How to Handle Harvard: A Few Simple Rules

Welcome to Harvard.

You don't know me, but I'd like to give you some advice before you even step onto campus. Since you're coming to our fair school, the (oft-quoted) line that "you can tell a Harvard student, but you can't them much" may apply to you. I know that it did for me. But I hope that you'll at least consider my ideas anyway: I promise that a few minutes of your time now will help you make it through the next four years a little more smoothly.

There are five simple rules that will keep your grades up, your social life balanced, and your parents happy. At the very least, they will keep you sane.

First, everyone is lonely (and insecure) when they get here. Don't doubt it. Orientation week seems to some like the end of the world, where everyone with previous connections comes together to re-bond. Trust those who have been there: Annenberg looks mighty impersonal to most people, so don't worry about intruding--talk to people. I'm not saying that the "Love Boat" will help you meet your best friend, or your future husband, but enjoy the social events (or at least making fun of them with new people).

Second, don't doubt the power of the mean. Coming from a fairly nurturing high school I was surprised by the initial level of competition in my classes (I'll admit it, I'm a science concentrator). However, you quickly learn that the mean determines your grades. After a test, it's not the score you got, it's how far (above or below) from the mean you were that counts. So don't stress a 40 in chemistry, if the mean was a 50. It happens. And, as much as the administration denies it, to a certain extent grade inflation is living large, which will only cushion your transition to Harvard.

Third, don't look at this first semester as a test of your mental abilities. You got in, you're clearly intelligent and capable of handing your classes. But you're also more than just a good student. While the Grille may not be your scene, there is a social life on campus. Even beyond that, even if you're the most driven student in your class, college classes are nothing like high school. I came in thinking I could handle a heavy load because I always had, and because I wanted to prove something. However, I also thought I could handle crew and The Crimson. All these expectations left my GPA in the dust--I'd never seen a C on my transcript before. Take a few Core classes, a class for your (potential) major and an elective. Let yourself begin to learn how to handle Harvard. It's doable.

Fourth, read the inscription on Dexter Gate (the gate leading to one of the many Wigglesworth dorms). Basically, it can be read as a reminder to leave the ivory tower occasionally. Crew was my escape of choice until I managed to fall out of my top bunk and injure my knee. The Crimson became my primary distraction. As a photography editor I have seen amazing concerts from in front of front row, traveled all over Boston, spoken with almost all of the University's administrators and eaten many, many free meals. Whatever you enjoy, find a way to travel beyond the Yard and beyond Harvard. Start, if you can, by FOP-ping or FUP-ping or FAP-ping. Having a ready-made group of friends makes all the difference in the world. All of this may sound obvious, but as a rising senior I can tell you honestly that most students don't know Boston better than they did when they arrived.

Fifth, do the things you love. I know the pressures of the resume, like any other (potential) closet pre-med. Again, having been admitted to Harvard signals that you enjoy (or at least participate in) a wide range of activities. Most people get to the Yard thinking that they can maintain a sport, The Crimson, a job and HRO, or some other impossible combination. But like everything else on campus, our extracurriculars are just a tad more intense than in high school. And, as much as we all said we realized that orientation week, lots of people try to do it all anyway. And I guess a few succeed.

The rest, like me, realize that you have to pick a few that you truly love, and let yourself be devoted to them. I never saw myself as someone who would place an activity over my classes, but The Crimson has often won that battle. Just leave yourself open to finding something you'll truly love. Your resume will take care of itself.

Everything you've heard about Harvard, the good and the bad, is true. The classes are amazing--and they're too big. The advising is terrible and the people are incredible. The school is competitive, and it will be the most intense, unbelievable four years of your life. Most importantly, for what is most likely the first time in your life, you're totally in control. As scary as that might be, Harvard offers you more opportunities than you'll ever know about, let alone use. Looking back, there are a number of things I wish I'd known when I was sitting where you are now, and having laid some of them out here, I hope they help.

Sarah E. Henrickson '01 is a biochemistry concentrator in Mather House.