Decisive Students Declare Their Concentrations Early

When Elizabeth S. Felts ’14 arrived at Harvard, she was certain she wanted to concentrate in mathematics. But during her first semester, taking classes in both the math and earth and planetary sciences department, she quickly decided that the latter would be a better fit.

Instead of waiting until the Nov. 16 deadline, Felts filled out her plan of study and officially declared her concentration in EPS as soon as she arrived on campus for her sophomore year.

“All it took was me saying yes and then the next day I met with the head tutors and filled out my plan of study and sent it into the registrar,” Felts says. “It’s a really quick process if you are organized and willing.”

Felts is part of the small group of Harvard students who declare their concentrations early. Though the College requires all undergraduates to pick a field of study by the middle of their third semester, a few choose to declare their concentrations before that deadline, either during their freshman year or earlier on as sophomores.

In the Class of 2014, 2.5 percent of students turned in their concentration paperwork to the Registrar’s Office before their third semester. According to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke, only one member of the Class of 2015 has already declared a concentration.

Though they constitute a small minority, students who have taken this route say that, as long as a student has made the right decision on an academic field, declaring early provides distinct and unique benefits.

AT A LATER DATE

Several years ago, Felts’ September declaration would have come months after, not before, the College’s deadline to choose a concentration. Until 2006, students were required to enter a department during the spring of their freshman year.

Following a multi-year process of curricular review, the College opted to push the date to declare to sophomore year, beginning with the Class of 2010.

According to computer science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68, who served as Dean of the College from 1995 to 2003, this decision was partially based on concerns that students frequently changed concentrations during their time at Harvard. Though fewer students now change their concentrations, Lewis says he does not think this is a sign of progress.

“It was never clear to me why choosing a concentration and then discovering it wasn’t right for you was necessarily a terrible thing, as opposed to not making any decision and then getting far enough along in your program that you no longer have time to change your concentration,” Lewis says.

The administration pushed the concentration timeline back with indecisive students in mind. But some undergrads say that even as freshmen, they are sure of their choice.

EARLY BIRDS

For this small group, declaring a concentration earlier offers both peace of mind and academic boons.

Before she became an official member of the EPS department, Felts says that as a mere name on a list of prospective concentrators, she felt on the outside of the academic community.

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