How to Succeed at Harvard Without Really Trying

"To try and to fail, the two things I hate." - Jay-Z

At Harvard, students strive to balance a full schedule of classes, schoolwork, extracurricular activities, chilling with friends, TV, video games, borderline alcoholism and sleep into a meager 168 hours each week. The majority of students have a bizarre obsession with things like “success” and being “good at stuff.” The phrase “I have so much free time” is about as rare as a smallpox epidemic. We could endeavor to delve into the psyche of these students, but why bother? Let us just accept that some of our peers will forever strive beyond excellence, even if that means forgoing sanity, moderation and real happiness. If you are one of those people, you need not read on. If you have always felt deep down that there is no need to be “good at stuff” and would rather have “more time to watch TV,” continue. Liberation is possible.

Most students take four classes a semester. These, of course, can vary in difficulty and effort required. Even the most apathetic students go to great lengths to find out which classes are interesting, which ones are insanely difficult, which ones are fun, which ones suck, which ones are guts and (maybe this is just me) which ones have hot TFs. After classes are chosen there is a lot of add/dropping and figuring out how to effectively petition CS 50 as a Folklore and Myth elective.

What is the point of all this rambling? Well, I’m glad I asked. The point is that while students spend so much time figuring out what to write on their study card, most do not notice a little circle which, when filled, represents all that is good in this world. Few students even consider, never mind fill, that lovely little haven of No. 2 lead—the Pass/Fail circle. Perhaps it’s the hassle of getting the instructor’s signature (even though most are more than happy to sign it). Maybe it’s because the word “fail” scares most people off. Whatever the reason, how many people do you know that are taking classes Pass/Fail?

According to the Handbook for Students, “all candidates for the Bachelor of Arts or the Bachelor of Science degree must pass sixteen full courses and receive letter grades of C- or higher in at least 10.5 of them (at least 12.0 for a degree with honors).” That means if you’re working toward an honors degree you can take 8 courses Pass/Fail.

But why should you? Let’s first ask: Why do people spend $136,000 for a Harvard education? I’d say there are three answers. For some, Harvard is an incubation period in preparation for 110-hour work weeks at the world’s most prestigious financial institutions. For some it is an opportunity to soak the mind with both knowledge and approaches to understanding. If you are like me, it’s a glorified way to delay inevitable unemployment. The glory of Pass/Fail is that it appeals to all three groups. The future I-bankers can use it to maintain an artificially high GPA. The few who learn for learning’s sake can do so without letting things like “competition” and “judgment” taint the purity of knowledge. For the rest of us who could largely give a rat’s ass about “learning,” it’s the ultimate instrument of slackerdom. Imagine if you didn’t care about impressing your TF in section. Or think of those times that you just can’t (or don’t want to) read that 600-page monstrosity of incomprehensible blather. Response paper? Maybe next week. Morning lecture? Yeeeeah, maybe I’ll catch it when it gets released on video. Afternoon lecture? Sorry, it might interfere with my lunch, mid-afternoon nap, late-afternoon snack and/or later-afternoon malt liquor-tasting.

If you’re still taking a class that you hate four weeks into the semester, there are a few options. You can continue on course and prepare for an awful four months. You can drop the class and either doom yourself to a hellish semester of five classes later on or try to find a class you can pick up after the first midterm. Or you can refrain from the academic equivalent of shoving a spiky rod up your own ass and fill out that little pink “Petition To Change Grading Status To Or From Pass/Fail.” The choice is clear.

What will it mean to my GPA, you ask? If you’ve got a good GPA, why hurt it with an elective? If your GPA sucks, why be makin’ it worse? You know in your heart that you’re not actually going to try harder this semester, regardless of what you told your parents or the Ad Board. If you have three challenging classes already, why not ease your courseload a little without forcing yourself to take five later on? Either way, it’s not going to hurt you. It’s education in its most perfect form. Put in whatever you want, get out whatever you want.

I could not in good conscience present my case without discussing the one caveat that any novice Pass/Failer must heed: YOU STILL HAVE TO PASS. It’s so tempting to fall into that glorious mindset of gradelessness, but never forget that though a C-, D or even D- won’t hurt, you still need to get something other than the dreaded E. Maybe skim a few of the books. Look over a few problems. It’s a cakewalk, but it’s a walk nevertheless.

Sure, you can continue to live the life molded for you, accepting the yoke of the expectations and evaluations imposed by Harvard forefathers, or you can make a stand. When you get down to it, this is the struggle of a generation. Toss your grade obsession to the wind and take a chance. Fill in that little porthole to happiness on your study card and you will never look back. There is too much to do, too much life to live, too many mistakes to be made and reminisced about and too many drunken e-mails to ex-girlfriends to be sent to spend time worrying about whether you’re far enough above the mean to clinch that A-. To paraphrase a speech delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910 by Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he [passes], at least [passes] while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who [take classes for a grade].”

Jonathan “P-Funk” Ungar ’03 is a psychology concentrator in Adams House. He is an executive officer of The Crimson’s Information Technology board despite once having uploaded an article attributed to “Deez nutz” to the Crimson website. Send fan mail to ungar@fas.harvard.edu.

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