Frequently Asked Questions

    Will my honors recommendation from Social Studies be accepted by Harvard College?

    The Faculty of Harvard College cannot raise a student’s recommendation above that which is determined by the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, but it can lower the recommendation when the student fails to meet college-wide cut-offs set by the Faculty. Harvard College limits the number of students graduating summa cum laude to 5% of the class, magna cum laude to 15% of the class, and cum laude to 30% of the class.

    Is Social Studies able to count final term grades in the calculation of honors?

    Final term course grades are not available in time to be considered by Social Studies in honors calculations. The Committee votes on a recommendation for each student based on seven semesters of grades and then forwards its recommendation to the College. By the time that the College votes on these recommendations, the final term course grades are available.

    How will Social Studies calculate and decide upon my honors recommendation?

    A student’s class rank is based on a calculation weighted as follows: the grade average in all concentration courses (all Social Studies requirements, all courses in the social sciences or history, and all courses in the student’s plan of study) x 55; the senior thesis x 40; the oral defense of the senior thesis x 5; and the oral general examination x 10. The total is then divided by 110 to determine the final average.

    Honors recommendations are voted by the Social Studies Faculty. They are based on an individual consideration of the student’s rank within the class and a comparison with the recommendations given in past years. The committee looks for consistency in three areas (courses, thesis grades, and oral exams) in determining honors recommendations. 

    What kind of support does Social Studies provide for its thesis writers?

    The Committee on Degrees in Social Studies offers a thesis writer’s seminar to all seniors who wish to take it. Thesis writer’s seminars meet in small groups (8-9 students) every other week from late September to March. They are led by an experienced thesis supervisor, who guides students in discussions about the research process, organization, and writing, and provides students with an opportunity to exchange drafts of one another’s work. The seminar is intended to supplement individual thesis advising. The Thesis Writer’s Seminar is organized by Dr. Nicole Newendorp, the Assistant Director of Studies for Juniors and Seniors. 

    If I decide that I do not want to write a senior thesis, what are my options?

    To receive a degree recommendation from Social Studies, a student must write an acceptable senior thesis (one that receives a passing grade as the average of its two evaluations) and take the oral thesis defense and general examinations that follow.

    If you have any doubts about your desire or ability to write a senior thesis, please speak to your advisor and the Director of Studies. If you decide not to write a thesis, you must transfer to another concentration and fulfill its requirements in order to graduate.

    Can Social Studies students study abroad?

    Yes, Social Studies strongly encourages study abroad. Many Social Studies juniors use a term abroad to find a thesis topic and even to conduct preliminary research. However, Social Studies concentrators can generally only study abroad for one term during their junior year, as they will need their other term to prepare for their senior thesis while in residence at Harvard. Social Studies students cannot go abroad during their sophomore year (when they are taking Social Studies 10) or during their senior year (when they need to be in residence, writing their thesis).

    Social Studies will also waive one junior tutorial for students who go abroad, provided that they write a research paper at least twenty pages in length either while they are abroad or in a non-Social Studies course at Harvard. This paper must be approved by the Director of Studies to obtain junior tutorial credit. 

    What should I do if I am interested in doing a joint concentration, combining Social Studies with another concentration?

    Social Studies allows joint concentrations with a few programs, including African and African American Studies; Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality; East Asian Studies; Philosophy; and South Asian Studies.  Students who would like to do a joint concentration need to explain in writing why they would like to do this instead of concentrating in Social Studies and taking a number of courses in the other concentration, and they must meet with the Director of Studies to discuss the joint concentration.  We do not allow joint concentrations with science or humanities departments (other than those mentioned above) or with social science departments that we share faculty with (anthropology, economics, government, history, or sociology).

    As a transfer student from another college, will I receive any credit toward degree requirements in Social Studies for previous course work?

    You will receive credit toward fulfillment of requirements for courses that are (1) approved for Harvard credit by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and then (2) approved for Social Studies credit by the Director of Studies. (Grades received for courses taken elsewhere are not considered when calculating a student's Social Studies grade average). Transfer courses may be included in a focus field by petition to the Social Studies Board of Instruction.

