7 Hardest Software Engineering Classes

hardest software engineering classes

Computer science is a universally hard major. Like any major, there are classes that are known to be harder than others. We’ll talk about those classes in this article, but it’s important to remember that every student handles classes differently. In every class, there will be someone that finds it easier, and someone that struggles with it more.  

There are several factors that can contribute to how difficult you perceive a class to be. This includes the content of the class, the quality of the instructor, and the course load you have that semester. The difficultly of classes may also vary from one university to another. With that said, here are seven courses that are regarded as some of the most difficult courses in computer science.

Quick Links:

  1. The General Calculus/Physics Courses
  2. Algorithms
  3. Operating Systems
  4. Compilers
  5. Computer Architecture
  6. Automata Theory/Computation Theory
  7. Discrete Math

1. The General calculus/Physics Courses

By the general calcs/physics, we mean Calculus 1-3 and physics 1 and 2. These may not be classes that you expected to see on this list, but they are known to be challenging for many engineering students. In fact, it is not uncommon for engineering students to receive their lowest grades in college in one of these classes. This is for a few reasons.

They are the first hard classes you take in college

Adjusting to college can be a challenging process, as the classes are often larger and more difficult than those in high school. The structure of college classes may also be unfamiliar, and it can take some time to figure out how to effectively study for them. This can be especially difficult when your courses are challenging from the start.

The professors aren’t as passionate

At many universities, professors are required to teach at least one class to conduct research. As a result, professors who don’t want to teach will choose to teach entry-level courses (such as calculus or physics), since they are often standardized and easier to teach. But as a student, it’s hard to learn from a professor who doesn’t want to be teaching in the first place.

On the other hand, professors who teach upper-level courses often have a greater passion for teaching and may be more dedicated to making the class engaging and meaningful for students. They also take time to explain concepts in ways that are easier to understand, rather than just reading from a pre-made PowerPoint.

There’s many of them

At most universities, there are three core calculus classes and two core physics classes, totaling five classes. At least one of them is bound to not resonate with you. People have different opinions on which class is the hardest, but it’s different for everyone.

2. Algorithms

This course typically covers more complex algorithms and data structures, such as graph algorithms and advanced tree data structures, and may involve implementing these algorithms and structures in code.

What makes algorithms difficult is the amount of critical thinking and intuition involved in designing and analyzing algorithms. Learning pre-existing algorithms and data structures is easy, but thinking about how to modify and apply them, and eventually design your own, is much more difficult. This can be difficult for students who are not used to thinking abstractly. This class also uses a lot of discrete math, which is another difficult class among students.

3. Operating Systems

hardest software engineering classes

This course covers the design and implementation of operating systems, including topics such as concurrency, memory management, and file systems.

This course is interesting because of its polarizing opinions. Some students say it was their hardest class in college, some say it was their favorite, some say it was both!

This class is particularly important for students who want to work with firmware. A lot of students find this course challenging because it’s a step up from small college projects. Instead of projects that teach the basics, you now have to understand how large-scale software functions. The most important takeaways from this class are the basics of how systems and threads work with your hardware.

4. Compilers

This course covers the design and implementation of compilers, which are programs that translate source code written in a high-level programming language into machine code that can be executed by a computer.

This course is usually composed of heavy projects. The big and difficult projects are what make this course hard for software engineering students.

5. Computer Architecture

This course covers the design and implementation of computer hardware, including topics such as processors, memory systems, and input/output devices.

This course tends to be extremely detailed when most of the content won’t be relevant to many programmers. If you’re going to be a front-end developer, it likely won’t be that important. However, if you’re going to be creating operating systems, it might be more relevant.

6. Automata Theory/Computation Theory

Automata theory is a branch of computer science that deals with the study of abstract machines (automata) and how they can be used to solve problems. It is generally considered to be a more challenging class due to several factors:

  • Abstract concepts: Automata theory involves studying abstract mathematical models of computation, which can be difficult to understand and work with.
  • Formal proofs: Automata theory often requires you to wire formal proofs to demonstrate the correctness of their solutions.
  • Theoretical nature: Automata theory is a more theoretical subject, as opposed to a practical one. This means that the material covered in the class may not have as many immediately apparent real-world applications, which can make it harder to see the relevance of what you’re learning.

7. Discrete Math

Discrete math is one of the hardest courses in computer science for many students. This is often the first math class you take that requires complex proofs. It also touches on unfamiliar subjects such as set theory, number theory, and modular arithmetic. It can require a new framework of thinking. Some students find that it really makes sense to them, and others are very confused by it.


In summary, the hardest classes in Computer Science are Calculus/Physics, Algorithms, Operating Systems, Compilers, Computer architecture, Automata Theory/Computation Theory, and Discrete math.

Don’t let this article scare you though. Remember that engineers have a habit of exaggerating things and unknowingly scaring younger engineers. Every course seems more difficult when you haven’t taken it yet. Just remember that no course is impossible. With hard work, you will get through it. Not long from now, you’ll be a successful software engineer and these courses will be far behind you.

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