The horrors of in-person course registration

Registration line, September 30, 1951. Photo courtesy UBC Archives.

Crisp fall days, freshly sharpened pencils, and… waiting in line? For those at UBC before the mid‑80s, the words “back to school” likely conjure memories of in‑person course registration. Variously described as “a horror,” “nightmarish,” and “a test of endurance,” the process involved rushing around campus and standing in a series of lines in order to gain entry to one’s desired courses.

“At UBC, as in the army, it’s ‘Hurry up and wait,’” complained the Ubyssey in 1959. “The system brings ulcers.”

Ever resourceful, students schemed to beat the queues. Some planned with military precision their route to collect the punched cards signifying entrance to each course, strategically weighing the distance between registration locations against the popularity of each desired class, then running from building to building in a cloud of anxiety.

To claim prime spots in line, others simply showed up at 6:00 AM. A student could also licitly skip the lines, according to the Ubyssey in 1963, if she were pregnant or a “girl who faints in lineups.”

Was every so‑called girlish swoon 100 per cent authentic? It’s doubtful: a little creativity was useful for victory at the registration desks. Allegedly, one student donned overalls and pretended to be a maintenance worker; another told guards he was a professor manning the desk; a third flashed a printed press badge and claimed to be a reporter. Another student, hobbling pitifully on crutches to the front of a line, made a miraculous recovery the moment he’d completed his paperwork, striding away sans crutches.

Registration even inspired tortured poetry: “My feet ache / o god, how they ache . . . I hate having to number myself like an / i.b.m. machine / it’s inhuman . . . now look here professors, why do you have / to go on lunch just when I get to the front of the line?”

The moans, ulcers, and aching feet eventually joined the annals of history. By 1987, students could register by telephone, and, by 2001, online. Today’s students still rush to nab coveted spots in courses, but they do so with one click – at home, in pyjamas, tea in hand, no fainting required.



  1. Jeremy Smee says:

    I remember those lineups well. I was a student st UBC 1960-1963. They admitted those whose last name began with A-M first. My last name begins with S but my middle name begins with L. I folded my form so it looked like my middle name was my last name. Got in early and got the courses of my choice. Ridiculous process when you look back on it. JLS BsC 1963

  2. Maxine Charlesworth says:

    Sorry! I don’t agree that the old fashioned line up to register for courses was an ordeal and waste of time and energy. It was for me, a life changing event (although admittedly at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, the year before I transferred to UBC and eventually graduated from there.) There was a guy in front of me also registering for his graduate courses in the Jock Hardy Arena at Queens—What a great name for an arena! Wending our way towards the registration table was a “meet and greet” opportunity of a lifetime. It began with, “Where are you from? What are you studying?” (He said, “Victoria, BC. Geography.” I said, “Toronto. Psychology.”). Well, apparently we were also studying “chemistry” that year because our casual meeting in the line up at precisely 10 am on September 15th, 1972 has led to a very happy and productive 47 years of partnership. I am sure that the efficiency of clicking on a computer keyboard nowadays to register for courses on-line would not have provided this kind of opportunity, do you?

    1. John Laidlaw says:

      I don’t think they ever claimed there were no possible benefits. Definitely, you hit a jackpot there. Congratulations, from another newly-wed of the same year, and yes, we both graduated from UBC.

  3. Janice F Clary says:

    Janice Clary

    I too was changed by lining up to register. 1967, I was in the lineup to register for third year in the education faculty. I was going to take science courses with the idea of being a science teacher. While waiting, I noticed advertising for a new Special Education program involving a brand new clinic. I thought to myself, “well there’s something I don’t know about”, so I switched lanes and never looked back. I loved my career as a specialist teacher for the Learning Disabled.

  4. Séan Haffey says:

    Strange. The article says that telephone registration started in 1987, but I remember lining up in September ’87. However, I talked my way past the “guard” on Buchanan C because I needed to ask a question of the Poli Sci department before I registered for one course. After getting my answer, I realised that I was free to roam the halls of the interconnecting Buchanan blocks and proceed to gather all my punch cards. I think I was handing in my registration package in War Memorial about three minutes after my designated start time!

  5. Jack Wolf says:

    My experience at UBC started a bit later than this ( Summer Session,1987) but still we had some of the line ups and indeed the punch cards were still around. But having spoken to many older Alumni I get the impression that despite the ordeal of the line-ups that UBC experience back in those days was an amazing place to be. The ‘ol Alma Mater has changed so much these days I hardly recognize her.

  6. Janet Kizer says:

    I vividly remember those days, and it was as horrific as described here. I survived, but I didn’t enjoy it. I’m back working on a second degree and the new online registration is wonderful. It takes a split second to register instead of hours.

  7. Dave clough says:

    Epic lineups but agree the human experience could be productive! I was taught to play chess by my fellow applicants in an overnight lineup in 1978.

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