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Tackling the lottery with numbers on your side

By: Ben Sellitto

Ben Sellitto is a second-year Langone student and employee at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where he has worked since 2016. Ben enjoys brewery hopping, eating anything that is fried, and ballin’ on a budget.

Course selection is always a stressful and daunting task, where Sternies decide how to invest thousands of dollars with a few clicks of a button. As an undergrad, each student at my school was pitted against one another for one random day of the semester, selecting courses at the exact same day and time – causing stress, anxiety, frustration – you name it. I appreciate Stern’s lottery system approach, giving each student ample time to conduct research and select courses without the added pressure of a real-time brawl.

When thinking about selecting courses, there are various components at play – the professor, class time, course load, fit within a specialization, and more. Now, add another layer of virtual vs. in-person learning due to COVID-19 and you come across yet another decision point. When the summer 2020 schedule was released, I spent some time texting friends to see how they planned to approach the lottery. Not one of them really knew how to go about it. 

The Model – An Overview

After thinking about how I can make this process just a little less stressful, I designed a model to help weigh some of the factors of the course selection process. Keep in mind the model is not intended to serve as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to course selection. I conducted a quick pulse survey to gather information from classmates on key factors they consider during course selection. Based on the commonality of the factors that they cited, I assigned appropriate weights for these areas. Further, the model does not guarantee you will be accepted into the course(s) you lotteried, but instead is a way to help facilitate and manage the overall selection process.


For new Sternies, the model may not apply until later in your Stern career when you are tasked with selecting courses outside of core requirements. Still, it is important to begin to think about some of these factors as you continue to progress at Stern. Before you know it, you’ll run out of core courses and need to start thinking about how to effectively select electives.

Putting the Model to Use

Each student is different. For some students, the professor is make or break. For others, a class that simply fits a specialization track is good enough. Below are some questions to ask yourself during the lottery period as well as examples of quantitative and qualitative evaluation measures:

  1. Professor Credentials: Do I care if my professor is well-known and established? Does she or he have a good track record and positive ratings at Stern?
  • Over 3.5 stars on Campus Bolt
  • Referrals and word of mouth from friends are consistent
  1. Ease of Workload: Is the class known to be workload intensive? Or more easy-going?
  • Less than three graded assignments
  • Limited recurring assignments
  • Less than 3 hours per week of outside class work
  1. Specialization Fit: Does this class fit my specialization track(s)? Do I need a certain number of specialization credits?
  • Class meets targeted specialization(s)
  • Class does not meet targeted specialization(s)
  1. Class Timing: Do I want to avoid enrolling in back-to-back classes (e.g. Tuesday and Wednesday) this semester? Are Thursday happy hours a must-have?
  • Class timing is preferable
  • Class timing is not preferable
  1. Remote vs. In-Person: Do I prefer an in-person learning environment, or am I okay attending classes fully online?
  • Class contains an in-person / hybrid option
  • Class is offered fully online
  1. Scheduling Conflicts: Do tests and assignments conflict with upcoming work or personal plans?
  • Class does not conflict with work or personal plans 
  • Class conflicts with minor plans (e.g. one scheduled weekend get-away)
  • Class conflicts with major events (e.g. weddings)
  1. Career Goals: Are there explicit offerings or skills in the course that will help me further my career goals and ambitions?
  • Class mentions anticipated concepts in syllabus
  • Class dedicates one or more sessions to desired skills
  1. Grading Criteria: Do I prefer writing papers, participating in group projects, or taking exams?
  • Class assignments are written papers only
  • Class assignments are exams only
  • Class assignments are group projects only
  • Class assignments are a preferable mix 
  1. Class Size: Do I want to get some 1:1 with the professor, or do I prefer to hide in the back of the room? Do I care if the professor knows me?
  • Class size is less than 10 people
  • Class size is less than 30 people
  • Class size is less than 75 people
  1. Knowing Other Classmates: Do I have friends in this class, or am I riding solo?
  • Class contains friends who plan to enroll
  • Class does not contain any other known classmates

Below is an example of using the model when deciding between two different classes:

NumberCourse SelectionFactorsCriteriaWeightClass XClass Y
1Professor CredentialsHigher score – professor is well-reviewed.23.21.18
2Ease of WorkloadHigher score – workload is lighter.09.05.08
3Specialization FitHigher score – course fits a specialization.12.12.12
4Class TimingHigher score – class fits schedule preferences.06.06.04
5Remote vs. In-PersonHigher score – class fits instruction preferences.11.09.04
6Scheduling ConflictsHigher score – little / no scheduling conflicts.02.02.02
7Career GoalsHigher score – tangible career skills are offered.18.16.12
8Grading CriteriaHigher score – class fits assessment preferences.10.03.10
9Class SizeHigher score – class fits course size preferences.03.03.03
10Knowing Other ClassmatesHigher score – friends also plan to enroll.06.06.06
Total Score1.0.83.79

The class with the higher score wins. The model can be used for more than two classes, if needed. Feel free to adjust the weights as you see fit. Similar to my peers, the professor and career skills obtained for the course are also my top two most important factors.

The model is designed for you to weigh the various components of course selection. Even when using the model, some courses that appear appealing may let you down – or vice versa. I hope I am able help a few of my fellow Sternies in planning for next Spring and Summer’s course selection process – and may the odds be ever in your favor!

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