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Decisive Students Declare Their Concentrations Early

By Petey E. Menz, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

“The minute that you declare, you become a member of the department officially, and this means that you can access all of the resources that are available to a member of the department,” Felts says.

She names the ability to easily approach professors and, in particular, the appointment of her academic adviser as the major advantages of declaring as soon as she was sure.

“As a freshman, your adviser is anyone,” Felts says. “Often they have very little knowledge about subjects that you’re interested in or even just Harvard College in general.”

Professor Sarah T. Stewart-Mukhopadhyay, the co-director of undergraduate studies of the EPS department, agrees that this could be a key advantage of declaring early.

“To me, the one-on-one advising with someone in your area is the most important thing you gain,” Stewart-Mukhopadhyay said. “There are all sorts of events geared towards exploration and pre-concentration advising, and those can all still happen, but you do that in conjunction with advising about optimal course selection.”

Such benefits have attracted the attention of Dylan S. Freedman ’15. Freedman took Computer Science 61: “Systems Programming and Machine Organization” in the fall and says he plans to declare a concentration in computer science before the end of the year.

“I heard that the instant you declare, you’re assigned an academic adviser,” Freedman said. “Since I’m pretty set, it makes sense to declare as early as possible.”

BUSY BEES

In addition to the personal attention, students may be tempted to declare early in order to better take advantage of the structures of their chosen department.

For example, Felts’ chosen concentration of EPS is notable for offering several features that make it especially appealing to freshmen looking to declare early. According to Stewart-Mukhopadhyay, the concentration features a rotating sequence of field trips that any primary or secondary concentrator is eligible to go on.

“Because we do our trips at the end of summer, if you aren’t declared until the middle of your first semester sophomore year, you’re not going to be eligible to go,” Stewart-Mukhopadhyay said.

According to Stewart-Mukhopadhyay, the scheduling of these trips was decided before the date to declare was pushed back to sophomore fall. It is not expressly designed to encourage freshman to declare early, though it does attract some signups.

“Our concentration is modest in size. We have single digits that sign up at the end of freshman year knowing that this is part of our concentration offerings,” Stewart-Mukhopadhyay said.

Six current sophomores declared an EPS concentration during their freshman years, a significant portion of the 41 current department affiliates—including primary, secondary, and joint concentrators—according to EPS co-director of undergraduate studies Chenoweth Moffatt.

In addition, students in math and science fields, where upper-level classes have multiple prerequisites, may find that entering a department as soon as possible opens up academic opportunities later on.

“It’s an advantage from our perspective when students take their foundation courses and math and physics courses earlier in their career,” Stewart-Mukhopadhyay said. “When someone joins our concentration a little later, they can’t take courses in the right sequence because they’re every-other-year courses, for instance. And we don’t want seniors sitting in our intro courses, because it’s not a good match.”

According to Lewis, this sequencing issue makes early declarations in the sciences, particularly engineering fields, much easier on students.

“If you decided you want to be a computer scientist in your junior year, it’s very hard to take four computer science courses your first term and get them all in that way, whereas if you decide to be an English major, you probably can decide to do it starting from ground zero in your junior year,” he says.

Though many humanities classes have fewer prerequisites, a few students in these fields still make the choice to declare early each year. Professor Stephen L. Burt, the director of undergraduate studies in the English department, wrote in an email, “English concentrators declare before the deadline all the time; sometimes freshman year.”

EAGER BEAVERS

The number of students who declare early is small, and students and professors alike acknowledge that this choice is not for everyone.

Although Felts, who is a Peer Advising Fellow, says she has talked to a few of her advisees about declaring a concentration early, she maintains that a student who is ready to declare must have several distinct characteristics.

“They have to be very self-aware and very proactive with regards to their academics,” Felts said. “They have to have shown that they’ve deeply considered their options and that they know for certain themselves that’s what their interests lie in.”

That certainty may be what keeps more students from declaring early. Though Freedman, for instance, has decided on computer science, he said that none of his friends are completely set on a concentration.

In Lewis’ view, that indecision is not necessarily intrinsic to the process of declaring but rather a result of the declaration deadline’s current placement during sophomore fall.

“There is a piece of me that thinks that Harvard students will make a decision when they have to make a decision, whether that’s freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, or senior year,” Lewis says.

—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu.

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