Swimming in a Larger School

Dear incoming freshmen: As you will soon observe, Harvard students are diverse in their socioeconomic backgrounds, nationalities, interests, and personalities.  But one thing that much of the Class of 2015 has in common is the experience of being “the smart kid” in school, the “big fish in a small pond.”  You’re probably used to excelling in the classroom and in your outside activities; learning comes naturally to you.

With that in mind, you likely have a hard time imagining what it’s like to be a “small fish in a big pond.” When I was a Harvard-bound high school senior, I certainly did.  At the time, I was used to being the star student at a top public school on Long Island.  Though many of my peers were very bright, I had yet to be surrounded by people who were far more talented and intelligent than me.  And so I saw myself as the smartest person my age that I knew—not because I was arrogant, but because I was ignorant.

I was quickly disabused me of this notion during my first semester at Harvard.  Math 21a acted as a wake-up call, an early realization that the bar had been set higher than before.  Although it seems silly now, I had never really struggled in a class before. I distinctly remember lectures where I felt like the dumbest person in the room, and problem sets for which I didn’t know where to begin.  You will too, especially if you take Ec 1011 or Life Scince 1a.

This unfamiliar feeling carried over to my hobbies and extracurricular activities.  Throughout four years at Harvard, I met people who are more skilled and accomplished than me at everything I enjoy.  I thought that I was a great pianist, before I met actual concert pianists in my class.  I thought that my writing was excellent, before I read the work of my peers on the Crimson and Harvard Political Review.  Even my knowledge of history and political trivia paled in contrast to that of my friends in the Harvard College Democrats.

I guarantee that at some point in the next year, you too will discover that you are not the smartest eighteen-year-old you know.  This realization will be weird and unpleasant at first.  But the humility you will gain from the experience is valuable.  Being challenged in my classes and my extracurriculars caused me to appreciate how much hard work and dedication it takes to truly excel.  This gave me the focus I needed to meet those challenges.  Even better, having friends who are more accomplished and talented than you broadens your mind and offers a tremendous opportunity to learn.  (Your friends will learn from you, too.)

No, you won’t be Phi Beta Kappa, president of The Crimson, captain of heavyweight crew, and the lead in the musical.  Unlike high school, Harvard simply has too many exceptional people for any one person to dominate at everything, or even a few things.  But once learning becomes a real challenge, and you accordingly put in the extra effort necessary to excel, the occasions when you are recognized by your peers will be that much more meaningful. As a junior, I got tremendous satisfaction out of being selected as a Crimson editorial columnist.  But I would never have been able to write high-quality columns if I hadn’t first experienced the frustration of having my work critiqued during the application process to join The Crimson, or hadn’t learned from more talented peers on the Editorial Board.

So where does this leave you, as a not-quite-Harvard freshman?  In the next four years, apart from what you learn in your classes, you’ll realize that you don’t have to be the “best” at everything to feel fulfillment. Real intelligence reflects your ability to learn with eagerness, passion, and perseverance.  The sense of confidence that you get from being able to appreciate the talents of others and feel secure in your own abilities will serve you well in the biggest pond of all—the real world.

Anthony P. Dedousis ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House.