Your Advance Registration Requests Suck

(This post is only applicable to current Penn students.)

Finalized your advance registration requests? Scrap it.

For some strange reason, Penn has never explained its algorithm that determines who gets which class, how much seniority matters, what alternate requests even mean. Here’s what I’ve learned from the Peer Advising program (I apologize for those of you with crappy Peer Advisors) and incessantly pestering College administration.

Takeaway Points:

  • Use the old Penn Course Review‘s “Return” attribute to see how filled up a course historically has been.
  • For cross-listed courses, request a course under the less popular program/department (if the number of seats per program/dept is the same–otherwise use your judgment).
  • Have an alternate request for every single set of primary/alternate requests unless it is your very last set.
  • Prerequisites are usually not required–just recommended
  • The “Any section” option means that if your primary request is denied, the system will check another section before even looking at your alternate request*.
  • Have an idea of the course codes being used for your requested courses.
  • The order of courses you most want/need to take should NOT be the order in which you request courses.
  • Change your desired courseload to the maximum you’re allowed. Consider asking your advisor to have your limit bumped up a credit unit. This way you can reserve or sit on more courses.
  • If a course you’re requesting as a primary request only has two sections, choose the “Any section” and don’t waste the alternate request slot on the same course.
  • There are always people (professor and undergraduate coordinator) with the power to permit you into a course. Ask tactfully.

First, before reading the strategy below, see this for an explanation of the website layout, terms, etc.

The problem with the link above is that it only talks about using the website and doesn’t talk about strategy. VERY RARELY does luck, aka randomization, play into this process. So here’s some strategy:


  • The overall process:
    • The algorithm selects by course rather than by student. For example: ANTH 004 001 for 11A has the first code I describe above: srs, jrs, etc., no restrictions. The system will check ALL requests for this course and make a first selection based on the student’s listed primary priority and preference order.
    • Once the system has gone through all courses and all requests, it goes back to check for problems: time conflicts, prerequisites, etc., and then it makes a second pass to see if there are alternate requests that might work, and so on and so on.
    • If the student has not set priorities on their courses, the system will select for best fit, which may not be in the order they were entered in the registration screens.
    • Peer Advisors: remember that for freshmen, the “Any section” option is set to “yes” by default for courses with multiple sections and/or for recitations and labs.
    • Luck only comes into play when there’s only one space left between multiple people who have ranked it equally high, at which point the system uses a random selection process.

  • Determine whether you have priority in order to properly rank your requests:
    • Each course has a code, set by the instructor, that determines the order of priority/the desired “audience.” The most common code used, 11A, is by seniority.
    • The second most common code gives declared majors at any level priority. This means you should declare your major within the next week before the system begins to allocate courses to students.
    • Third is the hybrid of the first and second, which asks for senior majors, then any senior; junior majors, etc.
    • Introductory level courses tend to use a code that selects for sophomores first, then freshmen, then all others together.
    • Remember that many courses have restrictions on them that often aren’t listed (you’ll just have to ask the professor): majors only, seniors only, number of seats for this or that population.
  • So what does this mean for you?
    • You should always submit at least seven sets of requests (each set encompasses both primary and alternate requests); I usually recommend nine to those primarily in the liberal arts. Freshmen commonly submit the same number of requests as their credit limit (4.5 or 5.5 CUs), which makes absolutely no sense.
    • For courses that are cross-listed, request the course under the not-as-popular department/program (if the number of seats for each cross-listing is the same). For example, instead of registering for Globalization under HIST012, it may be easier to get in under ANTH012. That’s because there’s a limit of students registered under each cross-listed department in each course.
    • Note that there is the Freshman Course Timetable for fall advance registration, and there is also the standard course timetable. By no means are you restricted (not by the system, nor by admin/staff) from taking courses that aren’t listed in the Freshman Course Timetable! Those are just recommended, and there are plenty of great classes for freshmen that are only listed in the regular course timetable.
    • Also remember to look into LPS courses, which appear on Penn inTouch but not on the regular section of the Course Timetable.

    Ordering Your Requests:

    • To find out whether a course is usually full, check out the old Penn Course Review‘s “Return” column. This tells you number of respondents over the total number of students. If the total number of students is significantly lower than the maximum enrollment (which you can find from the Registrar’s course listings), then it probably isn’t very highly demanded. Of course, the exception is if hoards of people drop a course too late into the game for other students to add it.
    • It is pretty easy to get into courses that say you need special permission. Just email the professor expressing what you would contribute (answer: unique perspective!) and gain. If the professor doesn’t respond, email the Undergraduate Coordinator of the department/program, which is usually the person who grants you permits.
    • See the staggering technique in the “What is this “Alternate Request” hooplah” section below.
    • Put a large easy-to-get-into introductory class as your last request even if you absolutely know you want to take it. Remember that you can change your schedule all you want come add/drop period, space/enrollment permitting. Even if you don’t get into it (in the event of you getting your other prior requests before the system even reaches your last one), this is a good thing. That’s because you will have no problem getting into the large intro class, while you are “reserving” or sitting on the harder-to-get-into course that you might eventually choose to take.
    • On a related note, if you absolutely need to take a course to complete your program or degree, you will most likely be able to receive a permit to get squeezed in. As such, check with older students or an administrative figure and consider placing the request for this course toward the bottom of your requests.

    What is this “Alternate Request” hooplah?

    • This is a bit more obvious, but if you have two time-conflicting courses, list one of those two as a primary and the other as its alternate. Of course, alternates are also for two really similar courses (such as two Writing courses or two courses that both fulfill the same requirement). But there’s a lot more to that…
    • The staggering technique: Say you really really REALLY want course X, and you really (just one “really”) want course Y. If there’s no logical (based on schedule or similarity) reason to put another course as X’s alternate, I would recommend putting course Y as X’s alternate, and then ALSO put Y as the second primary request in the subsequent set of requests. If this sounds confusing, see my example of at the bottom of this email.
    • Here’s an example (it’s my own requests for Fall 2009):
      # Primary Alternate
      1 URBS 320 401 HSOC 404-401
      2 HSOC 404-401 URBS 330-401
      3 URBS 330-401 URBS 452-301
      4 FNAR234-401 SPAN208
      5 SPAN208 NURS112-002
      6 STSC 160 401 NURS112-002
      7 CPLN 301-401 N/A

      1. I listed URBS 320 because it’s extremely hard to get into. HSOC 404 is semi-difficult course that I really wanted, hence I listed it both as my alternate and as my primary. This increases my chances of getting into HSOC 404. (I did the same with URBS 330 for requests 2 and 3).
      3. Note that you only get priority for courses if you are a Benjamin Franklin Scholar or the course is within your declared major. None of you have declared, though, so don’t count on your intended major helping you get in.
      7. While CPLN 301 is a small class, I looked on Penn Course Review and saw that the course’s enrollment the past several semesters weren’t even near capacity, so I put it as last and can always add it during add/drop period later on.

    *The only exception is for the WRIT courses where there are many sections of the same course number (e.g., WRIT 039 is ENGL, WRIT 076 is PSCI) but each section is a completely different topic.

    Credit is due to Kirsten Chalfen from the College, Oscar Benitez (my peer advisor from freshman year), and Brittany Leknes (a fellow co-manager of the Peer Advising program).

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    One Comment

    1. Posted November 14, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink

      WOOOOOOW, now I see what you meant by “blog post.” Angry blog title, very angry.

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