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February 19, 2008

Get Your Priorities Straight: PRS Registration Explained

By Rebecca Oyama and Charlie Clinch

When registering for this semester’s classes, how did you fare? For some, the registration process is a confusing lottery. The first of this two-part series will explain the registration process and what makes it distinct. In the next issue, we will address common critiques of the system and offer up some possible remedies.

The Basics

In “Round One” of registration, students have one week to submit requests for seminars, practice/simulation courses, and clinics. Students may request up to seven classes in these categories, but the system enrolls each student in no more than one of each type of class. Seminars are generally capped at fifteen students, but may vary according to the seating capacity of the classroom assigned. Placement in most seminars is determined by seniority and the use of “priorities,” of which each student has two that can be used at any time. For each course, the system first places students who elected to use a priority for that course in random order regardless of seniority. Any remaining seats are then assigned based on seniority (3Ls, 2Ls, then 1Ls). If at any time a class fills, a waitlist is created based on the same criteria. Students on a seminar waitlist must respond to an email if they would like to remain on the waitlist or they will forfeit their position.

A “special sign up procedure,” called “Professor Pick,” allows professors to bypass the normal placement procedure and functions as a wildcard for students, especially those new to PRS. By designating their class as Prof Pick, professors are able to hand select their class based on interviews or short statements of interest. The waitlist is also up to the professor’s discretion in a Prof Pick class; as enrolled students drop the class, the professor is not bound to a rigid waitlist order. Using a priority on a Prof Pick course, then, is unnecessary, and priorities that are used on such classes are returned to students. This return policy has provided some students with an incentive to “use” a priority with the idea of conveying to the professor a sincere commitment to the course, but there is no way to know if it is ever actually taken into consideration.

“Round Two” is a subsequent week-long period during which students submit their selection of “upper-class courses” that have more available seats and no Prof Pick designations. Students may also request “open” (not full) seminars and practice/simulation courses as they did in Round One, or add their name to the bottom of a waitlist in the event that the course is full. There are no waitlists for upper class courses and the size of each course is determined by the capacity of the classroom in which it will meet.

Lastly, in Round Three, students use Wolverine Access to add or drop upper-class courses from their schedule. At that point in the process, students can no longer enroll in an open seminar, practice/simulation course, or clinic, although they may still add their name to the bottom of a waitlist.

We’ve come a long way, baby

According to Curriculum Coordinator Amy Bishop, who administers the law school’s course scheduling and registration, the Priority Registration System (“PRS”) was developed roughly ten years ago to replace a paper-based system that used to line the walls of Hutchins Hall for the entire registration period. Students had to look up course information on lists, fill out forms, and obtain sign-offs from various professors and administrators before the process was complete. An in-house programmer designed PRS to mimic the old system electronically and transfer students’ course data easily into the University’s Wolverine system for Round Three (“Add/Drop”) to take place. Despite the appearance of a completely automated system, each round of PRS can take a different amount of time to run and still requires a staff member to check or modify the course data before results can be released, usually about four days after the end of each round. This could explain the fluctuation in wait time for PRS results, which has been a source of confusion for some students in the past.

According to Ms. Bishop, the most common mistake that she hears from students is that they forget to register during the PRS period and thus miss their shot at the lottery. Another common problem occurs when students do not successfully save changes after making a modification to their request. The PRS system automatically sends a confirmation email after recording any change, and Ms. Bishop urges students to check their inbox before assuming their request accurately reflects recent changes. Other students have voiced uncertainty about the actual layout of the PRS Round Two request page. (Note: your second choice should always be placed beneath your first choice; if you put it only to the right of the first choice, the system will give it to you only in the event that you do not get your first choice. Many students place their second choice both to the right of the first choice – first line, second spot – and under the first choice, in the first spot of the second line.)

The process at other schools

As complicated as our process may sound, PRS appears to offer some advantages over those used at our peer schools. At NYU, there are no waiting lists. Instead, the school relies on a system that at times resembles Ticketmaster the moment U2 concert tickets go on sale. If a student doesn’t get into a requested course, the system will notify the student when extra spaces open up. It then assigns a specific time (e.g., Thursday at 10 p.m. – no, really) at which the student will have the opportunity to go online and try his or her luck against any others hoping to get into the class. One has to wonder whether students schedule their bar nights around the registration calendar.

Other schools also don’t allow students the benefit of priorities. At Harvard, Georgetown, and Berkeley law schools, registration requests are strictly by seniority. For example, at Georgetown law 3Ls and LLMs register a couple of days before 2Ls (1L schedules are predetermined). Berkeley employs a hybrid version of our PRS system, where each student is assigned one 24-hour window during a week-long period when they may register for 12 of an average 14-15 credits total. 3Ls register at the beginning of the week, then 2Ls, and so on. Once everyone has these courses set, the process to register for the remaining credits begins.

Moving forward

Our system is complicated partially because of the difficulty of accommodating the needs of more than 1,000 students and the desires of some professors to mold their course enrollment. Given these variables, it is understandable that students – especially 1Ls – find the process confusing. In the next issue, we will look at ways to make the system more user-friendly and effective.