Learning to Live Outside the Gates

In less than a day, members of the class of 2003 can officially call themselves Harvard graduates. Such a title contains countless perks—the ability to wear crimson with pride, drink cocktails at posh Harvard clubs and give one’s children a leg up in college admissions are just the beginning. But there are potential drawbacks associated with the Ivy seal of approval. The perfect example: the proverbial “H-Bomb” and its inevitable mixed reactions. Some treat Harvard grads with awe, others with revulsion. Harvard Professor of Psychology Ellen J. Langer admits that hearing someone went to Harvard “can be intimidating,” and warns graduates to “use the word ‘Harvard’ responsibly.”

So when is it appropriate to drop the H-Bomb? Carolyn Hax ’88, author of The Washington Post’s “Tell Me About It” column, offers advice to recent graduates on some of the most pressing post-Harvard

H-bomb etiquette inquiries.

I feel like I have a scarlet ‘H’ burned into my forehead. Are people going to automatically know I went to Harvard?

Harvard grads may stand out, but others will stand out, too. Say you’re in an office with 100 employees and 10 standouts. What makes them stand outs is the same thing that got them into Harvard. To get into any high-powered college you have to have extra something, not necessarily intelligence, but drive, creativity. There’s something extra to get into a hot-shit college and that’s what will make you a stand-out.

How do you think people perceive Harvard grads?

Eventually, it just doesn’t come up anymore—it’s so long ago, everyone’s done so much since, it recedes into the pack of other details. When you’ve just graduated, all you’ve been is a student, so of course it’s going to come up. But go out and live for 15 years and it won’t be the main thing anymore. If you’re going to get worked up over four years, something’s wrong. Every once in a while people will ask and a few of those people will ask and some will raise an eyebrow, but it doesn’t matter.

When will people stop being intimidated that I went to Harvard?

The more years you get away from it all, the less people care—it’s really nice.

Wait, so eventually no one cares at all?

Yes, some people will care, and it will be a conversation stopper. Sometimes it just lands with a thud. But you just don’t worry about it.

You sound so confident. Weren’t you ever nervous to tell people you went to Harvard?

It’s something I remember feeling self conscious about at 21 and silly about at 31. But the discomfort was my own, and if you’re uncomfortable it will rub off on the person you’re talking to. If you flinch, the person will feel you flinch.

But the H-Bomb has got to be helpful at some point, right? I mean, don’t tell us we paid $40,000 a year for nothing.

It depends on circumstances. If you’re applying for a job or trying to squeeze out credibility, it helps. But most people are over it at a certain point and if you treat it as if it’s something that will help you, people will say, “Get over it.” It should be treated as if it’s a normal part of your life. Treat it like it’s any other school.

Carolyn, let’s say I’m headed out to a chic new bar and I’m planning on attracting some hotties like moths to a light. Should I just insert the word “Harvard” into my usual pick-up lines? Or should I just work it into the conversation?

Dear God, get over yourself. If someone is genuinely interested then say it—it’s another fact of life. But if you’re using it to impress someone, it won’t.

I really don’t want to tell the guys who hit on me that I went to Harvard. Where should I say I went to school: “in Boston?” Or just “Cambridge?”

You should have gone to another school. What are you going to do—lie? That means you’re telling the person, “You can’t handle the truth.” How condescending is that? I mean, please. You did get into one of the best schools in the world but a lot of it was luck, don’t ever forget that. The more you adopt that “whatever” attitude the more likable you’ll come out.

People look at me funny when I wear my DHA sweats to the gym. Should I just stick to Adidas?

If you’re conscious you’re wearing Harvard clothes leave ’em home. I have a sweatshirt I got freshman year that is still around 19 years later.

I can’t believe I’m entering the real world, Carolyn.

Relax—life is long. You don’t have to get it all done by 25, know it all by 30 and impress everyone by your five-year reunion. You have enough time to make a lot of different choices and do cool things—or not. Be completely ordinary if you want to, give yourself permission. Harvard adds a little more pressure I think—you don’t want your greatest accomplishment to be getting into a great school. But the sooner you give yourself permission the better.

But what if I end up ordinary and people are surprised I went to Harvard?

You gotta laugh. We’re just people.

But going to Harvard means that you’re really smart.

It doesn’t mean you’re really smart. It means you’re a good student. It doesn’t make you good at life.

Well, what will make me good at life?

It’s different for a lot of people. Knowing who you are and knowing how to make the best of that. We’re in the “have no illusions” world. You’re going to get your butt kicked by grads of colleges you’d have never considered attending.

This has been awesome, Carolyn. I’m going to read your column all the time for advice.

Please don’t. People don’t read my column for advice, it’s more about voyeurism, a little bit advice, measuring where you are against other people. For real advice, people go to other people they know—mom, if you trust her, or your friends. If they’re really embarrassed then maybe they go to the newspaper.