I’ve often been asked by prospective students to offer advice when deciding whether to attend Harvard. This kind of advice is not easy to give. How does one possibly condense the complexity of the college experience into a mere few sentences?
An easy answer is “just go to Harvard”. After all I had a fantastic experience personally. It’s also consistently ranked number 1 or 2 school in the US and the world. You can hardly go wrong. But I’d like to give a better sense of what the life of a Harvard undergrad is like. What does a Harvard education mean? What is it actually like to study at Harvard? Now that I’ve graduated, I had better write my thoughts down before my memory of the past four years begins to fade. So here’s what to expect if you chose to enroll.
The Best Things
The most amazing thing about Harvard is the people. It’s cliche but it’s true. Here you will find people who will challenge, inspire, and surprise you. They may be a professor, a teaching assistant, or a fellow student. The students here have accomplished things that you’d think are impossible. Sometimes their achievements are easy to know about; they may be international math olympiad gold medalists, founder of a company, or a world-class musician. Sometimes their qualities run deeper; they may not seem different, but they will continually surprise with their humanity and their excellence. While at Harvard you will have countless engaging conversation that last deep into the night. By the end of your four years here, you will count at least a few individuals who will go on to accomplish incredible things amongst your friends.
At Harvard, you will also find the most amazing resources in terms of learning, research, and also networking for your future career. If you need to know about a topic, you have the world’s leading experts just a couple doors down; you have one of the largest libraries in the world; you have some of the world’s best research facilities. Our alumni reach far and wide: from Hollywood to finance to publishing to marketing. Almost anywhere you go around the globe, doors will open for you simply because you go or went to Harvard. These benefits are perhaps the most often-mentioned pro of going to Harvard, and they are generally true as well.
Another often-mentioned pro is our proximity to the city of Boston. In truth many Harvard students only occasionally venture into Boston even though it is only a couple subway stops away. What Harvard students will undoubtedly enjoy is Harvard Square, which has enough quirky restaurants, bars, cultural activities, and shopping (though quite over-priced) to keep things interesting. It’s really one of the best college towns ever. I will miss the bookstores and the cafes immensely when I’m elsewhere next year.
Student Life and Culture
From the outside Harvard looks beautiful. Inside, many dorms are rather run down and old, but still quite livable. If you are lucky, you may even get housed in an 18th floor single that overlooks Boston or have a common room large enough to host parties night after night. As I write, the Houses are beginning renovations so they may soon be spanking new again.
Generally students spend a lot of time in dining halls, which not only serves as a cafeteria but also form open spaces for studying and gathering until wee hours of the night. Overall, the dorm food is edible but mediocre.
As a community of high achievers, we are rather unafraid to display our ambitions. My friends at other schools have told me that Harvard students stand out by their confidence and how comfortable they are in their skin. Indeed we take pride in overworking and constantly complain about our overcommitment. On campus, we make few attempts to hide our ambitions in order to fit in. Sometimes we will take ourselves too seriously and sometimes we Harvard kids just don’t know how to have fun. A student culture that highly values achievement can also be rather highly strung. You will most likely feel stressed out by class work for the majority of your time here, because of either your own ambition or your friends’.
Harvard also has less a sense of community pride than many other Ivy League schools. Few of us care much about Harvard’s athletic teams. Only a small fraction of the community participate in intramural sports. Most emblematic of this culture is the apathy of our student community for the weekend on which prospective students visit. At Yale’s Bulldog Days, the Yale community pulsates with excitement; students are ready to show prefrosh a good time. By contrast, Harvard students could care less. Most Harvard students are simply too preoccupied with bigger and better things – be it leading a national organization or trying to discover a better cancer treatment. As a result, Harvard sometimes feels a bit more like the working world than a loving or nourishing community.
Contributing to this culture is the university administration’s desire to prevent students from having too much fun. To them Harvard is a place of learning not enjoyment. The adults in charge of student life have grown increasingly distrustful of alcohol. They have also been traditionally distrustful of fraternities and final clubs, which are not recognized as legitimate student groups. This roughly translates into added exclusivity on the part of these unofficial student groups and less inclusive fun for students.
That is not to say that Harvard kids don’t party. You will most definitely hear loud music blasting across campus on weekend nights and see skimpily dressed girls wandering around even on the coldest nights. Most of the parties at Harvard happen either in student dorm rooms. There are also parties in the final clubs, the frats, the Crimson, and the Lampoon. If you want fun, it’ll be there.
Many Harvard students have a work hard, play hard mentality. Many of us genuinely prefer and thrive in a pressurized environment. We don’t feign enjoyment in our pursuit of excellence, and many students including me would rather be able to freely complain about our work and be forced to focus on our work. It is simply how we function.
One complaint you often hear about Harvard is that the professors don’t care about the undergraduates. While I can see why such a complaint exists, I think it misses the mark. During my time at Harvard, I have met many professors who care very deeply about undergraduate education. For one of my physics seminar, I had 30 minutes one-on-one feedback sessions with my professor after each of my class presentations. When I spent a summer working in Prof. Hoffman’s lab, I met with her every day to discuss my work.
No, you will not always be able to easily make an appointment with any professor, because some are literally too busy saving the world. Whether you find yourself getting to know your professors depends on many things: your department, your personality, the effort you make, whether you take the right kind of classes, and your luck. But the truth is that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know your professors. Many professors are eager to teach you things. You just have to meet them half way by actively planning and also putting in some effort.
