by Maggie Helmick, MTS ’23
Editor’s Note: In this post, HDS Admissions Graduate Assistant, Maggie Helmick, shares four semesters of wisdom in selecting classes. Maggie discusses her step-by-step approach to searching the course catalog, fulfilling MTS degree requirements, and registering for classes outside of HDS.
If you’re like me, choosing your classes is both incredibly energizing and riddled with apprehension. There is no better way for me to build my excitement for the semester ahead than exploring page after page of courses that could come to compose my schedule and inform my academic life for the coming months. Alternatively, though, the sheer volume of classes being offered can make the thought of choosing just four very daunting and can trigger some serious anticipatory FOMO.
Many incoming students voice questions and concerns about how to best organize their time at HDS and find the classes that will be most fulfilling for them and their interests. As an MTS student entering my final semester, I could hardly be happier with how that process has turned out for me, so if you’re interested in learning about how I’ve gone about it, read on.
First, it’s important to note that Harvard class scheduling may function differently than what you’ve experienced at other schools. Typically, you can only expect the full roster of courses for a semester to be uploaded to my.Harvard a few weeks prior to the first day of classes for any given semester. While in undergrad, I usually chose my courses months in advance, here I don’t even look at the course catalog until about three weeks prior to classes beginning. Additionally, you’ll have to meet with your advisor to discuss your proposed schedule and acquire their approval. This process can vary by advisor but the sooner you meet with them and have your proposed courses approved the better!
My first step towards choosing my classes is always to skim through every single HDS course being offered that semester. I like to start by leaving the search bar for the course catalog blank and hitting “search,” which will bring up all Harvard classes listed for all schools and all terms. Then on the left-hand menu bar I’ll choose HDS and the upcoming academic term. When I find a class that catches my interest, I’ll click on its title so that I’m able to view its description to get a better feel for what it is about. If I still like it, I’ll write down the course’s name, instructor, and when it will be taught to refer to later.
Once I’ve gone through all the classes being offered, I’ll start to narrow down my selections. It can be helpful to group together any classes that are being taught at the same time on the same days, since you know you won’t be able to take more than one class in each of those groups. At this point, I’ll consider whether there are any days of the week I do not want to be in classes or if there are any professors in particular I am hoping to take a class with. Courses being taught on days I want to be free are moved to a list of backup courses and any being taught by professors I am dying to learn from move to the top of my active list.
This is also the point at which I check which classes on my list would fulfill any degree requirements I have not yet met, which for me means the six courses I must take within my Area of Focus. You could either go through the classes you’ve noted as interesting to you to check what requirements they fulfill (they will be listed on the bottom of the description pop-up when you click on the course), or you can use those requirements as search criteria on the left-hand menu bar to see all of the courses being offered within that requirement category. If you’re an MDiv student, this would be your Arts of Ministry; Histories, Theologies, and Practices (MDiv HTP); or Scriptural Interpretations (MDiv Scriptural Int.) on the left-hand menu bar.
This may also be a good place to note that while choosing an Area of Focus and the requirement of taking six courses within your Area of Focus may seem daunting, it is not nearly as big of a deal as you would think. If your Area of Focus is well-aligned with your interests, you’re going to naturally choose classes that are categorized within it. Also, many courses are categorized under several Areas of Focus, so there is typically no shortage of options. Entering my final semester, I only have one course left to take within my Area of Focus, and I have found a plethora of interesting courses which would fulfill that requirement.
Once you’ve gone through all the listed courses, considered whether you have any scheduling constraints, and taken into account any degree requirements or professors of great interest to you, you may already have whittled down your list to just a handful of classes. If you haven’t, though, now is a great time to consult other students (this is particularly useful your second semester and beyond since you’ll know other students by that point). Professor recommendations from other students have helped me find some of my favorite courses and instructors which I likely would not have considered on my own – I highly recommend asking around.
Additionally, this is a good time to consider classes both outside of your own academic focus and outside of HDS altogether. Unless you had an exceptionally rigorous religious education prior to coming to HDS, there are likely some religious traditions or approaches to the study of religion that you are either entirely unfamiliar with or know little about. I would argue there are few better places to engage with religiously related topics you are unacquainted with than here, so take the opportunity to do so!
Beyond HDS, the entire world of Harvard (and several other local schools) is at your disposal, too. Up to this point in my time at HDS, I have taken a class each semester that is either offered jointly between HDS and another Harvard school or entirely outside of HDS. I love sharing classes with non-HDS students because their backgrounds, interests, and goals tend to differ from those of many HDS students, allowing them to provide fresh and interesting perspectives on the topics at hand. Also, I personally really appreciate the change of pace that accompanies a course that is not inherently about religion – in the midst of a decidedly religious education it can be refreshing to learn about something totally unrelated.
One final element that’s important to consider when choosing your classes is workload. Classes will vary in the amount of reading and the number of assignments they require. Before finalizing my schedule, I always check these factors for all of my classes to make sure I have a nice balance and won’t be overwhelmed by one extreme or the other.
There is certainly a lot to consider when choosing your classes but, ultimately, it’s also hard to go wrong! There really are no wrong choices and there is something to be gained from every single class, so don’t stress and happy choosing!