Picking Classes at Sciences Po aka The Hunger Games

Under any normal circumstance, I think most people would consider going back to school after a three-year break pretty difficult. Because I’m apparently a masochist, I have decided to go back to school after a break with the added challenge of being in a foreign country.

Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly excited and motivated to take this next step, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not nervous.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preparing for what is referred to in French as les inscriptions pédagogiques, or in English, class registrations. This is when everyone picks their classes and schedules for the upcoming semester. I had heard from past and current students that this process is particularly painful. Some have likened the experience to The Hunger Games cornucopia bloodbath. Students clamor to sign-in online and select their coveted courses. After having gone through it myself, I can confirm. It is all true.

Prior to even getting to the point of selecting classes, I had to sift through the course requirements, course offerings, and take into consideration the unique opportunities at Sciences Po. As someone who has been removed from the pace of academic life for the last few years, the whole process felt like a fire hose of information blasted straight to the face. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve joined a bunch of internet communities where students are constantly posting, asking for class and professor recommendations.

In the end, after a few weeks of research, planning, and two nights of getting up at 2AM to register for classes (more on that later), I actually managed to walk away from the ordeal with my first choice in classes. After reading all the postmortem commentary online, I know I was lucky because there were a fair number of students who didn’t receive their preferred classes.

In an effort to make this post more informative than petulant, I am going to walk through my process of how I chose and registered for classes and why I think I was actually able to snag my top choices in coursework.

Research

I’m beginning to feel like I preface all my posts with research. What can I say? I’ve found my preferred methodology and approach to solving problems. Gathering and processing information is extremely necessary and important when it comes not only to problem solving, but also to getting what you want.

I knew, as an incoming master’s student at Sciences Po, I was at a bit of a disadvantage on the procedural information front. A particularity of Sciences Po is that there are several ways to be admitted into the institution. It’s not exactly like an American institution of higher education. Students who are admitted directly after lycée and/or classes préparatoires to Sciences Po’s Undergraduate College are eligible to remain there for their master’s degree without reapplication–as long as they pass all their required undergraduate work, of course.

This means that I’m entering an institution where there will be a good number of students who have already been studying there for several years and are familiar with procedural things, like registering for classes.

Because of this, I felt like it was all the more important that I read every piece of information provided by the school with a fine tooth comb. This included an extremely long instructional email sent by the School of Public Affairs (my program is housed in this graduate school), the table of required courses, course options within my emphasis, elective options outside of my emphasis, timetables for all these classes, and countless associated syllabuses.

On top of the required coursework, the administration also sent several follow-up emails with additional opportunities at Sciences Po, such as participating in interdisciplinary group projects that place students from different programs together to work with outside companies and organizations on projects (think consulting, research, strategy etc.), additional academic certifications (the certificate in gender equality, the certificate in UN Sustainable Development Goals), information on joining sports teams and cultural clubs, and opportunities to take supplemental coursework in skills such as writing, rhetoric, foreign languages, and public speaking.

Needless to say, this was all a bit overwhelming. Remember what I said earlier about the fire hose?

Setting Priorities

I’m the type of person who is interested in everything. As I read through the emails and course catalogs, I found myself wanting to register for every class and apply for every opportunity. I quickly realized that if I didn’t set some parameters for myself, I was going to drown. If I wasn’t careful, I would end up over-committing myself to too many classes and activities. This was a lesson I learned the hard way as an undergrad.

Thus, I forced myself to set some priorities. I picked my classes based on the following criteria, in rank order:

  1. Alignment with my professional and academic goals
  2. Work load based on the posted syllabus
  3. Background, reviews, and publications of the professor
  4. Personal interest in the course content

Once I articulated these self-imposed restrictions, I was able to filter out a lot of the noise created by amazing, but inapplicable opportunities.

No, Cindy, you don’t need to take that Python class this semester, however cool it might be to pick up an extra programming language.

Me while trying to narrow down my class priorities

Preparation

There were several required core courses that I didn’t have a choice in, such as public economics and policy analysis and evaluation. I did have to choose what level to place myself in (introductory, intermediate, or advanced), but this was easy because I never took economics or statistics as an undergrad. #musicmajor

There also happened to be only one English section of introductory public economics and introductory public policy analysis and evaluation. This made it easy for me to find anchor points in my schedule. These classes became the foundation and crux of my planning strategy. From there, I was able to build several versions of my class schedule.

