Harvard: The View From Inside

So, you made it into Hahvahd.

You've 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 our take on 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.

Hitting the Books

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 won Harvard the number-two spot in the U.S. News college survey. (If you got into Caltech, keep it to yourself.)

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 after class.

But that's not to say there aren't real advantages to Harvard's academic life. You might have trouble tracking down Af-Am guru Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. or former Reagan economic adviser 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 will come to relish: Helen H. Vendler in English, Robert D. Levin '68 in music, Marc D. Hauser in cognitive neuroscience, Robert Coles '50 in psychology.

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

Most courses taught by superstars are huge Core classes with hundreds of students. A Core course is like watching a lecture on TV, but with uncomfortable seats and lousy audio. In these classes, the real teaching is done by teaching fellows (TFs), who range from the superb to the non-English-speaking. Shop around.

Sometimes you'll find yourself in seminars with only a handful of students. These can be excellent, unless you haven't cracked the binding on your overpriced books from the Coop. Shocking as it might seem, students are occasionally 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 crapshoot. Some lucky souls land the jackpot, scoring a full professor 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 (calling it a "major" is 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. Or you could go a more obscure route--Folklore and Mythology, anyone?

Science concentrators are among the hardest workers here--but 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.

From AAA to Zalacain

Of course, it's not as important what you study as what you do. The lifeblood of Harvard is its extracurricular universe; with more than 250 independent student groups, everyone gets to be president.

There are those students who plunge their very souls into their extracurriculars. (We at The Crimson wouldn't know anything about that.) One minute you have perfectly normal roommates, and the next they've vanished to travel the world with a cappella's Krokodiloes, plan cultural fairs for the Asian American Association, the largest group on campus or dress up as stags for the midnight rituals of the Science Fiction Association.

Some of the biggest activities generate their own characteristic types: the smooth-talking future senators of the Institute of Politics, the do-gooders at Phillips Brooks House Association, Harvard's umbrella community service agency and the oft-maligned windbags of the Undergraduate Council.

Publications range from liberal (Perspective) to conservative (the Salient) and useful (the Let's Go travel guide series) to pointless (the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine).

However, even though Harvard has a $14.4 billion endowment salted away, only a little trickles down to student groups--Harvard believes in self-sufficiency. Pleas for a student center have fallen on deaf ears, though the College's purchase of the Hasty Pudding building may help ease the theatrical space crunch.

But you won't be lacking for other kinds of resources. There are lots of benefits to Harvard you may never get around to using (there's a Gutenberg Bible somewhere), but you'll feel vaguely good just knowing they're nearby. Check out the Van Goghs in the Fogg Art Museum or the world-famous glass flowers. Or see a former dictator speak at the Kennedy School of Government. So many world leaders come you simply won't have time for those who lead countries smaller than France.

Party Mildly

But forget lectures--the question you want answered is whether the social life is as terrible as you've heard.

Legend has it that Harvard is inhabited by a tribe of pasty-faced "former" geeks for whom social life consists of reading Nietzsche into the wee hours and obsessively checking e-mail. That isn't true, of course...or at least, it isn't entirely true.

Social life begins at home, first in randomly assigned entryways, and from sophomore year in blocking groups of up to eight people (the core group of friends with whom you receive your Housing assignment). For students in a rush, grab-and-go lunches in Loker Commons are the norm, but it's not so unusual either to linger over an empty tray in your House dining hall through three cycles of conversation.

Don't worry, Harvard does have parties, at least on the weekends. Extracurricular groups and House committees plan dances (ranging from the tragically lame Bare as You Dare to the pleasantly lame Leverett '80s Dance). The calendar is sprinkled with formals, especially in the spring--look for the Eliot House Fete, which features chocolate-covered strawberries and swing dancing.

Room parties are often fun too, particularly if you know the hosts; other times they're just loud, sweaty and invaded by the cops at 1 a.m. when the search for alcohol moves elsewhere (check out the Crimson Sports Grille). But for the athlete elite and the first-year women who love them, final clubs, exclusive all-male artifacts from Roosevelt's time--either Roosevelt--offer late-night festivities.