The reason why people might think that professors don’t care about undergraduates is because the advising system at Harvard leaves much to be desired. The college administration often feels like a gigantic bureaucracy that is too inhuman to deal with. Your concerns are easily lost within this bureaucracy. As a freshman, you will hear all sorts of terse general advice, but few adults will actually take the time to get to know you and cater their advice to you. Most adults just tell you to do the things that works for themselves, instead of walking through how you should think about life and career as you grow and learn. If you’re a person not so sure about your direction, Harvard’s advising system won’t help you much.
Instead, the best advice you get will often come from upperclassmen or graduate student that you befriend. They understand your situation much better and are much better suited to give you general guidance. So join communities with people who can help you. If you’re interested in economics, join the Fed Challenge team. If you want to be a writer, join the Advocate. Or just join a sorority to get the supportive community. Without getting advice, a timid freshman will most likely end up wasting time or getting lost. But since Harvard is so full of amazing individuals, these people will change your life when you find them.
The typical Harvard experience goes roughly like this:
You arrive as a wide-eye and nervous freshman. Your goal is to find a place for yourself in this huge and intimidating place. You look for classes to take, groups to join, activities to partake in, friends to make – all the while you’re scared shitless because you aren’t sure whether you can compete or what you want to do. You marvel at this new open world. You are amazed by all the things on campus – the speakers that come through, the star professors, your peers, and all the resources in the world. You will be the most eager bunch of people on campus. You will discover the magical social lubricant that is alcohol. You will party too hard. You will be overwhelmed by the difficulty of the homework. You will over-commit yourself. You will make mistakes. Sometimes you will realize these mistake the next morning. Sometimes you won’t realize your mistakes until a year or two later.
Less than half a year after your arrive, you will have to form housing groups and be assigned into an upperclassmen house. For most people, this group will come to define your college experience. A year in, you will have to decide on a major. You start panicing about what to do for your summer. Before you know it, the red bricks will have become familiar to you.
This fast-paced craziness elicits a spectrum of reactions. At best, you seek advice from the right people, find a group of supportive friends, and at the same time have fun with your new-found freedom and new friends. At worst, you hide from the challenges and simply seek a comfort zone. You might get back together with your high school sweetheart or settle into a serious relationship just to have some structure in your life again. You might party way too hard as a form of escape. You might bury yourself in studies. You might work your way up in a student organization. You might just continue to overcommit yourself and burn out.
Slowly but surely, you will gain confidence in what you’ve devoted yourself to. You will have learned how to survive and you will have found a good group of friends. You will finally feel comfortable at Harvard. If you had charted a course that was all wrong, with some luck you will realize it as you enter your sophomore or junior year. You may change your major or your career plans. You may no longer believe in the student organization that you are now leading. You may even realize that you’ve wasted a lot of time. With adequate reflection and perspective about your false starts, you will learn a lot about yourself and you will begin charting a new and better course for your future career. Your mistakes and failures have made you more jaded, more cynical, tougher, and more grown-up.
You will collect many memories that will last you a lifetime. You will fondly remember the debauchery of Housing Night and the Harvard-Yale game. You may take pride in streaking for Primal Scream. You may have a blast hanging around Cambridge for a summer or studying abroad. You may go on spring break to Cancun with your roommates or skip class to do something outrageous. These experiences will be some of the most fun times of your life.
Then you begin to worry about your future after Harvard. You scramble for a junior summer internship. You join the recruiting rush or apply to graduate school come senior fall. You then buckle down to write a senior thesis. Before you know it you will have completed a Harvard education. You spend a week after exams hanging out with the friends you’ve made, reminiscing and celebrating. You pack up your life and you head out to the world having made a handful of lifelong friends, feeling a little wiser, and ready for the next challenge.
Why you might not want to go to Harvard
For almost all kinds of careers, Harvard will be able to open doors for you. But Harvard is not perfect in every regard. There are a couple reasons you might consider going to another school instead.
You have a passion for making things, such art, software, buildings, rockets. This is your calling. You want to do this forever and never look back. Then other places may offer more opportunities for you – e.g. an acting school or a tech school. Harvard is an incredibly cerebral place and is not so good at the hands-on aspect of things.
You know you want to start a company right after you graduate. And no you don’t really want to keep your options open. Then other places like Stanford may offer slightly more opportunities and connections for you. The entrepreneurial spirit and community is growing at Harvard, but it’s still nascent.
You really don’t think you’ll thrive in a stress-filled environment. Mind you, if you’re accepted to Harvard, fun is probably not the only thing you’re looking for; you’ll probably handle a pressurize environment pretty well. Even though the Harvard experience is designed to challenge some of the smartest people of your generation, I honestly believe that very few Harvard admits couldn’t handle the challenge. Still, if you really want a more nurturing and less intimidating environment, go to a smaller liberal arts college instead.
You can’t go wrong with Harvard. At the very least, you’ll have made some smart friends and given yourself some pretty good branding. If you’re not sure what you want to do with your life, Harvard is a good place to explore all the possibilities and I know that it helped me find things I’m passionate about. And when you’ve discovered what you want to do with your life, Harvard will provide you with the best resources to achieving your goals.