Campus Connoisseurs: The Inside Scoop to Life at Harvard

So, you made it into Hahvahd.

You may have already taken the tour. You've seen the Statue of the Three Lies, and maybe you even rubbed the foot, poor thing. You've talked to the endlessly cheerful folks in Byerly Hall. And chances are, if you got in, you will end up coming here (last year, about 80 percent of admitted students did).

Before you decide for sure, though, you need to delve deeper than the glossy brochures and the shiny Harvard name. A Harvard diploma can open doors, but if you're not happy in the process, then you might as well have gone to Yale. (Almost.)

So to help you make an informed choice, here's the real Harvard, complete with mediocre teaching fellows, intermittent social life and weird naked rituals. But there's also amazing housing, absorbing extracurriculars and fascinating fellow students.

Here are the facts. You decide.


Academic Life

You might expect that academics would be the pinnacle of your Harvard career. After all, it can't be the dining halls' savory baked tofu or the glorious architecture of Canaday Hall that win Harvard top honors in the U.S. News & World Report survey every year.

The dirty little secret about Harvard is that you can read Aristotle anywhere in the world for $8.99 and the price of a bookmark. You can even find someone to teach it to you who's bright, funny and doesn't have to jet off to the State Department every afternoon.

But that's not to say there aren't real advantages to Harvard's academic life. You might not be able to track down Af-Am guru Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. or former Reagan economic boss Martin S. Feldstein '61 in person, but you can sit in on their lectures. (Though why you'd want to sit in on Marty's lectures is beyond us.)

And there are a wealth of professors you haven't heard of yet, but you'll come to relish: Helen H. Vendler and Marjorie Garber in English, Werner Sollors in Afro-American Studies, Robert Coles '50 in psychology.

The amount of personal contact you'll have with them depends on how hard you're willing to try, though. Most professors, and a few students, claim that office hours are a treat and doors are always open. But most undergrads are too busy--or intimidated--to even bother.

Most courses taught by superstars are huge Core classes, some regularly enroll about a thousand students. A Core course is like watching a lecture on T.V., but with uncomfortable seats and lousy audio. In these classes, the real teaching is done by teaching fellows (T.F.s), who range from the superb to the non-English-speaking. Shop around.

Other times you'll find yourself in seminars with only a handful of other students. These can be excellent, unless you haven't cracked the binding on your overpriced books from the Coop. Believe it or not, students can be notoriously unprepared for class, choosing one more slice at Tommy's House of Pizza rather than reading those last hundred pages of Bleak House.

Across the board, advising is a crap shoot. Some lucky souls land the jackpot, scoring an assistant dean with time on her hands, but don't count on anything more than a confused graduate student. Research the labyrinthine academic bureaucracy for yourself and start thinking soon. At the end of your first year, you'll have to choose a concentration ("majors" are just too plebian).

Harvard is best known for its largest departments, economics and government, popular with the Adidas set (they don't call 'em gov jocks for nothing). These departments are vast and impersonal but have blessedly lax requirements. An alternate route is the make-Mom-cry concentration--Folklore and Mythology, anyone?

Science concentrators are among the hardest workers here--and aren't shy about sharing how much time they spend in the library or the lab (beware of intro courses that pit you against the Westinghouse Finalist in the grade curve wars). Interdisciplinary choices like History and Literature and Social Studies win praise for their freedom, but with you-can't-hide tutorials, be sure you looove Lamont Library.

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