Pre-Term Pandemonium

Harvard should rethink its approach to Pre-Term Planning

Last week, as Harvard students perused courses and finalized schedules, the University was left aghast at the extreme inaccuracy of its Pre-Term Planning data. Because of the unanticipated turnout for many classes, lecture halls were cramped and course lotteries were ubiquitous, leaving scores of students disappointed. Pre-Term Planning doesn’t work because Harvard students do not take it seriously, and for good reason: The goals of PTP are at odds with those of shopping week. In order to make shopping period a better experience for everyone, PTP will have to see some serious reforms.

The aim of such reforms would be to make Pre-Term Planning a more thoughtful process, such that data would more closely mirror actual turnout. As it stands, students clearly do not put much thought into the whole affair—otherwise, we would not see hundreds of students forced to lottery for overfilled classes.

One possible solution might be to require all students to meet with their academic advisors before submitting their PTP. This way, students would be less likely to pick classes at random or to choose classes that they will ultimately be unable to take because of their academic plan or schedule.

For similar reasons, the University might consider asking students to partake in Pre-Term Planning later in the semester, or even better, between semesters. Pre-Term Planning for the spring takes place in the middle of the fall semester, when spring course enrollment is among the least of students’ many competing priorities. Resultantly, students are not likely to have thought much about the next semester’s classes when Pre-Term Planning time rolls around and are likely to approach Pre-Term Planning with haste and annoyance. If the University were to ask students to complete Pre-Term Planning between semesters, they would certainly be more likely to put time and effort into the process.

Finally, to make Pre-Term Planning more useful, the College might consider asking students to indicate six or seven classes that they intend to shop rather than four courses that they intend to take. Harvard College students are lucky and grateful to have a shopping week, and Pre-Term Planning should better reflect the ethos of that week. If students were allowed to indicate more than four courses in their Pre-Term Planning, the data would strike a closer resemblance to how shopping week actually works—many students shop a number of courses, only finalizing their schedules after the week is over. It is not uncommon for students to select schedules that are very unlike those they had anticipated at the semester’s outset. Changing the system to reflect this tendency would improve the data by allowing for the flexibility and uncertainty inherent in shopping week.

Taken together, these reforms could do quite a bit to transform Pre-Term Planning from a dysfunctional mess into a useful and accurate tool. It is a great privilege to preview any of Harvard’s thousands of courses at the beginning of each term, and a reformed PTP system would help students make course selections in line with the spirit of shopping period. By injecting a bit of thoughtfulness, timeliness, and flexibility into the process, Harvard could avoid much of the chaos that characterized this semester’s shopping week.