    How can I arrange an independent study within Social Studies?

    There are two sorts of independently arranged courses for credit at Harvard: an independent study course, graded Pass/Fail; and a reading and research course, known as a 91r, which is letter-graded. Independent study, graded Pass/Fail, must be supervised by a voting member of the faculty (i.e., someone with an appointment of assistant professor or higher). If you wish to take an independent study with a teaching fellow or lecturer, the Chair of the Department must co-sign your petition. Pass/Fail independent studies, however, do not count towards Social Studies requirements.

    A 91r can be arranged through many departments and, on occasion, through Social Studies.  If you are interested in pursuing a reading and research course on a topic not covered by any other course at Harvard, you need to find a faculty member willing to teach the course.  Please note that Social Studies cannot compensate faculty members or lecturers for directing a 91r.  However, we will count Social Studies 91r in a social science or history department for concentration credit, and sometimes for focus field credit.  If you have any questions about Social Studies 91r, please contact the Director of Studies.

    Can I fulfill the statistics requirement by taking a course in summer school or at another college?

    Yes, you can fulfill the Social Studies statistics requirement by taking an introductory statistics class at the Harvard Summer School or through a summer school at another accredited 4-year college or university. Please note, however, that if you take the course at a summer school other than Harvard, you will fulfill the Social Studies statistics requirement but, most likely, you will not receive Harvard credit for this course. A summer statistics course must be the equivalent of a semester-long course. 

    Can I take any Social Studies requirements Pass-Fail?

    All of the courses that you are counting for Social Studies concentration credit must be taken for a letter grade, except for Social Studies 99, which is graded SAT/UNSAT. However, we will count courses that are transferred for Harvard credit (either taken at another college for transfer credit, or taken abroad) for focus field credit, as they were originally taken for a letter grade even though the grade will not show up on a Harvard transcript.

    Can I do a secondary field?

    Yes, as long as the secondary field is substantially different from your focus field in Social Studies. Harvard College allows only one course to overlap between the primary and secondary fields, and Social Studies counts all social science and history courses for concentration credit. But students can petition to “unconc” (not count) courses in one of these departments at the beginning of their senior year, as long as they are submitting a plan of study that does not overlap with these courses, and as long as the discipline or disciplines they are covering in their thesis does not overlap with the courses they seek to “unconc.”

    For example, a student who is writing on the political economy of Latin America, but has done significant coursework in history, can petition Social Studies to “unconc” a set of history courses, with the exception of one or more courses in Latin American history, which will count towards the focus field. But that student will not be allowed to “unconc” courses in economics or government, because the student’s thesis is drawing on those disciplines.

    A student who is studying social theory and wants to take a secondary field in economics can petition Social Studies to “unconc” a set of economics courses, except for the one that will count towards the economics requirement in Social Studies. 

    Which courses automatically count in Social Studies?

    Social Studies will count all courses in Anthropology, Economics, Government, History, and Sociology, as well as courses the General Education areas Ethical Reasoning, Societies of the World, and United States and the World, whether or not they are part of a student’s focus field in Social Studies.

    Please note that for purposes of calculating honors we will include the grades in all courses you have taken that are acceptable for concentration credit, not just the courses you designate towards your plan of study or towards a specific concentration requirement.

    What is a Focus Field? What is a Plan of Study?

    A focus field is an interdisciplinary area of study chosen in the junior year and refined in the senior year; it should be associated with the student’s senior thesis topic. Students will be asked to submit an advisor-approved description of their focus field and their plan of study to the Social Studies Board of Instruction around October 1st of their junior year. The plan of study should include a minimum of four half-courses, normally drawn from at least two social science departments, and including at least one half-course on an historical topic. Members of the Board of Instruction will review this plan and may request revisions; students must have an approved plan on file by November 15th of their junior year.

    Students will be allowed to make changes to their plans of study and will be asked to file their updated plan of study around October 1st of their senior year; the updated plan must be approved by November 15th. The senior plan of study must include the student’s senior thesis topic.

    Students applying to Social Studies will be asked to describe a potential interdisciplinary focus field on their application, but will not be held to this focus field.