Navigating and Surviving Harvard's Social Scene

Harvard students are a strange, strange breed. Basically, the admissions officers go through the applicant pool each year and choose the 2,000 students most likely to make a mark on the world. Some of these students may also possess well-developed social skills, but that's really beside the point. Most of your classmates will be determined to succeed at any cost--a noble precept in itself, but not one that makes for a warm and friendly social atmosphere.

In a course I took last spring, the professor was lecturing on the development of personality in children. He mentioned that birth order is one of the strongest determining factors in who one turns out to be. First-borns and only children, he said, are by far the most disposed to following traditional paths to success. Then he asked how many of the 200 undergraduates in the lecture hall fit into that group. Ninety percent raised their hands.

Harvard is full of people on their way up ladders. These are children whose parents have spoiled them and given them uninterrupted attention, but whose parents have also, at times, expected the impossible of them. These students were first in their high school classes. Their teachers have doted on them. They have learned to get their way, be it through genuine hard work and creativity or via wily tactics such as inventing one-person clubs and listing themselves as president on their resumes.

Chances are you are one of these driven eldest-or-onlies. But never before have you been surrounded by throngs of those just like you, and never again will you find yourself in such a unique social environment. Unless you take a step back to examine Harvard from a distance, to acknowledge the sheer weirdness of the whole thing, this kind of "unique" can seem like a very bad thing. For instance, it's easy to get discouraged with Harvard's social life. Some first-years are lucky enough to land in an entryway full of friends who feel like they've known each other forever, or at the very least are interested in getting to know each other. Some go out for a sport and find their one true passion--along with an insta-bonded group of people who share that passion. If that's you, milk it.

But most of us struggle to find our niches. In such a--dare I say it--artificial environment, it's tough to feel at home. Even if you love love love Harvard, I guarantee you'll have a couple of homesick or lonely days. This is natural at any college, but at Harvard it's particularly pronounced because the environment here is so unusual.


You're entitled to at least a couple nights of sulking on your bunk bed when the rest of the proctor group forgets to invite you to watch "Dawson's Creek" with them or your teaching fellow puts you down in section--again. Enjoy the melodrama of these moments. Write a poem or two. If they're good, join the Advocate. If not, go back out into the wild unknown and chart your path.

Right now, you've probably reconciled yourself to the "fact" that it's impossible to get straight A's at Harvard. It's probably depressing you already. Snap out of it. First of all, that's a myth. I have several friends who have yet to get their first B--and one of them just graduated. It is difficult, but if you really want Rank Group I status, it's yours (If you don't know what rank groups are yet, I suggest you read the Handbook for Students a little more carefully.) But for those few, academics are their niche. They are perfectly happy, but they're not the only ones. There is so much else to do here that after a while, you'll see where your priorities lie and you won't want to spend the time studying that it takes to banish those B's (or C's as the case may be).

So now you've scored two major revelations: You're not the only one who's lonely, and A's are attainable but not necessarily necessary. The next step is to put them to use. Bewildered by the abundance of drunken soirees? Put in an appearance at a couple, but don't drink. Use the time, instead, to observe your peers and add to your wealth of knowledge. You'll soon discover that Harvard students know how to work it like no one else--networkit. You are surrounded by social climbers, but unfortunately, many of them have spent so much time mastering the process that they've forgotten the content. They flit around the room, eyes glowing and smile glittering with each "Hi! It's so good to see you!"

Don't get me wrong, this enthusiasm is a good start. But when the follow-up is missing, the charm might as well not start at all. If there's one thing you should not expect from these parties, that is to form lasting relationships. Don't go looking to meet friends, or God forbid a significant other. If you're looking for a hook-up, you're in the right place, but shoot for anything else and parties are bound to disappoint. You may want to set a rule of thumb for yourself: Don't go to parties where you don't know the hosts. Of course you can be flexible, but if you know the hosts chances are you will know someone else, and you will at least have someone to talk to and can avoid feeling like you're crashing.

So if you can't meet friends at parties, what else is there? Most upperclass students will tell you they've found their homes in extracurriculars. But on registration day, you'll see just how many choices await you as you're shamelessly badgered by leaders of each and every organization in the jam-packed tent outside Sever. I honestly don't know the best way to choose, but I can tell you what did and didn't work for me.

On registration day, I signed my name up on almost every list I passed. I wanted to diversify, to explore new interests. I ended up on the e-mail list of every student organization there is. I joined a singing group, a Bible study group, a pro-life group, a couple of government simulation groups, a couple of campus publications, a dance group and of course much more. Come Halloween, I realized I hadn't done any reading at all in three of my classes. (You can do that at Harvard.) I had been spending my time on activities I didn't really enjoy, because I'd joined things I was interested in getting better at, instead of things I was good at.

In retrospect, I'm glad I tried those new clubs because otherwise, I would have been forever plagued by the "should-haves." And one of the activities did turn out to be a perfect fit. But since, I've become an editor at The Crimson and joined another group similar to one I'd been in high school. I'm not saying you won't try something new and find it's just right for you, but there's something to be said for sticking with what you know. Because at Harvard, even the familiar takes on a different light.

One piece of advice I do have from my experience is not to waste your time on an activity you don't like. Chances are it's not about to improve. There are so many opportunities and not that much time so concentrate your energies on what you love. Another piece of advice is to stick with the small groups. They end to feel less like a corporation and more like a community.

One word of caution about Harvard's student groups: Everyone's a leader. Everyone wants to have a title and a say in the group's fate, so executive boards run huge. This means you will lock antlers with people over small decisions, but it also means you can simultaneously hold a spot on the board of three different organizations at once.

Feeling like you have a difficult task ahead? Take heart. The uniqueness of Harvard's social system is not all bad. I said before that you are surrounded by people climbing ladders--but they're not all climbing the same one. Each ladder is one-of-a-kind, with its own destination and its own means of getting there. Yes, we follow traditional paths to success, but there are different paths and variations on the definition of success. Look around you. Your classmates are making the same realizations you are. They are learning and growing, finding at the same time you do they need friendship and support no matter how high their achievements. Never again will you find in one place so many people with the capacity to understand complex ideas and complex sentences, to comprehend at the same time practicality and emotion. Take advantage of it. I offer this advice not because you will be miserable if you don't take it, but so that you see things for what they are as early as possible. That way, you can stop wondering what the deal is with your classmates, and start appreciating them.

--Elizabeth A. Gudrais '01 is a reporter and staff writer for The Crimson.