I picked my electives, foreign languages, and Sciences Po Common Core classes as well as a few backups based on the criteria that I had defined for myself. This was probably the most time consuming part. I took several days to read through options and create versions of schedules. At one point, I probably had 30 different tabs pulled up on my computer with timetables and syllabuses. In the end, I was able to slowly eliminate options based on schedules, course descriptions, and professors.

At this point, I should note from what I can tell from course listings and interacting with online communities, the School of Public Affairs tends to skew more francophone than the Paris School of International Affairs which is primarily anglophone.

This is probably one of the reasons why I was able to get into the classes that I wanted. The more popular classes in the School of Public Affairs seemed to be the francophone ones. This is helpful information for me to keep in mind, as I want to delve into francophone courses next semester once I’ve gotten acclimated to French again.

Once I had picked out my classes and drawn up several mock schedules, the last thing that I did to prepare for registration day was to read over the registration FAQs page and watch a series of videos that the school provided about online course registration. Honestly, I probably watched the videos way more times than necessary, but it was helpful to see the screenshots of the online portal.

Registration Day/Night

Each master’s program was assigned a specific time and day for registration. Master of Public Policy students were assigned two different times for registration. One day for required courses and another day for elective courses.

The assigned times for me were Tuesday, July 9th and Thursday, July 11th at 10:05AM Paris time (GMT+2). That meant 2:05AM Mountain Time.

As someone who is still working their full-time job, this slot was less than ideal. However, I knew that I didn’t have a choice and that I had to be ready to go exactly when the portal opened.

The first night of registration, I forced myself to stay up because I didn’t want to risk sleeping through it. I logged into my account and waited for 2:05AM to hit. And this is where the story goes Hunger Games.


Like I said earlier, cornucopia bloodbath. Limited seats in classes, hundreds of ambitious students. You do the math.

The portal crashed.

Pandemonium broke out in the online communities.

Messages were flying left and right.

“Is anyone else’s registration page crashing?”

“mdrrrr on fait quoi quand le ça plante complètement ??? “

Then there was me, trying to stay awake and alert while figuring out how to proceed.

I had managed to login into the online portal already, which was better than some other students who couldn’t even access the page. I had selected my first class and then was getting ready to hit register when I got the spinning circle of death. I wasn’t sure if I should hit the refresh button or wait.

I decided to wait. According to the messages, the Sciences Po technical team was resetting the entire system. I wasn’t sure if this meant that I needed to start the whole registration process over again. I started getting a bit worried.

But alas, the internet gods were on my side that day/night and after about 10 minutes of staring at the spinning circle of death, my first registration went through. Only 8 classes left to go.

With much page refreshing, the occasional error message, and a slow burning anxiety, I made my way through the online portal and selected my courses. It took about 40 minutes because the site was so overloaded with users. Miraculously, I didn’t run into any courses that were full. Maybe this just means that I have peculiar interests?

Don’t quote me on this, but the amount of availability in classes is one reason why I have a hypothesis that anglophone classes are less popular at the School of Public Affairs. They didn’t seem to be the first classes to fill up. Lucky me.

Anyway, the second day of registration came and went without any technical problems. I selected my courses and went straight back to sleep.


Epilogue

So, after all the drama and when the dust had settled, there were more than a few disgruntled students. And understandably so.

As an incoming international student, I know I didn’t work this hard to be admitted, go through a complicated visa process, save money for my education, and plan a move across the world to not be able to take the classes I want to take.

The sad reality is that there is a sort of black market for class trading between students that has formed as a result of this process. Students post online asking each other if anyone is willing to trade one spot in a course for another.

I’ve noticed many students want to give up their seats in the English version of a course in exchange for a spot in the French version. Again, this provides some evidence for my hypothesis.

Even though I had to wake up at 2AM to register, I know I was really lucky. In the end, I think it came down to an anomalous yet fortuitous combination of fast internet connection, pre-planning, and choice of anglophone classes that made it so I was able to get into the classes I wanted.

If anyone reading this is a current or future student at Sciences Po, best of luck to you in your course registrations.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

2 comments

  1. Glad to hear you managed to get onto all the classes you wanted 🙂 Your post took me back to the day when I had to log in and select my modules for final year. I was on holiday in the US, so had the same middle of the night palaver logging on, but luckily got all the modules I wanted (others weren’t so lucky!). I suspect a lot of that was down to knowing exactly which classes I wanted to take, which made it quicker for me to navigate through the portal!

    Like

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