One year of high school physics is strongly recommended.
  • Average Math ACT: 34

Deciding between CHEM 103/104 and CHEM 109

We recommend that students consider taking CHEM 109 instead of CHEM 103 if they:

  • Placed into MATH 221 (required) or higher or have AP/IB test credit or transfer credit for calculus
  • Completed two years of high school chemistry or at least one full-year of a rigorous chemistry course that covered only chemistry, as opposed to a course where chemistry is one of several science topics. The course(s) should have covered stoichiometry, atomic structure, thermochemistry, bonding and molecular structure, equilibrium, acids and bases, and kinetics.
  • Did well in both chemistry and math in high school and enjoy learning chemistry
  • Would like an accelerated and challenging chemistry course
  • Have college-level study skills – includes the ability to learn content and work problems independently, seek clarification from appropriate course resources, solve novel problems, and manage time effectively

CHEM 103 is usually a better option for students who:

  • Placed out of MATH 112 College Algebra (required) or have college credit for MATH 112, 114, or 171, but do not have a strong (or any) calculus background
  • Completed one year of high school chemistry, but do not meet the other criteria for CHEM 109 listed above
  • Prefer a less fast-paced option than CHEM 109 offers
  • Did not enjoy math or chemistry courses in high school and/or found them challenging
  • Are not an entering first-year student (i.e., a transfer or continuing student)


Chemistry Credit by Examination

The Department of Chemistry offers credit by examination for the lecture only parts of CHEM 103 and CHEM 104. Learn more about the exams and eligibility requirements.

Still not sure which introductory chemistry course to take? See frequently asked questions and visit the syllabus library. Students with further questions are welcome to contact the chemistry advisor.