Tung: Simplify the Major Declaration Process

Dartmouth should redesign its major declaration process.

by Gemma Tung | 4/19/21 2:00am

At the end of a Dartmouth student’s fifth term, they are required to begin the tedious but all-important task of declaring their major. The idea is that by the time a student has taken roughly 15 classes within their first five terms, they will have identified a department in which they would like to major. Most schools across the country have similar timelines, but the process by which students actually declare their major varies from institution to institution. At some universities — for example, Columbia University and Harvard University — students simply notify the department of their choice using online forms that take minutes to fill out. Dartmouth’s process, on the other hand, requires an extensive amount of work on the student’s part — work that does not involve students actually reflecting on the interest they have in their chosen department. Indeed, the majority of work Dartmouth students must put into the process of declaring their major is not for the purpose of finding and solidifying an area of interest but instead for fulfilling unnecessary administrative requirements.

Given that our majors have such a great influence on which classes we take, particularly during our junior and senior years, the College should take measures to ensure that students both have the resources to do so easily and are taking the time to make the right choice for them. Dartmouth's process for declaring majors and minors focuses too much on technicalities and less on students’ actual interest in a given department, failing to provide adequate resources to allow students to declare a major that is fulfilling to them. Dartmouth should focus on simplifying the planning part of the process and encouraging more academic advisor involvement. 

The first step in declaring a major requires filling out a Dartworks worksheet. On these worksheets, students must identify each class they will take to fulfill the requirements for their major and list the exact terms in which they intend to take each class. This step is tedious and unnecessary for two reasons. 

First, the availability of information on class offerings and when these courses will be offered varies for each department — some departments show class listings only for the next year, making it hard for sophomores to plan for their later terms at Dartmouth. The government department website, for instance, only shows the courses that will be offered up until spring 2022, hindering current sophomores from being able to fully plan out how they will fulfill their major requirements past their junior year. As there is no centralized information source that presents when courses will be offered, students are forced to trawl department websites and hope they have all of the necessary course information listed, which is often not the case. 

Another reason it is wholly unnecessary for Dartmouth to require students to identify specific classes during major planning is that by the time Dartmouth students reach their fifth term — and increasingly so during the pandemic — many students have not yet solidified their D-Plans. For students who choose to take off-terms during their junior year it is difficult to accurately plan out when they will be on campus taking classes. As a result, during their Dartmouth careers many students end up revising their classes multiple times and resubmitting major worksheets throughout their upperclassmen years. Constantly having to change classes, revise worksheets, and regain approval has become part of the nature of the process of declaring a major. Although this process gives us the time to find all the classes we need to take and when we need to take them, it is essentially unnecessary. 

One could argue this part of the process is still valuable, as it prompts students to think about planning out different potential paths to complete a major. However, the College could facilitate a much more thorough major declaration process and achieve the goal of having students plan out their class loads by pushing general academic advisors to reach out with support and resources for their advisees. Students spend the majority of the time it takes to declare a major on this tedious planning part of the process, when in any sensible system, most of the time should be spent thinking through the reasons why you have chosen that particular major. 

Simplifying the initial planning step of the major declaration process would allow students to have more time to think about the reasons why they want to major in what they have chosen and also what they plan to do with it. Along with this, it is important, particularly during a pandemic, for academic advisors to be reaching out and ensuring that their advisees not only have the support they need, but that they are thoroughly thinking through their choice. Dartmouth should be taking proactive steps to change the major declaration process in order to reduce the burden of planning and allow students to focus more of their time on their academic goals and experiences.