Beating The System

EDITORS NOTE: Most students have speculated, at some point or another, whether it is possible to ace Harvard exams without actually studying. In 1950, The Crimson published “Beating the System,” by Donald Carswell ’50, which seemed to provide an answer. The piece won the Dana Reed Prize for undergraduate writing in 1951, and since then The Crimson has proudly reprinted Carwell’s work as a service to its readers. In 1962, one anonymous grader was irked enough to write a lengthy reply.

The Harvard examination system is designed, according to its promulgators, to test two specific things: knowledge of trends and knowledge of detail. Men approaching the examination problem have three choices: 1.) flunking out; 2.) doing work; or 3.) working out some system of fooling the grader. The first choice of solution is too permanent and the second takes too long.

This article is designed to explain how to achieve the third answer to this perplexing problem by the use of the vague generality, the artful equivocation and the overpowering assumption.


It seems pretty obvious that in any discussion of the various methods whereby the crafty student attempts to show the grader that he knows a lot more than he actually does, the vague generality is the key device. A generality is a vague statement that means nothing by itself, but when placed in an essay on a specific subject very well might mean something to the grader. The true master of a generality is the man who can write a 10-page essay, which means nothing at all to him, and have it mean a great deal to anyone who reads it. The generality writer banks on the knowledge possessed by the grader, hoping the marker will read things into his essay.

Every non-mathematical field in the University has its own set of vague generalities. For instance:

“Hume brought empiricism to its logical extreme.” (Philosophy)

“The whole thing boils down to government rights vs. property rights.” (Government)

“Moby Dick is written on three levels.” (English)

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