On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago, Christopher C. Walleck ’14 momentarily regretted his decision to enroll in six classes.
He had four midterm exams in one week and a Computer Science 50 problem set that needed 20 hours of work.
“I sat down and asked myself, ‘how on Earth am I possibly going to get through this?’” Walleck recalls. “It seemed, at that moment, impossible.”
But Walleck survived. After finishing each midterm, he studied through the night for his next exam. He says he finished the week with only 5 hours of sleep in 120 hours. After grinding through his last midterm on Friday, he went to sleep at 2 p.m. and woke up 21 hours later.
Looking back on his academic marathon, Walleck—both self-assured and self-deprecating about his decision—affectionately refers to the experience as his “worst week at Harvard.”
Despite his hell week, Walleck—an East Asian Studies concentrator—says that a schedule of six courses has made his sophomore fall an “enriching and challenging” endeavor.
While most students at the College enroll in four courses each semester and hundreds more take five, Walleck is 1 of only 20 undergraduates at Harvard enrolled in six or more courses this semester, according to data provided by the Office of Undergraduate Education.
Many Harvard undergraduates struggle to meet deadlines for four courses. But, every year a small coterie of students, unsatiated by the normal academic course load, craves something more. Voluntarily, they dedicate themselves to a schedule 50 percent greater than the College demands—that means more lecture, more section, more homework, more midterms, more papers, and more exams.
“It takes a very strange person to want to take six classes,” said James H. Sun ’14—a member of the six class elite.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHALLENGE
Students who take six courses in a single semester say they are motivated most fundamentally by a desire to challenge themselves academically.
Some, like mechanical engineering concentrator Rachel D. Field ’12, say their decision is catalyzed by a single experience.
Last year, Field spent winter break in the Himalayas testing a solar lantern that she had helped design that previous fall in an independent research project.
At the end of her trip, she returned to campus inspired by her experience in the Himalayas—and decided to enroll in six courses to further explore the concepts she had worked on during her trip.
“I was just so motivated,” she recalls. “A couple of the classes I took last spring were driven by specific academic questions.”
For example, after some locals struggled to use her lantern that winter, she decided to take a CS class on user interfaces to improve her project design.
Other students, like Samuel J. Bakkila ’11-’12, say they take extra courses to help choose a concentration.
Bakkila, who is now pursuing a special concentration in public health, entered his sophomore spring undecided about what he wanted to study. He had been a prospective Social Studies concentrator in the fall, but returned to school eager to explore psychology. He enrolled in six courses that semester—including three psychology classes, a statistics class, a history of science class, and a research class in a moral cognition lab.
Beyond exploring a particular interest or concentration, many students say that they opt to take six courses for a simple reason: they love learning.
Archaeology concentrator Zenab R. Tavakoli ’12, who typically enrolls in four or five courses and audits between one and three more, says she enrolls in so many courses because she is “an enormous nerd.”
Tavakoli talks quickly, trying to cram as many words as she can into a single breath. With her busy schedule, she’s always in a bit of a rush.
“It’s kind of weird,” she muses. “A lot of people are on open lists, saying ‘what’s an easy class to take?’
‘And I’m like, ‘no, I don’t have time for these nothing classes. There are too many that I want to take.’ It’s the worst.”
GETTING THE GO AHEAD
The College makes it easy for students to take six classes—provided that their resident deans think they are up to the challenge. Undergraduates looking to take six courses in a single semester must contact their resident deans before study card day to get their schedule approved.
Students who want to take seven or more courses face a steeper challenge—they must petition the Administrative Board to get approval.
Resident dean of Adams House Sharon Howell receives about three or four requests each semester from students in the House looking to take six or more courses.
Howell says she considers students’ past academic performance when deciding whether to give them the go ahead.
“Usually, I, and the students other advisers, can talk him or her out of it if I really think it’s a bad idea,” she wrote in an email.
Christopher A. Hopper ’13, a premed linguistics concentrator, hoped to enroll in six classes at the start of the semester.
Hopper said he wanted to take six courses at the beginning of this fall to challenge himself and find room for additional courses in a schedule packed with required courses.
But when he met with his resident dean, she refused to sign his study card, saying she wanted him to focus on improving his grades in the two premed courses he would be taking that semester instead of attempting to take a sixth class.
Hopper said he was disappointed for the “first two minutes” after his meeting with his resident dean, but chose not to contest her decision, and enrolled in five courses.
With the time he would have spent on a sixth class, Hopper decided to “reinvent” himself by joining a new extracurricular activity. This fall, he rushed the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity.
