Freshman Week: Accepting Your Awkwardness

Chances are you’ve just gotten back from FOP and suddenly you realize how much you actually smell. Not having shaved your legs/face for a week is no longer rugged; it’s gross. Guess what? This is likely to be the exact moment when you meet your freshman year roommate (could this be your best friend forever?), plus the mother, the father, and the little sister (all in matching crimson-colored Harvard sweatshirts). Freaked? Don’t worry. The Crimson’s got your back. We’ll teach you how to survive Opening Days without really trying.

The first week of college is naturally a little frightening for all those clichéd reasons: it’s the first time you’re out on your own (or at least that’s how it feels), there’s an intense pressure to make instant friends (these probably won’t be your real friends), and you’re confronted with an embarrassing array of choices (so many classes, so many clubs, so many people). Needless to say it’s all a bit overwhelming.

Freshman week can, however, be fun if you follow one golden rule at all times: Embrace the awkwardness. Accept it: You are awkward. Your new roommate is awkward. Your parents are awkward. Even the only good-looking person in your entryway is awkward. This is Harvard—get used to the awkwardness.

Keeping this general attitude in mind, let’s get started on the particulars. One of the first things you’ll have to do when you arrive on campus is get your ID picture taken. Try your damndest to look good for this photo because it may be the most important one of your life. Not only do you have to take your ID with you everywhere to do anything on campus (you’ll need it to eat in the ’Berg, to get into Lamont, to enter your dormitory, to print the paper you wrote at 4 a.m. the night before it was due, and to buy questionable sushi in the Science Center), but the picture you take on August 27, the very first day of your freshman year, follows you for LIFE. You do not get to retake it during subsequent years, and should you go to graduate school at Harvard later in life (say 10 years after you graduate—we are talking 2023 here), the picture will stay the same. LOOK GOOD IN THIS PHOTOGRAPH.

But if you don’t look good in the picture, console yourself with this simple fact: no one does.

After you get your photo taken, an employee of the University will likely hand you a lanyard on which you can put your ID and room key. Don’t do this. It’s important not to lose these items, but at the ripe age of 18, one should be able to do so without the help of a collar.

In general, the first day is a bit confusing. You’ll be bombarded with a largely useless amount of information. Get cracking on unpacking (you won’t want to do it later) and get to know your roommate(s). At the mandatory entryway meeting, you’ll meet the other people in your entryway, your proctor (the grad student who lives in the same building as you, serving as half baby-sitter, half adviser), and your PAF (an upperclassmen who is there to advise you). Entryways can be great communities, perfect for friendships and dormcest, so this event is generally quite nice. (But still abounding with awkwardness.) You can go to bed in your new room with your new sheets and be proud: you have survived your very first day of college! If you’re lucky, there will be a crazy thunderstorm and you’ll actually go to bed in the Science Center after playing cards with President Drew Faust (this happened to the Class of 2012).

Your second day of freshman week will likely begin with language placement tests. Rest assured that they are indeed harder than SAT IIs (or just tell yourself that after you receive a 500 on the exam after taking 7 years of high school Spanish). Then you’ll have a mandatory lunch with your academic adviser, who might happen to be helpful, engaged, and appropriately matched to your interests—but more likely not. Make the best of what you get, and consider scheduling a second appointment to ask specific questions about classes and scheduling. If your professor turns out to be unforgivably obtuse, don’t worry: you’ll probably only see him a few times the whole year anyways, when he rubber stamps your course selections.

Your second day concludes with your proctor reading you a lot of scary-sounding rules about all the ways you can find your stay at Harvard dramatically cut short. In reality, most proctors are actually softies at heart. Enjoy the dorm-wide gathering that follows—it’s probably one of the few organized social events worth going to as Harvard freshman. Entryways usually become tightly knit, but many people never get to know the other people who live in their dorm.

On Saturday, you’ll probably hang out with your new “friends” and prepare for the first chance dance (a mandatory social gathering in our eyes). While traditionally held in Annenberg, this year the dance is in the Quad, allowing you an opportunity to travel to that far-off (not really) and magical (yes, really) place. The party is loud, sweaty, crowded, exceptionally awkward, and yes, your “first chance” to “get to know” your 1,600 classmates in a slightly different setting.

Sleep in on Sunday, and then go to your very first brunch in Annenberg with your roommate(s) and bond over a Veritaffle (waffles that say “veritas” on them). This will be the first of many lazy Sunday brunches (arguably the best meal Harvard dining halls serve).

Later in the day, you’ll attend “Sex Signals,” a mandatory improvisational (comedy?) show about sex in college. It’s actually quite enjoyable and funny, but suddenly turns serious at the end with a friendly reminder that date-rape is bad.

Monday offers a couple surprisingly helpful math course info sessions, but much more important is that evening’s classic freshman week event: the Crimson Key Society’s screening of “Love Story.” It’s a sappy, depressing movie—the last ever filmed on Harvard’s campus—for which Crimson Key provides hysterical (and inappropriate) commentary.

On Tuesday morning, there are the mandatory “community conversations” with your entryway, during which you’ll meet with a faculty member to discuss a reading on race and class issues. (Skip Gates, anyone?) This will probably be downright painful.

That afternoon, you’ll attend the newly-crafted Freshman Convocation ceremony, followed by a dinner and reception. The Crimson can’t offer you much advice here because, well, we’ve never taken part in it before. But it’s sure to include much pontificating on the joys of University and collegiate life.

The freshman talent show will likely be the highlight of the day, where you’ll see your brilliant and talented classmates put on the (often spectacular but occasionally bizarre) performances that’ll probably define them for the foreseeable future. We’ve seen singers, beat-boxers, and even ventriloquists.

Wednesday is the first day of classes, so be sure that you’ve met with your academic advisor and your PAF to discuss your shopping list. It’s best to approach shopping week with a playful attitude. If all but two of the 15 classes on your list turn out to be duds, it’s not just some higher being relentlessly smiting freshmen—it happens to everyone, upperclassmen included.

The activities fair will probably be overwhelming, especially since you’re used to doing five extracurriculars and being internationally recognized for all of them. This will likely no longer hold true. And even though the value of resume padding has declined significantly, you’ll still unfathomably sign up for all sorts of extracurriculars that you have no actual interest in. Your environmentally conscious heart will sob at the absurd amount of (useless) fliers you receive.

We recommend that you arrive at the fair with friends, go solo or in pairs to the booths that interest you, and then meet up with your group at the subsequent BBQ.

To stay sane, simply collect everything in your bag to look over (and trash) in your room later. Make sure to unsubscribe from the 50 e-mail lists you signed up for ASAP (unless the group has really good happy hours).

Spend the rest of your week relaxing and hanging out with people in the yard. Consider checking out the a capella jam, but approach Harvard comedy events with caution. And please, don’t do too much homework.

Freshman week doesn’t completely acclimate you to Harvard—you can’t get used to a place in just one week. But it is the beginning of a transition. We can’t promise you that it’ll always be easy, but if you stay calm and embrace the awkwardness, it will be fun.

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at segroopm@fas.harvard.edu.

For more information on the ins and outs of Harvard life, visit the My First Year homepage.