The seven best MIT classes for Harvard cross-registration
Some hidden, non-technical gems from down the road
It’s no secret that Harvard students can take MIT classes. And yeah — you’ve been meaning to take one for a little while now, but which ones are good?
You could do “that accounting one” 15.501 which historically accounts for around 50% of all Harvard cross-registrations at MIT, according to a 2015 Crimson article. Maybe you want to try the “machine learning one” 6.036 if you’re a CS concentrator and want to get a taste of MIT engineering.
Are there any good courses aside from those? In my experience, the answer is yes. The problem is that finding them is difficult because the MIT course catalog is opaque at times + the MIT version of the Q Guide doesn’t include student comments. The only way to know if a class is good is to take it or talk to someone directly who has taken it.
The MIT courses I list in this article all don’t have any pre-requisites, tilt toward business, and are primarily offered Spring semester. I’ve had the opportunity to take all of the classes I list below, so these recommendations are from personal experience.
(#1) 15.025 Game Theory for Strategic Advantage
We start with the best game theory course across both MIT and Harvard: 15.025 taught by Professor Gonzalo Cisternas at MIT Sloan. Some game theory classes emphasize the “theory” and feel too much like a math class. In 15.025, everything covered is highly practical and application-based.
You start with an in-depth exploration of the many common types of games: prisoner’s dilemma, game of the chicken, stag hunt, war of attrition, etc. You actually play many of these games in class with chocolates as the “currency” and get to see how they play out between actual students. You study real-world cases like airplane price negotiations and FCC auctions.
The second half of the course moves into other applications of game theory like repeated games, the benefits of playing irrationally, and auction design. Game theory is so damn useful. It is a new lens that, when you understand it, helps you understand human behavior in many situations. When you recognize real-life situations as a stag hunt or game of the chicken, your ability to act rationally in those situations is strengthened.
Professor Cisternas is a superb lecturer: he has some of the most organized slides and lecture notes of any class I’ve taken at either Harvard or MIT. There are a few game theory classes at Harvard — CS 136 and Econ 1057 among others — but they focus more on the mathematics of the theory and don’t have the broad scope that 15.025 has.
Grading is straightforward — no exams, only 7 one-page weekly assignments (not every week), and a five page group memo and presentation (groups of 4) due at the end. Plus if you’re good at games / rational / lucky, you’ll acquire a lot of currency in the form of Lindt chocolate.
(#2) 15.387 Entrepreneurial Sales
Sales is really underrated. It is a “soft skill” course in an academic ecosystem where it is hard to find good courses for soft skills. Alongside public-speaking (Expos 40) and negotiation (GHHP 60), sales rounds out the “advanced soft skills” suite of courses every Harvard student should take (in my opinion).
On the first day of class, one of your classmates (or you!) will get cold-called to sell the professor on something. This is a class where you’ll participate and role play a lot. The tactics taught aren’t slimy, manipulative ones like what you know from the Shamwow Guy. Real sales is based in understanding human behavior. Listen to your customer. Understand if there’s a fit before even starting to make the sale. Channel Dale Carnegie.
The first half of this class covers sales techniques like the Sandler pain funnel and upfront contract. The second half gets more into the weeds of sales ops, like how to design sales compensation structures and how to expand to new markets. It’s a really robust course packed full of interesting learnings.
Lou, Kirk, and Jim are all excellent Socratic facilitators who alternate week-to-week. This class is unique since none of them are full-time professors — they all have full-time jobs in industry. Jim has a “in-the-trenches” segment in all of his classes where he discusses real, current problems his company faces. Those are perhaps the most valuable learning moments of the whole course.
The M/W 4–5:30pm time slot is another huge positive because it can fit after most Harvard classes. No exams in this class, just weekly 1-page write-ups, two recorded sales pitch videos, a really fun online sales simulation, and three short memos related to interviewing sales people/managers.
(#3) 15.846 Branding
Branding matters no matter who you are and what work you do. Whether you’re managing a startup or considering your own identity relative to the social landscape of Harvard, how your brand is perceived publicly matters.
The class looks at the effect of brands and the cognitive associations of strong brands like Nike, Corona, and Apple. Through case studies and discussion, you gain an appreciation for how brands play into social identity theory. You’ll learn other tactics like anchoring and nudging that affect brand-makers. Every discussion is practical and grounded in psychology research.
Professor Gosline is inspiring. She’s one of the few professors who can talk comfortably and naturally about the field of branding without it sounding rehearsed or overly pedantic. Her examples are clear and she reinforces her teachings particularly well, always providing clear takeaways. Her lectures are energetic and engaging. She’s also a Harvard College alum!
This course is a half-semester course which means it starts meeting after spring break (around April 1) and runs for only 7 weeks (13 classes). For workload, there are weekly one-page Tumblr post write-ups as well as a group presentation project at the end of the term.
(#4) 15.761 Operations Management
Here’s where we get some variety — Operations is the study of inventory and capacity, usually in the context of a supply chain for physical goods. Inventory is how much material you hold in reserves, while capacity is how much throughput you can handle. Sounds like factory science, doesn’t it?
