written by
Lucas Woodley

Economics at Harvard

Mentor Community 5 min read

Are you wondering whether a school like Harvard is a good fit for you? Interested in studying Harvard economics? Curious about what the classes or professors are like and what you might experience during your tenure? Well, from one potential Harvard economics major to another, allow me to share my own experiences on what the Harvard economics experience is like.

First, let me give you a bit of background information about how, out of Harvard’s overwhelming variety of options, I decided to be an economics major (or “concentrator,” as the Harvard lingo goes):

Photographer: Thomas Bormans | Source: Unsplash

Background Before Harvard Economics

I originally wanted to study law throughout much of my middle and high school career. I was fascinated with the idea of possibly getting paid to argue with people all day -- a notion that was eventually revealed to be a glaringly inaccurate image of the day-to-day work life of a career lawyer. After learning about the (in my mind) overly tedious routines legal practitioners face in their line of work, I promptly began searching for a new prospective field of study.

My last-minute search meant that when I first started my freshman year at Harvard, I had little to no clue about what classes to take. This is where the first lesser-known aspect of Harvard’s academic system came to my benefit: a week-long period of time known as “Shopping Week.”

Harvard's Shopping Week

During this time, which takes place through the first week of each semester’s classes, all Harvard students are given free reign to attend any class for as little or as long as they wish. You are afforded the freedom to come and go as you please, and your professors are usually providing broad overviews of the course during this time, which makes the task of sorting through classes is much easier given that you can simply sit in on any class that piques your interest.

The one caveat to Harvard’s Shopping Week is that you will be held responsible for completing any homework assigned during the week for whichever classes you ultimately decide to take, so bear this in mind. That being said, professors are usually (at least in my experience) quite lenient during this time, especially with first year students as they understand that many of you will be doing your best to sample a wide variety of courses in a short amount of time.

Photographer: Campaign Creators | Source: Unsplash

Harvard Economics Courses

Harvard overhauled its Introduction to Economics course (better known as “Ec 10a and Ec 10b”) this year, and there were substantial changes made to the course’s format. These changes made it much more accessible if you don’t already have an economics background, but you still want to be an economics major. This was the class that made me fall in love with the idea of being an economics major; it covered a wide variety of topics that were all incredibly interesting to me, such as the unit on game theory where you’re taught how to find optimal solutions to strategic situations using a mathematical approach.

However, Harvard’s introductory economics course does maintain some similarities to its previous iterations: it’s still taught in Sanders theater, which is the giant lecture hall right next to Annenberg -- Harvard’s freshman dining hall that was used as the inspiration for the Great Hall at Hogwarts. There are still hundreds of students present at each lecture (though the lectures are also recorded and put online for those that would rather watch from the comfort of their dorm room bed), and each semester provides a valuable opportunity to not only learn the basics of economics but to interact with and get to know several of your peers throughout the process.

Harvard’s administration decided to have two new professors replace Gregory Mankiw as instructors: Jason Furman, who served as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under former president Obama, and David Laibson, current chairman of the Harvard economics department. This change was accompanied by the implementation of a structure more consistent with Harvard’s other popular classes: large lectures held twice a week and led by one of two main instructors, followed by a weekly “section,” where you and approximately twelve to fifteen other students will receive instruction from a graduate student. Sections provide a great way for students to clear up any points of confusion from that week’s lectures, and they help break out of the feel of impersonal lectures in favor of more individualized instruction.

Photographer: Campaign Creators | Source: Unsplash

Harvard's "Economics 50" Course

In addition to the overhaul to Ec 10a and 10b, Harvard recently added a new introductory economics course: Economics 50: Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems (or just “Ec 50” for short). Economics 50 provides an overview for students on how to use massive amounts of economic data from real-world findings to answer some of the most pertinent political and economic questions of today such as how to grapple with inequality of opportunity, unequal access to health care or education, and climate change.

Students taking this course often cite the practical skills taught throughout the semester as strong motivators for doing so, as you’ll learn about regression in data science, AI learning, and basic programming to model data.

A Broader Overview of Harvard's Academics

Beyond just the economics courses, Harvard’s curriculum offers thousands (the current number is around 19,000) of classes that you can take. Harvard’s course catalogue contains everything from Greek mythology and heroes to a course on how to negotiate in the real world, and that’s before mentioning the world of options available by cross-registering at MIT.

For those of you with more specialized interests, Harvard offers all the students the ability to freely take courses at MIT and transfer the credits over. This is a unique perk to Harvard, as MIT students can only take courses at Harvard if MIT itself does not offer an equivalent course -- Harvard students are subject to no such limitation. In addition to this program, Harvard also offers dual degree options for musically-inclined students at both Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory.

What is perhaps Harvard’s greatest strength is that it affords students a unique mix of courses that teach useful, marketable skills and those that allow you to explore the most obscure of interests. This aspect of Harvard, combined with the relatively few course requirements Harvard holds for economics majors, allows you to explore this range to its fullest potential and gives you the opportunity to tailor your academic experience at Harvard to be the best possible fit for you.


This informational essay was written by Lucas Woodley, Harvard Class of 2023. If you want to get help writing your Harvard application essays from Lucas or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.

harvard economics economics major data college advice college tips
College admissions insights you won't want to miss. Delivered to your inbox weekly.
Sign up for our newsletter