So, What’s Harvard Like?

I’ve stolen from several of my previous postings in an attempt to answer a question that I’m often asked about…


A Crap Factory

Back in 2003, a college interviewer asked me what my favorite movie was. In any other circumstance, the answer would have been easy: Miss Congeniality, a story about an undercover cop-turned beauty queen who saves Miss Rhode Island from exploding onstage as William Shatner  serenades the crowd. A true classic, in my opinion. However, in that moment, I reckoned that Miss Congeniality would be about as well-received as an outbreak of genital herpes.  A Beautiful Mind, I decided, was a safer bet. It’s my favorite movie, I told the interviewer, because it depicts how Nash overcame the psychological struggle within himself to bring about one of the most important mathematical theorems of our time.

And on that load of crap, I got myself into Harvard.

Defusing The H-Bomb

One of my mom’s favorite Asian soap operas is called “Love Story in Harvard.”  I watched the first episode with her, which featured two graduate students arriving in Cambridge.  They find that Harvard is every bit the torture chamber that they expected.  The students don’t sleep.  They don’t eat.  They spend all their waking hours poring over their thousand-page textbooks.  Upon the eve of a big test, one student starts crying and screaming bloody murder. 

That’s the outside perception of what Harvard students are like.  We’re essentially sleep-deprived, bookworm zombies with limited social skills and poor hygiene habits.  (Some of that is not far from the truth.)

Because of this, alumni like to talk about the best way to “drop the H-bomb,” which is telling people that you went to Harvard (eg. was part of the zombie clan).  The H-bomb is referred to as such because of its cataclysmic result, no matter the initial intention.  When you tell people that you went to Harvard, you get one of three reactions: awe, indifference, or “fight me.”

1.      Awe: “Wow! What was it like?  Do you really have Quidditch matches on Sundays?  You’re like a genius, aren’t you?”

2.      Indifference: “I heard they have good popcorn chicken.”

3.      Fight Me: “So what did you get on your SATs?  That’s not that impressive.  I heard there’s a lot of grade inflation there.  Did your parents go there?  Are they super rich?  Your grandfather donated a statue, didn’t he?  Whatever, I make more money than you.”

When I first arrived at Harvard in 2003, I was squarely in the first camp.  I was in awe of the place.  Save for the severely narcissistic, many Harvard freshmen come in believing that they were the admissions mistake.  I certainly felt like one.  I wasn’t the high school valedictorian, I didn’t have a perfect score on my SATs, and I had no unique talents, like playing the obokano.  The only reason I felt somewhat legit was that my grandparents hadn’t donated a statue.  At least I couldn’t be accused of being a legacy admit.

For some students, the question of “How did they get in?” was immediately answered.  One of my freshman roommates, Bella*, could speak five languages and was from Albania.  Don was a junior Olympian skier.   And Vinny won $25,000 on Jeopardy in high school and could recite the capitals of all the countries in the world.  But for the rest of us who could barely point out Albania on a map, we were mired in our admissions-mistake insecurity.

The night we threw burning boxes into the Charles

However, after a few weeks on campus, I began to see Harvard differently.  Yes, it was a place of high-achieving, intelligent people… but there were exceptions. There were people who were IQ-smart, but socially incapable of talking about anything but quantum physics.  There were people who received terrific grades, but did so as a result of studying all day and night.  And then there were people who were so clearly admissions mistakes that they simply gave up trying to prove otherwise, and spent most of their time doing coke at the Fly and ice-luging goldfish.

To be in awe of Harvard, the institution, was understandable… but as for us humble members of the student body?  The overachievers, the bookworms, the “How did they get in?” mysteries?  Well, we were just plain lucky (and good at lying about movies).

When asked to describe my experience at Harvard, there is one incident that always comes to mind.  A few weeks into my first semester, I was having dinner in the freshman dining hall when I overheard someone earnestly describing a night out with some prudent strippers: “They let us get real close, but we couldn’t touch them… it’s like they were asymptotes.”

I’m not even being hyperbolic.  True story.

Korean Soap Operas Had Nothing on Us

There were certainly moments of my Harvard experience that rivaled the drama of the Korean soap.  One night, I awoke to a loud, bloodcurdling scream from my multilingual roommate, Bella.  Something we quickly learned about Bella was that not only did she have a talent for languages, but she had a particular affinity for four-letter words.

