Light & Verity

Shopping period is no more

The way Yale College students choose courses has changed since the pandemic.

James Yang

James Yang

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For decades, students had mixed feelings about Yale College’s “shopping period”—the stretch at the beginning of every semester when students got to attend classes for two weeks before turning in their final course schedule. In the last three years, though, shopping period as most alumni knew it has disappeared, replaced by an early registration system.

Depending on who you were and how shopping went for you, it was either a kind of beautiful or terrible chaos: slipping out early from a 9 o’clock seminar to race to a 10 o’clock lecture, avoiding the professor’s glare only to return to the same seminar the following week, all while juggling nine other syllabi, rinsing and repeating the subterranean escape with nine other professors. It was always more art than science.

Professors, too, were rarely indifferent to it. When the shopping period was expanded in the 1970s, from a policy exclusively for freshmen to a college-wide regime, Rollin Osterweis ’30, ’46PhD, a professor of history, told the Yale Daily News that shopping represented a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” Students, he suggested, were too saturated with options to sink into the “meat” of their courses. Others, like Raymond Powell, an economics professor and sometime chairman of the college’s course of study committee, saw it in less apocalyptic terms—as a way for students to sample a wide range of subjects and teachers before setting their schedules in stone.

But after nearly 50 years, shopping period was discontinued in the fall of 2021. In its place, the university adopted a new protocol of application and registration in the semester before enrollment, along with an “add/drop” window during the first eight days of classes for “refinement of the student course schedule.” The policy had been years in the making, and, in the midst of digital instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the registrar began phasing it in during the fall 2020 term, shrinking the shopping period to just one week.

The new add/drop and early registration rules, are intended to pave a path of least resistance among student, faculty, and university priorities, according to Paul McKinley ’96MFA, the senior associate dean of strategic initiatives and communications for the college. Before, McKinley says, students entered each semester not knowing whether they would be admitted to any of the classes they hoped to take, and professors struggled to secure large enough classrooms, order enough books, and hire enough teaching assistants. The result was that many classes didn’t really begin until after the second or even the third week.

That’s where add/drop came in. “Early registration was designed to ease many of these constraints and enable classes to begin as early as the first session,” says McKinley. “But it was also designed to preserve students’ ability to change their course schedules in the opening weeks of the term once they have had a chance to sit in on classes and learn more about the semester’s course offerings.”

Those first weeks of class may never be stress-free, but students’ focus now is on extending the window to add or drop classes. A Yale College Council proposal, which is being considered by the dean’s office, would lengthen the add/drop period by two days, allowing students to attend Friday classes (which don’t currently meet during the period) before deciding on their schedules.  

Some students have been less than thrilled with the new system—but then again, so have they been with every system that came before. Back in 2017, when the Yale College Council surveyed over 1,300 students, 70 percent said they found shopping period to be “stressful.”

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