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Course enrollment looms over students as many stress about being able to register for classes.

November 15, 2023

How Cornell’s Course Enrollment Process Stacks Up to Other Ivies

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Natalie McFadden ’27 stared anxiously at her computer screen at 7:29 a.m. on Nov. 8, waiting for the freshmen pre-enroll period to open so she could sign up for courses for the upcoming spring semester. McFadden said she spent weeks meticulously crafting the perfect class schedule — and preparing multiple backup schedules, too, in case her first-choice classes were full by the time she attempted to enroll in them. As the clock struck 7:30 a.m., McFadden raced to click the “enroll” button in Student Center. 

“I watched the loading icon spin around and around, until my computer screen refreshed and flashed a sea of red x’s,” McFadden said.

Out of the 18 credits she attempted to enroll in, McFadden could only successfully enroll in 2.5 credits. To remain in good academic standing with the University, a student must enroll in at least 12 academic credits. She then tried enrolling in multiple backup courses, but it ultimately took an hour of frantic searching for McFadden to find a schedule that worked for her. 

“​​I felt helpless because my backups didn’t work. Nothing was working,” McFadden said. “Just trying to get [the necessary credits] to be a full-time student was a challenge.”

McFadden’s pre-enroll ordeal, however, is not uncommon among Cornell students. To provide context to Cornell’s course enrollment process, The Sun analyzed the processes at different Ivy League institutions and spoke to students at their respective universities.

Cornell University

At Cornell, each undergraduate year has a different pre-enrollment period that lasts for about two days, with time slots ordered by seniority. For Spring 2024, enrollment began on Nov. 1 for seniors, Nov. 6 for juniors, Nov. 7 for sophomores and Nov. 8 for first-year students. Enrollment opened at 7:30 a.m. on each day. 

Students may apply for waitlists and reach out to professors if they do not initially receive entrance to a class. At the beginning of the semester, students enter into the Add/Drop period, during which they are able to add courses in the first two weeks of the semester and have the option to drop courses up until a month into the semester. Sometimes, availability for previously closed classes opens throughout this period, giving students a second chance at enrolling in their preferred courses.

McFadden said she looks toward the Add/Drop period with nervous optimism, especially for the possibility of enrolling in currently full courses that other students may drop out of. 

“I think I have too much false hope,” McFadden said. “I feel naive, like I’m over reliant on the Add/Drop period. But I know the only way to secure my required classes and other classes I want is through [the] Add/Drop [period].”

The University of Pennsylvania

There are two rounds of course registration at the University of Pennsylvania — Advance Registration and Course Selection, also referred to as Add/Drop/Swap. During Advance Registration, students use an online registration system called Path@Penn to submit their preferred and alternative courses. There is no advantage to registering early, as all courses requested are simultaneously processed through an algorithm at the conclusion of the Advance Registration period. 

Jada Hembrador, a first-year student in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, said that course results are returned after Advance Registration closes. 

“Getting desired courses really depends on the ratio between the number of people trying to take that specific section of class with the number of spots available. Path@Penn uses random assignments for the most part, so it is really up to luck,” Hembrador said. 

The second part of course registration, the Course Selection period, allows students to add and drop courses before finalizing their schedules. Throughout this period, students are able to freely swap courses, as long as they have instructor permission and sections are not yet full. 

Hembrador said the university should create more sections of highly popular classes or make them available during both fall and spring semesters to help make course scheduling more flexible.

“The rigidity of certain majors and inability to obtain certain classes frustrates me,” Hembrador said. “For some students, if they are unable to obtain the classes they need, their course plans could be set back by one to two semesters.” 

Yale College

About two weeks before official course registration, Yale College offers a system called Preference Selection for a limited number of courses, in which students can select and rank the classes they want. This method is offered for a few courses in chemistry, directed studies, French, math and first-year seminars. 

Students enroll in their remaining courses during the course registration week, which, like Cornell’s system, is based on a seniority priority system. There is also an Add/Drop period at the beginning of each term that lasts for about two weeks. 

Nilab Ahmed is a student in Yale’s Directed Studies program, which gives a small group of first-year students the opportunity to study formative texts of Western and Near Eastern cultures. She explained that while she was guaranteed a spot in each of her three classes within the program, it was more difficult for her to register for her remaining language class during course enrollment. 

“Even though I was registering for only one class, I was unable to get the section that best fit with my schedule and had to go through extensive communication with the registrar’s office during the Add/Drop period to make it work out,” Ahmed said. 

Ahmed suggested that making more classes available during preference selection might remedy some of the stress and other problems with course enrollment. 

