Registration and Lottery Perspective: expert guidance for navigating the Stern MBA course selection process

By 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 almost 200 different elective courses and almost 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, and so many electives available to 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 past improvements.

A. 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. In their final semester at Stern, almost all graduating students get their highest-ranked choices in the lottery and the large majority gets all 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.

B. 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 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.

C. 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 try to give you that.

D. 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.

E. If 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.

F. 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 being 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.

G. Why is the course I want offered only in the evening?

1. 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.

2. The professor may want to include guest speakers who are available only in the evening.

3. It may be a course in which too few students from a single program (full-time, Langone, etc.) 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.

4. 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.

H. Why can’t you just put popular classes in larger rooms?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

I. If there is a lot of student demand for a new course, why don’t you always offer it right away?

There are a number of reasons:

1. We have to ask ourselves whether business school is the best place to learn the subject. First, even if there were a high demand for courses in Mandarin, linear algebra, graphic design, or C++, we wouldn’t offer them at Stern since they aren’t fundamentally business subjects, and we have no particular expertise in teaching them. Second, some industry-specific knowledge is better gained on the job.  We will consider offering a course about a particular industry if there is well-developed theory underlying it that is unique to the industry. If the theory is common to many industries, we are more likely to offer a version of an existing course that focuses on the industry (e.g., “Mergers and Acquisitions” with an EMT focus).

2. It can be hard to make changes after the schedule is set.  In December, we will start putting together the teaching schedule for the   following academic year, and teaching assignments for full-time faculty will be pretty much locked in by March. As you know, we still make changes, but those are on the margin and can be quite tricky to engineer.

The schedules of roughly 200 full-time and 150 part-time professors have to be pieced together like a big puzzle, taking into account the class schedules of several different programs (Langone, full-time MBA, undergraduate, Executive MBA, TRIUM, and other Executive programs), faculty expertise, faculty preferences, sabbaticals, expected availability of adjunct faculty, expected student enrollments, the relative timing of courses that will appeal to the same students, which courses are needed for specializations, how each course meets (once or twice a week, for a half or whole semester, during intensives), room sizes, etc. Thus, changing a single element is rarely a simple proposition. However, we try and often succeed.

3. Creating a new course is a major investment. Either a professor must spend months preparing an outline, readings, and content, or we have to find someone who has taught the course effectively elsewhere and is willing to do it here. And if the course addresses specific practitioner knowhow, we may not have faculty with the appropriate focus and must look outside the school, usually for a professional who has an interest in (and aptitude for) teaching. It’s rare enough to find a professional who wants to teach and has the time. It’s even more rare to find someone we believe will do well in the classroom. Even when we find someone, full-time faculty must spend a significant amount of time helping that practitioner craft the course, create assignments, learn how to assess student performance, etc.

4. Demand may not be as high as you think. Sometimes, even though it seems that student interest is high, when it comes to registering, there aren’t enough of you to fill a section. That’s due to something we study in marketing: consumer intentions are not as highly correlated with their behavior as you might expect (Ask marketing professor Vicki Morwitz about her research for an interesting discussion of this topic).

We suspect that one of the biggest reasons is that, in isolation, a course may sound great, but pitched against others in the same term or same time slot, it loses out to courses that may be even more relevant to your career, more conveniently scheduled, have known faculty, etc. So, most of the time, if you propose a course and give us a list of students who say they will take it, you’ll find that not even half actually will.

J. 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 to avoid, 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.

K. Why did you cancel the class I wanted to take?

1. 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.

2. 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.

L. 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.

Editors’ Note: the Spring 2018 course selection window closes on Wednesday, November 1 at midnight. The lottery process, described in this article, will take place from November 2 until November 27. 

Lottery results will be announced on November 28 for students graduating in 2018, on November 29 for students graduating in 2019, and on November 30 for Fall 2017 Langone admits and all other students. Tuition payments are due in December (for exact payment due dates, please refer to the Stern Bursar’s website). 

If you have questions about the lottery and registration process, you can contact the Office of Records and Registration at 212-998-0660.

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