Forty-eight seniors received a much-awaited letter last month informing them of their election to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest undergraduate honors organization in the United States.
James F. Coakley ’68—secretary of Harvard’s chapter, Alpha Iota of Massachusetts—said that there are three rounds of elections for each class. The first round occurs in the spring of junior year, the second one in the fall of senior year, and the last round during the spring of senior year.
Within the Class of 2006, 24 Phi Beta Kappa members were chosen during the first round. The recent second round yielded in 48 members. Coakley estimated that about 100 more members would be chosen in the upcoming final round. In total, the Phi Beta Kappa members will represent 10 percent of their class.
Coakley, also a senior lecturer in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, said that, although some colleges choose their Phi Beta Kappa members solely based on grade-point average, Harvard has a more complex process.
Before each election round, the committee contacts the Office of the Registrar and asks for a list of students in descending order of grade-point averages, separated by field of study. Based on the percentage of students enrolled in a particular concentration within a given class, the committee assigns each field a specific quota. The grade-point average list for each field is then cut off by that quota.
“We try to elect people in the right proportion of their fields,” Coakley said.
After students are nominated for a round, they are asked to submit two letters of recommendation from the professors of their choice, as well as their transcripts. These two pieces of information are then evaluated by a committee made up of current Harvard students who are members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and by interested faculty members.
When asked what they thought had contributed to their high-grade point averages, many of the newly elected Harvard Phi Beta Kappas said they had pursued their passions at Harvard.
“My only advice is to study what you love, because that’s the only thing where people will get good grades at,” said Teymour E. Shahabi ’06. “I don’t think I could’ve gotten good grades doing something I don’t love.”
Abigail S. Devlin ’06, co-captain of the Harvard Sailing Team, said “being really interested in what you’re doing helps to keep you motivated to put it the long hours.”
Several Phi Beta Kappa members said they are not solely concerned with grades. Together, they represent a broad array of extracurricular activities.
Sheel C. Ganatra ’06 was president of Dharma last year and plays the trombone with the Jazz Band. Shahabi wrote and directed a short film called “Joy.” Inna Livitz joined Harvard Ballroom, which she said provided her with much-needed relaxation.
“You need an outlet because you can’t be working all the time,” Livitz said.
Kumar said that he values being involved in REACH, a program that pairs Harvard students with special-needs children, affectionately referred to as a “buddies.”
The first day he picked up his “buddy,” he said, he was greeted by the child’s mother, who was waiting for a liver transplant.
“It hit me that for two hours I could have fun with my buddy and give his mom a much-needed break from taking care of her special-needs child,” Kumar said. “You never know how much of an impact you can have through a simple act of kindness.”
The Phi Beta Kappa induction will take place next Tuesday, Dec. 13. Elected students will be lifelong members.