“Preference selection is not on a first-come first-serve basis, so I’ve found that selecting classes that way has been significantly less stress-inducing,” Ahmed said. “[If I were in charge,] I would implement a change so that more classes are offered through preference selection – it would make for an overall smoother course selection process.”

Ahmed also suggested extending the Add/Drop period to provide students with more time to explore classes and ensure that they are satisfied with their course selection for the term.

Harvard College

At Harvard College, the enrollment process varies based on the types of classes students want to enroll in. Students pre-enroll for their classes online, adding courses to a virtual cart before submitting their preferences. General education classes — wherein Harvard faculty instruct topics of personal interest — use a lottery to decide what students receive entry, whereas seminar courses require that students write an application of roughly 200 words for a chance to gain admission to a course. Since space is limited, applicants often do not obtain seats in seminars or even gen-ed classes and must prepare back-up options.

Students are randomly slotted into discussion sections for large lecture-based courses halfway through the two-week enrollment process, sometimes drastically shifting student schedules. Each student enrolls in the lecture part of the course first and is then assigned a random discussion section later in the enrollment process. Noah Parker, a first-year student at Harvard, noted that the delayed publishing of these discussion sections poses difficulties for students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects or pursuing a pre-medical track, as they must fulfill requirements in a specific progression.

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College operates on a trimester system, where students take three classes in each term. The first round of course registration operates on a lottery system where students select their three desired courses.

“Everyone is treated equally as long as you make selections by the deadline,” said Michael DiCostanzo, a first-year student at Dartmouth. 

DiCostanzo said that the second part of the enrollment process becomes more stressful.

“On a later night, the school reveals whether or not you got all, two, one or zero of your courses. The day after that, at 8:00 a.m., ‘Add/Drop’ goes live, and this is first-come-first-serve; this is when students all log on simultaneously to see if someone might drop one of the classes that they wanted, and they fight over it,” DiCostanzo said. “As you can imagine, the website is subject to frequent crashes.” 

Students engage in an “Add/Drop” period at the beginning of the trimester to finalize their schedule.

Princeton University

Princeton University’s enrollment process is also similar to Cornell’s. Students build their schedule on a university website called Tigerhub, selecting courses before the grade-wide course selection days. Like at Cornell, seniors enroll first, followed by juniors, sophomores and first-year students. During the first two weeks of each semester, students may add or drop classes. 

Princeton’s enrollment process differs for writing seminars: Students rank their top-eight seminars during the enrollment period and are then slotted into one of these classes through a lottery that looks at student preferences and enrollment availability. For these classes, there is no add/drop period.

Brown University

At Brown University, students sign up for courses within a given time frame and are assigned classes through a lottery system. To finalize their schedules, students engage in Brown’s signature two-week-long “shopping period,” where students drop into different classes as they choose and select those they most enjoy.

Ethan Hoskins, a senior pursuing a dual degree at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, said that courses for his psychology major at Brown are relatively large and therefore easy to get into. Hoskins noted that being a dual degree student, he receives less priority in enrolling in Brown courses. For example, he said enrolling in electives outside of his major is difficult.

“Some electives have been a lot more difficult to get into because of the smaller class sizes and because they are from different departments where they prioritize [students pursuing degrees within the department],” Hoskins said. “Recently, I haven’t gotten into a lot of electives I wanted to.”

Hoskins said his most significant gripe with Brown’s enrollment system is that the most enticing classes are offered only during one semester and with limited class sizes. Although he said he would prefer that some classes, especially those with high desirability, are offered both semesters, he recognized this may be impractical for the university.

Columbia University

Similar to Cornell and Yale, Columbia University’s course registration becomes available for seniors first, and is subsequently made available to juniors, sophomores and then all students. Students register during the registration period as established by each school within Columbia. Per the Columbia Office of the University Registrar, some schools determine appointment distributions for registration by class standing, while other schools use random selection. 

All students register for courses through Student Services Online during their designated enrollment time. The Online Class Wait List and Post-Change of Program Add/Drop Period are also both offered through SSOL. Waitlists are managed either by autofill or by faculty and their respective departments. During the Change of Program period, students can add or drop classes using SSOL. 

Although the course enrollment systems differ across each Ivy League university, one trend remained consistent across student interviews: students’ dissatisfaction at not getting their most desired courses.

“I really wanted to take Environmental History, and I couldn’t get into the course. Now I’m worried that I won’t be able to take it next semester because I’ll have too many other requirements to fill,” McFadden said. “But I’m remaining optimistic.” 

Grace Liu ’27 and Luca Pavlovich ’27 are Sun contributors and can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].