Generalized, operations is the science of assigning limited resources. It matters when trying to figure out how much food to order for a 100–150 person event. It matters when deciding how many people you need at your registration table for that event to keep attendees happy.
You’ll learn about capacity management with concepts like Little’s Law and pooling, then move into inventory management like the newsvendor model and the base-stock model for cyclic inventory. There’s more math in this course than some other courses, but it’s mostly algebra & basic statistics.
Professor Jónasson is wonderfully patient when walking through the material and is very in-touch with how the class is following. He walks through many many concepts and does a good job of adjusting pacing to not lose the class on the more difficult concepts. This class is 50% application, 50% theory.
There are no exams, two individual write-ups, two small group write-ups, a book report on the classic book The Goal, and a couple simulations.
(#5) 15.814 Marketing Innovation
Everyone should take a marketing class at some point. Whereas sales deals with selling on a personal level, marketing is selling on an aggregate level.
This course goes through the fundamentals of marketing including the 4 P’s of marketing, the 5 C’s of marketing, targeting, marketing funnel, and conjoint analysis. It’s a broad survey of everything in the world of marketing.
Professors Juanjuan Zhang and John Hauser co-taught the course when I took it and both were excellent in guiding the class through the various case studies we used to learn marketing. We talked about products ranging from the MicroFridge to BMWs during in-class case discussions.
There are two 5-page group case write-ups (groups of 5 people), two individual problem sets, and a team action learning project at the end.
(#6) 15.871 System Dynamics
System dynamics was invented at MIT in the 1950s. Generally speaking, it is the advanced study of cause-effect relationships. How does Amazon achieve exponential growth? By setting up very intentional, reinforcing feedback loops. How did Ebola rise and fall? More feedback loops.
This course is the most “big business” of the ones I’ve reviewed so far, in that you are mostly likely to use the learnings if you work in business strategy at a large corporation (similarly to how “corporate finance” is only useful at a large “corporate” company, and much less useful at a startup).
If you want to learn business modeling tools like Vensim for modeling complex systems, such as the rise of budget airlines or Amazon’s business model, this course is worth taking. MIT literally invented system dynamics and there’s no better place in the world to take an introductory course in it.
Rob Nachtrieb is one of the lecturers for the course and he is very effective in teaching the concepts like causal loop diagrams, stock and flow charts, and the simple calculus that makes these systems work. Examples in class reinforce how these concepts apply to real-world situations.
As a first half-semester course, this course meets for 7 weeks (11 classes) and has no exams. Five small group assignments (3 people), which are due every week on Wednesday, are the only submitted work in this course.
(#7) 15.394 Entrepreneurial Founding and Teams
If you feel an entrepreneurial inkling in college, 15.394 is one of the best courses you can take. It’s a highly practical class that covers the “first-year” dynamics of starting a company. Learn how to find co-founders, split equity, hire to fill needs, and develop a team. With tons and tons of examples.
This class is so different from any other Harvard “startup” classes. Harvard’s ES 95r relies on you already having a company established while ES 139 is more of a project management course than a startup course.
The 15.394 course at MIT is unique because there’s no pre-requisites and it actually teaches you stuff. Not startup “mentorship”: not startup “resources” — real teaching with regard to how to approach your entrepreneurial journey.
One of the instructors, Kit Hickey, is a co-founder of Ministry of Supply, a Boston-area startup that produces performance dress shirts. We spend a couple classes hearing her founding story and exploring the founding of many other Boston-area startups at various stages of growth.
The workload is very light — no exams, three short case memo write-ups, readings for every class, and a group video project (group of 4-5) at the end.
(#1) 15.025 Game Theory for Strategic Advantage — thorough, introductory course on game theory with many, many real-world applications.
(#2) 15.387 Entrepreneurial Sales — sharpen your soft skills, learn practical tools to become a better sales person, comparable to a basic sales training course.
(#3) 15.846 Branding — understand how to manage public perceptions of either a company brand or your personal brand, some applied social psychology.
(#4) 15.814 Marketing Innovation — fundamentals of marketing with a scientific foundation, many case studies and real-world examples.
(#5) 15.761 Operations Management — figure out how to allocate time and resources with given constraints and variability.
(#6) 15.871 System Dynamics — advanced study of cause and effect. Learn rigorous analysis for how systems evolve with advanced modeling tools.
(#7) 15.394 Entrepreneurial Founding and Teams — learn about early startup stories ranging from Etsy to Kayak, Cloudflare to Netflix.
*the representative image for 15.761 is actually from the class 15.762 taught by Sean Willems, since no photos from 15.761 were available.
*the representative image for 15.814 is taken from 15.320 taught by Professor Thomas Malone since no photos from 15.814 were available. The 15.814 class previously had the course number 15.810 when I took it during Spring 2018.
Looking for more information on how to actually take the plunge and cross-register at MIT? Here’s another Medium article that might help.