Interrupting the routine are a few marquee social events. The Adams House Masquerade on Halloween weekend succeeds in drawing huge costumed crowds. Head of the Charles, a regatta weekend in the fall, is more fun for the legions of tourists than the students they inconvenience. And while it's a shadow of its former self, the Harvard-Yale Game in November is one time you'll see a real outpouring of school spirit.

The rest of the year, sports teams go about their business quietly--so quietly, you might not notice that Harvard has some surprisingly good teams. Men's swimming won the Eastern championships last month, and women's soccer finished its regular season seventh in the country. Only a few of the rest of us actually make it to games, though--if you want to join a large and enthusiastic bleacher crowd, try the Big Ten. Athletes' facilities across the river are fantastic, but here in Cambridge, gyms like the MAC and the QRAC don't exactly sparkle.

When it's warm, Harvard Square is a magnet for young people in less cosmopolitan suburbs. The Pit People are just the most colorful example--they're the flock of pierced, dyed, leather-clad youths next to the T stop.

The Square holds its own against other college towns, with an abundance of restaurants and shops. It's also pricey and corporate--chains like Abercrombie & Fitch are displacing a generation of mom-and-pop stores. "Good Will Hunting" hangout Au Bon Pain and the ubiquitous Store 24 are downscale retreats.

If you're looking for students in their preferred element, though, try the banks of the Charles River, Harvard's most beautiful vista on warm days. But this isn't Stanford--Cambridge weather is spastic, with summery weather in February and snow in April. (It's not always like this, we promise.)

The snow is most oppressive if you live in the dreaded Quad. The three Quad Houses are actually roomy, clean, attractive...and a 15-minute walk from the rest of campus. Quadlings will quickly bond while waiting at shuttle stops, though they may find the distance gives them refreshing perspective on Harvard's bustle.

The Quad at least offers an element of solidarity that the River Houses have lacked since randomization took hold in 1995. Harvard students used to pick their upperclass digs, and each House attracted a different personality (artsy, athletic, elitist). Now, Houses are little more than ordinary dorms, albeit remarkably nice ones, most with amenities like fireplaces and hardwood floors that other colleges only dream of.

If Harvard students are too lazy to walk to the Quad, imagine how rarely they get to Boston. We've heard Boston is a fabulous city, with museums, concerts, clubs and great restaurants. Too bad some of you will never go there.

The real world does occasionally intrude on campus, though. After a several years of lull in student protest, activism has recently roared back. The Progressive Student Labor Movement has nudged the University towards more progressive policies on sweatshops. The fight for a living wage for Harvard employees faces more resistance.

After two years of trauma, the controversy over Radcliffe has died down at last. The former women's college officially merged with the University in October, making the Class of 2004 the first admitted to Harvard alone. Radcliffe has been transformed into an Institute for Advanced Study that promises world-class scholarship.

Many students are also frustrated by the lack of Faculty diversity. Part of the problem is Harvard's tenuous tenure track--some assistant professors will spend less time at Harvard than you will.

Students themselves are an incredibly varied lot, especially for the Ivy League. This is not your father's Harvard--while prep school alums are common, they no longer run the show. Harvard undergrads come from every state and increasingly from abroad--the international student population is sizeable and growing.

But one thing virtually every Harvard student has in common is ambition. This is the Type A capital of the world--students are driven in their academics, their extracurriculars, even their social life. ("We have to go party now!")

Even the debauchery is ambitious--during Primal Scream, the night before final exams, hordes of undergraduate streakers run naked around the Yard, often in sub-zero weather. No joke.

But when you peel away the intensity, your fellow Harvard men and women are surprisingly normal. You're just as likely to bond with your peers this weekend over "Saved by the Bell" and Molly Ringwald, as philosophy or politics.

In a way, that's what your Harvard career will be all about--balancing Shakespearean sonnets and Sixteen Candles. Don't forget--Harvard is still college. You're here to have a good time, and you probably will.

But don't buy everything you hear in Byerly Hall.

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