Providing a Registration and Lottery Perspective
Beth Rubin Weighs in on the Experience of Lotterying for Classes and Course Selection
Beth Rubin, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Enrollment Management
You know about the core courses for your MBA program, and you know you will also take many elective courses. As an indication of the richness of course offerings at Stern, can you guess how many electives we offer? The answer for this year is 202 different elective courses and over 400 total sections of those courses! (That’s more than any other business school in the country.) And we introduce an average of 15 new courses per year. With core courses, so many electives, and all of our continuing students, we have instituted a sophisticated lottery and waitlist system to provide equitable access to registering for courses. As most of you know, some of you will get the exact courses you request, but some will not.
In this article, we will explain why that is, so that we can work together to give you the best program possible. If you understand how the system works, you will be able to make it work better for you. Your feedback may also help us improve the system—indeed, we have your predecessors to thank for many past improvements.
How does the lottery work?
More than a decade ago, with the help of MBA students, we created the lottery system to make the process of registering for courses as fair as possible without introducing undue complexity. We update it continually to make it as user-friendly as possible. During the “lottery submission” phase, you submit the list of course sections you want to take in rank order, with an alternate for each selection. During this period, which lasts three weeks, you can make as many changes as you wish.
After the deadline, we run a batch process that registers students by cohort, based on your program and when we expect you to graduate (e.g., those closest to graduating are run first; full-time students get priority for day electives; “Weekend” coded students get priority for weekend classes, etc.). The computer application works through each cohort and gives students their first choices whenever possible. Students who are closed out of their first choices in the first round get priority in the second round, and so on. Then, we make a small number of manual adjustments to ensure that no students are penalized due to anomalous combinations of their particular selections and the application’s rule structure. One feature of the system ensures that, in their final semester at Stern, almost all graduating students get their highest-ranked choices in the lottery and the large majority gets most of their other choices.
Next, we announce the results and open the add/drop period by cohort so that you can adjust your schedules. At that point, if you were closed out of a course and still want to try to get in, you can join the waitlist online. If you were closed out of a specific course that you submitted in the lottery phase, you get high priority for that course if we are able to go to the waitlist.
Should I always rank the course I want to take most #1 in the lottery?
Generally, yes. Occasionally, we can offer a popular course in a room so large that all interested students are virtually guaranteed a seat even if they rank it further down (e.g., Professor Yermack’s “Restructuring Firms and Industries”), but you shouldn’t count on it. See the “Lottery Hints” posted on the Record and Registration website, which lists maximum enrollments that are lower or higher than the standard 70. It may help you decide how to prioritize your selections.
Does including alternates reduce my chances of getting what I really want?
No. We try to give you your primary choices before we go to your alternates. If we can’t because your primary is closed, it’s important to include an alternate, so we can give you that.
What should I do if I don’t get a course I still want to take?
Put your name on the waitlist right away and be sure to include any special considerations surrounding your request. Do not ask the instructor for permission to enroll in a course or section. An instructor cannot enroll you, so asking just puts all of us in an awkward position.
If I am the first student to wait list for a class, will I get the first open seat?
Not necessarily. The waitlist takes many factors into consideration, one of which may be the time of the request. We also look at your program, expected date of graduation, lottery history (i.e., whether or not you requested the class in the lottery and how highly you ranked it), and any relevant special circumstances surrounding your request.
Why isn’t the course I want offered next semester?
1. Often, it’s because student demand is too low to warrant offering the course more than one or two times per year. When this is the case, we try to choose the time of year, day of the week, and time of day (considering what else is offered) when demand will be greatest.
2. We may not have the faculty to teach it in a particular semester. If the professor who usually teaches the course is on sabbatical or is required to teach something else, or the professor is an adjunct and too busy this term, we look for someone else. Depending on the course, we may look outside for someone who has taught it elsewhere, or we may look inside for a professor who is interested in teaching something new. However, it’s hard to find new faculty for specific courses or to expect a professor to prepare to teach a course for the first time when we may want him or her to teach it only once or twice. It’s a big investment.
Why is the course I want offered only in the evening?
There are a number of reasons. The professor teaching the course may be an adjunct who can teach only in the evening. (Adjuncts are part-time faculty who usually have day jobs doing the things they teach.) The professor may also want to include guest speakers who are available only in the evening. It may be a course in which too few students from a single program are interested. Not enough students would take the course to justify offering it if we did not schedule it when all MBA students have access. If it is the first time we have offered the course, we usually start with one section so that it can be fine-tuned and we can gauge demand.
Why can’t you just put popular classes in larger rooms?
We may not have a larger room available at that time. We are very close to capacity every night of the week and, for some room sizes, during the day as well. In some courses, a larger class would compromise the learning experience. In some cases, adding ten or 100 students won’t make much of a difference, and we do it. In others, especially those that rely on significant interaction among the students, it makes a big difference. If the course is new, we like to keep the class on the small side. Mid-course corrections are easier to make with a smaller class.
Why is the course I want only offered opposite another course I want?
We try hard not to let that happen. Sometimes it’s easy when courses likely to interest the same student are obvious (e.g., “Entertainment Finance” and “Globalization of the Entertainment Industry”). And we are careful about what we schedule opposite the most popular electives. However, we can’t always anticipate what combinations students will want, and even when we can, we simply can’t always accommodate them. Picture a sequence of events that starts with moving a section of “Data Mining” from Thursday evening to Monday and Wednesday morning, and ends with having no one to teach a Saturday section of “Leadership in Organizations”. It happens.
Why did you cancel the class I wanted to take?
Too few students may have registered for it. We know how disruptive it is to work out your whole schedule for a semester, have a piece of it fall out, and struggle to assemble something as good. However, we often face the choice of either keeping a section for 12 students or having the professor teach a section the following semester, which we are reasonably confident will attract significantly larger numbers and, thus, give more students what they want. When we have to cancel a section, we work closely with the students to get them into good alternatives. Another reason is that sometimes a professor becomes unavailable at the last minute. Whenever possible, we find another professor to teach the course, and we inform the students so that they can opt out if they wish. However, that’s not always possible.
If a professor doesn’t do a good job in the classroom, why do you let him or her teach?
Different students have different opinions and want different things. A course some students dislike may be just what someone else wants. Surprisingly often, student reactions to faculty and the courses they teach are spread across a wide range, due to differences in experience, interest, learning style, etc. If a course sounds interesting, but you are concerned about the evaluations, ask around. In most cases, you will find students who thought it was valuable. Then, you can try to figure out how similar your interests are to theirs vs. those of the students who didn’t like it.
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