Hopper says he still plans to enroll in six courses his senior fall, when he will be finished with his premed requirements.
Like Hopper, Walleck faced an uphill battle trying to convince his advisors to allow him to take six courses. Walleck said his academic advisor and resident dean initially discouraged him from taking six courses, particularly because three of his proposed courses were electives.
Eventually, however, Walleck’s advisor and resident dean consented because he was so adamant to go through with his plan.
He recalls, “They said, ‘you can take 6 classes only if you must,’ and I said, ‘I must.’”
Unlike upperclassmen, freshmen must take exactly four academic courses in the fall. They can, however, petition their resident dean to take a fifth course only if it is a music performance class.
“We’re really protecting students from themselves here,” Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67 explains. “We want people ... to end up feeling like their feet are on the ground solidly at the end of the semester.”
Every spring, however, Dingman says that an average of one or two freshmen seek to take six or more courses in their second term at Harvard.
Applied math: economics concentrator Sun, now a sophomore, was one such freshman. Last spring, he enrolled in six classes, including two applied math courses, a statistics course, Expository Writing 20, Economics 10b—an introductory macroeconomics course, and Chemistry 20—an honors-level chemistry course.
He said while his freshman resident dean was wary that he would be spreading himself too thin, he said he thinks his request was ultimately approved, in part, because he had earned a 4.0 in the fall.
Some students who have survived six classes call the experience a manageable challenge.
“I think people overestimate the difficulty of taking six classes, really,” organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator Nicolas Maffey ’13 says, completely serious. “If you choose the right classes, it’s really doable.”
This semester, Maffey is enrolled in six courses—two Organismic and Evolutionary Biology classes, a global health class, a chemistry class, a psychology class, and an English class. He is also a varsity gymnast at MIT and president of the Harvard Organization for Latin America.
Before coming to Harvard, Maffey went to high school in Argentina, where he, like all of his classmates, took ten courses each semester.
“When I tell I my parents back home that I’m taking six courses, they don’t think it’s insane or anything,” Maffey says. “They just say, ‘cool.’”
Like Maffey, government and philosophy joint concentrator Theodora M. Skeadas ’12, who has enrolled in six classes the past three semesters, says she is able to balance a heavy workload with an active extracurricular and social life.
Limited to only 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, Skeadas says she found time to direct the PBHA program Mission Mentors, run regularly, practice yoga and meditation, and even go out on Friday and Saturday nights—all while still averaging eight hours of sleep every night.
She says this busy schedule has forced her to improve her time management skills, leading to better grades with six courses than she had earned with only four classes.
But Skeadas admits that there are limits to how much she can do.
“If you’re taking six classes and expecting to do all the reading for it, it’s not going to happen.”
LIFE OUT OF BALANCE
While some students emerge unfazed from a semester of six classes, others say they would never do it again.
Bakkila says that the semester he enrolled in six classes, he participated in essentially no extracurricular activities and cut back substantially on his social life. He also “worked consistently” through spring break.
“It was a semester of all work and no play,” Bakkila recalls.
When grades came out at the end of the semester, Bakkila anxiously waited to see if his semester of unyielding academic focus had paid off. His grades started to appear on the registrar’s website. The first five came in: A, A, A, A, A. After several agonizing days passed, finally the last grade appeared on the registrar’s website: A-.
“When I got it, I just about burst down crying because I was so close to six ‘A’s,” Bakkila says, almost mournfully.
In every semester since then, he has taken four courses in an effort to “move back to a better life balance.”
Bakkila is now co-chair of Queer Students and Allies and co-director of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.
“I’m glad that I pushed myself to do one semester of six classes, and I’m glad that after that I pulled back and reintegrated myself into extracurriculars and social life,” Bakkila said. “My time here is valuable.”
Unlike Bakkila, Sun says he did not cut back on his extracurricular and social commitments during his six-course semester. Instead, during his spring semester, he went out more frequently on weekends and got more involved on campus—becoming director of recruitment for the Harvard Financial Analyst Club, volunteering at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, serving as treasurer for Harvard College Faith in Action, and joining the Asian American Brotherhood during his six-class semester.
But the experience, he said, took a toll. Accustomed to eight or nine hours of sleep each night, Sun averaged only six hours of sleep that semester.
“There were some days I would just sleep through section,” Sun recalls. “It was terrible.”
“I was there, I did the work, I got good grades, but I wasn’t really learning too much,” Sun recalls. That semester he earned four A grades and two A- grades.
His thinking now has changed.
“It makes more sense to take less classes, to devote more effort to each of them.”
This fall, Sun enrolled in four courses.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins and be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.