“FUCK,” she screamed, “FUCK-FUCK-FUCK-FUCK-FUCK!”

“Bella, what happened?”  I peeked out of my bedroom.  It was 2 in the morning, but Bella and Kendra, my other roommate, were still studying at their desks in the common room.

“Oh my God,” Bella exclaimed, “I’m FUCKED.  I’m so fucked.  Oh my God…”  She started crying.

“Bella, what’s wrong?”  I was genuinely concerned: did a scholarship get revoked?  Did a payment not go through?  What would elicit such a strong reaction?

“I got lotteried out of a class!”  Bella sobbed, “I’m so SCREWED.”

Street performer with a fire hat in Harvard Square

Some background: when I was at Harvard, we had to fulfill “CORE” requirements in areas outside of our concentration.  So for example, English majors would have to take a Quantitative Reasoning (QR) CORE course, to fulfill their math requirement.  CORE courses were typically a joke: one QR course was called “Counting People.” Another was called, “The Magic of Numbers.” Naturally, these CORE courses were always oversubscribed, mostly because they were so ridiculously easy (at least for anyone who could count).  Thus, some CORE classes were lottery-only; juniors and seniors received preference, while freshmen were frequently lotteried out.  But even if you were lotteried out of a course, you could always take it in a later semester.  You only needed to fulfill your CORE requirements before graduation.

“Seriously, Bella?”  It was 2 AM, and I was now pissed that I had been woken up because of this.

“What am I going to do?  I was planning on taking ‘The Magic of Numbers’ this semester!  Oh my God, my entire schedule is ruined!”  Bella was still sobbing, unaware that Kendra and I were completely unsympathetic.

“Uh, how about take a separate class, and then take Magic Numbers next semester?”

“I can’t take another class!  I haven’t sat in on any other classes!  Oh my God, I am so FUCKED!”

It took another hour to calm Bella down, and to convince her that she was not seriously fucked if she just took a different class.

Nights like these were rare, but they did happen at Harvard.

Another time, Bella and Kendra got into a huge argument about a class that they were taking together.  The professor had assigned a paper, and apparently they had discussed what they would write about with each other.  Somehow, each had gotten the impression that the other had stolen their original idea.  They both came to me, crying, and accusing the other of “stealing their thesis.”  Never mind that this was an assignment where all two hundred students probably had the same “thesis” for this paper… But Bella and Kendra didn’t speak to each other for the rest of the semester.

At most colleges, people fight over stealing boyfriends.  At Harvard, the ultimate sin is stealing theses.  These are dramas fitting for soap operas like “Love Story in Harvard.”

Crème de la Crème

At Harvard, there was never a dearth of stimulating conversation.  Even though there was a distinct liberal, do-good slant at Harvard, we were all undeniably snooty.  In a place where jocks complained about asymptotic strippers, we reveled in our seemingly superior intellectuality.  Just by virtue of being at Harvard, we convinced ourselves that we were the smartest, most accomplished, and best-looking scholars and future leaders of America… the crème de la crème.

This was not considered “classy”

There were all types of snooty, from grunge snooty to Upper East Side snooty.  There were artists who flocked together in their rebellion and harangued the world of conformists and sellouts. There were well-heeled suits and pearl-wearing debutantes-to-be who hosted chardonnay parties and talked about dollar cost averaging. Beat poetry coexisted with popped collars; debates about Burma with tirades about taxes.

Snootiness was commonplace, whether it was intentional or not.  One friend used to speak in only grammatically correct sentences, leading her to use phrases like, “Flo-Rida, whom I love…”  Another friend enjoyed abusing telephone operators when asked to spell out letters over the phone: “It’s ‘M’ as in Mary, ‘A’ as in Apple, and ‘P’ as in Pterodactyl.”

But at the same time, the intellectualism of the institution overwhelmed us.  After all, we were living in a world where Harvard had drawn the line between “high” culture and “low” culture.   We were supposed to value the New Yorker over Us Weekly, Italian wines over Franzia, and opera over Oprah.  Classical music and Jane Austen were culturally superior to Justin Timberlake and Agatha Christie.  There were entire departments dedicated to the study of Greek and Roman civilizations, and only a few sociology classes focused on modern culture.  Pop culture was considered so foreign and extraneous that it was relegated to the field of anthropological studies: along with Zulu tribesmen, Charlie Sheen is simply a curious human phenomenon.

