NEWS

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September 17, 2010

Registration

When people take their studies as seriously as they do at this school, course registration becomes—to appropriate one of Homer Simpson's many pearls of wisdom—"the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems." There will be quarters when the fates smile upon each of your course requests, and, lo, not only do you receive the four classes you want most, but that young grad student instructor, whose inexperience had you worried, turns out to have entered the sociology Ph.D. program after a short, celebrated stint as an American Apparel model, and life is good.

And there will be quarters when the registrar staff seems bent on making your academic career a bleak, blighted slog. You get not one of the classes you requested, and must scramble just to register for a class with the professor that course evaluations described as sketchy, flaky (in regards to both punctuality and scalp), and given to stealing students' valuables when they leave for the bathroom.

There is no middle ground; it will be one or the other. So how do you get the classes and the sections you want? Ritualistic sacrifice is a good start; understanding how registration works is even better.

Step one: Check the available classes (visit timeschedules.uchicago.edu)

The basics are easy enough. The time schedules for the next quarter—the listings of classes that will be available—are released at the beginning of seventh week. The time schedules website includes the vitals for each class, and scanning the listings by department is simple. However, the search function on the time schedules page is noted for being almost entirely useless.

Step two: Request courses (visit courserequest.uchicago.edu)

You have a week to look the listings over before the course request web site opens. Course request runs from 9 a.m. on Monday of eighth week to 5 p.m. of that Friday.

During course request, each student makes up to six "bids"—one bid for each class he wants. You rank your bids from first through sixth, depending on which classes you need or want the most. When a class has multiple sections, you rank one section highest, and have the option to indicate as many as two alternate sections. These alternates do not count against your total of six bids.

Step three: Course resolution & schedules released (visit my.uchicago.edu to see your schedule)

Once your bids are finalized, it's time to wait. The resolution process takes a couple of weeks, and you usually receive your preliminary schedule by tenth week during reading period, or at the start of exam week.

Step four: Add/Drop (visit college-registration.uchicago.edu)

You can add courses without instructor consent any time between Monday of exam week and Friday of first week. After that, you'll need a pink slip signed by the instructor to get a spot.

If you get into a class but change your mind, you can drop it between Monday of exam week and Friday of third week. You can even drop out of a class later than that, but usually it requires taking a "W" (withdrawn) on your transcript.

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That's the user side of the registration process. While we students are going through our half of the process, there's a lot happening on the back end as well—in fact, the back end process begins long before we start thinking about bids and time schedules, and knowing how the other half works is helpful if you want that American Apparel model teaching your section.

Course registration is run by the Office of the Registrar, which is located on the first floor of the Administration Building; it's where you go to pick up and drop off pink slips.

For fall, winter, and spring quarters, roughly 5,000 undergraduate students submit 20,000 course bids for 2,000 separate sections. The bids don't come in until week eight, but the registrar staff begins preparing for the onslaught during week one of each quarter, when the academic departments are required to submit lists of the courses they plan to offer the following quarter.

With rough drafts of the course offerings in hand, the registrar staff starts proofing the proposed schedules. They look for conflicts, like discussion sections that overlap with the main lecture, and send back any corrections to the academic departments. The process of proofing continues through sixth week, when the departments submit the revised course listings used to make the published time schedules.

Those revised course listings aren't necessarily final. Student bids are gathered during eighth week, and that data is aggregated into a "bid report" that is sent back to each department.

The bid reports indicate student interest in a course, and departments have the option of adjusting enrollment limits to accommodate unanticipated levels of interest during ninth week. Changes made at this point tend to be relatively minor.

After the departments submit any further tweaks they've made to their schedules, the registrar staff can finally run the program that resolves tens of thousands of bids into a workable schedule for each student; this happens toward the end of ninth week.

Prepping that computer program is a labor-intensive job that takes up much of the quarter. For each quarter's course resolution, the registrar staff have to input class titles, times, and enrollment caps; none of that information rolls over from previous resolutions.

That much data entry invites errors, and when a substantial error is made—say, getting the time of a popular class wrong—then "the ripple effect on all schedules is tremendous," says David Zupko, the Associate University Registrar.

If the mistake alters enough schedules, it will be corrected in the computer and the resolution program will be run again. Running the program in its entirety takes about eight hours. According to Zupko, the registrar has needed to run it as many as three times before all major kinks were discovered, but typically mistakes are small enough that re-running the program isn't necessary.

The program processes bids on a class-by-class basis, rather than student-by-student. This is why you'll sometimes get your fifth bid, but not your fourth; if the class you bid fifth comes up first in the program and you're resolved into it, then you won't get your fourth-ranked class if its time schedule conflicts with your fifth-ranked class.

Similarly, you might get resolved into your third, fourth, fifth, and sixth-ranked classes before the program handles your top two classes. That would fill up your schedule, and keep you out of the top two.

If there are more bids for a class than there are spots available, the students with the highest priority get in first. Your priority has nothing to do with when you submit your bids during eighth week; it's based entirely on your class year and how you ranked your bids.

For non-Core classes and language classes, fourth-years have the highest priority, third-years come second, second-years third, and first-years last. For all Core classes except languages, second-years come first, followed by first-years, third-years, and fourth-years, in that order.

That is why it's important to finish the Core during your first two years; if you wait, you lose priority during resolution, and finding an open spot can get tricky. And the registrar doesn't give graduating fourth-years in need of one final Core class any leeway; if they don't get in during resolution, they have to pink slip in like everyone else. Sounds tough, but it fits the College's academic mission, says Assistant Dean of Students in the College Colbey Harris.

If you take a course too late, "You don't get as much out of it, because it wasn't created for someone in your situation," Harris said.

After class year, the program uses bid order to sort students hoping for a spot in a class. For instance, if a very popular non-Core class has more fourth-year bidders than it can fit, those who ranked it first will get in first. If a tiebreaker is still needed after that, the tied students are then assigned a random number to determine who gets in.

The program won't resolve you into classes you didn't bid for, so if the sections you requested fill up, the preliminary schedule you receive at the start of exam week may only include one or two classes, or no classes at all.

"Sometimes [students] feel the system singled them out and did them wrong" when they don't get the classes they wanted, Harris said, but usually that just means they could have bid smarter. Small seminars are apt to fill up with fourth-years before second-years ever get a crack, for example, so underclassmen who only bid for seminars probably won't get into many.

That can be frustrating, but Harris stressed that the schedules created by the registrar's office are not "personal," and that the registrar staff understands the importance of their work to students on campus.

Ultimately, she said, their hope is to accomplish three things: get the greatest number of students into courses that they want, avoid scheduling conflicts, and "make as many students happy as possible."

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