It was quasi-sacrilegious to admit that one enjoyed reading undeep, unanalytical, unintellectual publications like InTouch Weekly, filled with uncompoundable compound words.  At Harvard, you could get away with being a Marxist, but it was something else to admit that you were an avid O-Town fan.  Miss Congeniality was not the same as A Beautiful Mind.

It’s no surprise, then, that GQ named Harvard the fourth-douchiest American university.  We were only beaten by Princeton, Duke, and Brown, which was first.  Of course, as this link circulated around our Harvard circle like wildfire, someone had to make the snooty, douchy comment: “I suppose this is the only list on which Brown will be #1 ahead of Harvard.”

Where My $150,000 Went

During my senior year of college, a relative asked me: “So now that you’re almost graduating, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from Harvard?”

The yard

It seemed like an innocuous question, but I knew that there was an already-implied $150,000 answer, thanks to Good Will Hunting (”You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library”). The best response to this kind of inquiry would involve something uber-academic and arcane, like “vector spaces” or the neurobiology of whales, with some Plato thrown in for good measure. Given my studies in Economics, Psychology, and Government, I tried to recall the most exotic facets of the social sciences. But at that moment, just a few months away from graduation, I could barely remember what I learned about convergence theorems, double-blind studies, or legal proceedings in the United States. I may have read Plato in my “Issues in Ethics” class freshman year, but I’d forgotten all of his issues. And I certainly couldn’t talk about whale brains.

I dutifully recited some boring tenets of basic economic theory, and my relatives seemed satisfied.

Two years after graduation, I went back to Harvard for a visit. Just walking around the Yard brought back memories from the streets of the Cambridge. As a freshman, I once walked into the Crate and Barrel on Mass Ave and asked for directions… to Mass Ave. On Saturday, as an elderly alum, I expertly weaved through the crowds and reminisced about the days when the campus was mine, when the memories were happening. And now that I’m a few years older, ostensibly wiser, and wholly entrenched in the “real world”, I can finally admit to what I learned (and retained) at Harvard:

I learned that Harvard students are the best and the brightest in the world at avoiding solicitors outside the Science Center. I learned how to make the perfect spiral on my fro-yo cone after years of trial-and-error (and a couple spills). I learned to dodge tourists like a running back, and not to rub the foot of the John Harvard statue.

With my $150,000 education, I know now that a naked run in the brisk midnight air is the key to surviving ensuing exams. I know that one shouldn’t venture into the Sanskrit section of Widener unless she want to see that same nudeness in full light. I know that it’s “ec”, not “econ,” and “gov,” not “political science.” I know that if you remove the “i” from “assistance” you have the labels on our blue light emergency phone stations.  Because even at Harvard, a pole that says “Ass stance” is funny.

So, what’s the most interesting thing I’ve learned from Harvard? It’s that these insights came far more rapidly than my recall of the Solow model. It’s that these learnings have taken priority in the annals of my tiny whale brain. It’s that these memories–from the dorms, from the tailgates, from the Kong–have replaced Adam Smith. It may not sound like the typical Harvard admissions pitch, but it’s definitely something you can’t get for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.

* All names changed to protect me from getting sued when these people become big shots and I’m still starving as a struggling writer.


Filed under Life

3 responses to “So, What’s Harvard Like?

  1. this is awesome, thank you.

  2. youngandinspired

    I agree with the comment above–this is awesome :). I am a freshman in college (not Harvard though) and this post has inspired me to aim for Harvard for grad school. SInce I’m not “naturally smart,” I know I will have to work super hard, but hey, I’m up for the challenge! Thank you soooooo much. Maybe I’ll post here again after I have made it four years later, lol…. 😛

  3. DJW

    Do you know that over 100 million Mainland Chinese believe in something called the 20 inscriptions/mottoes/aphorisms on the walls of the Harvard Library? It even appeared on national exams. Google: The Harvard Library Study Room Wall Statement Nonsense

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