Harvard Students Just Can't 'Slow Down'

Lewis advised students to choose one “major” and one “minor” activity in which to participate in a letter he wrote to incoming students this summer.

And in another letter, Lewis urged students to seek help and counseling for stress.

“Harvard students complain of being ‘overwhelmed’ on too regular a basis,” the letter reads. “[A] survey last year showed a third of students felt overwhelmed at least 11 times during the prior school year, an average of more than once a month.”

Running on Empty

Harvard is densely peopled with students like Jobbins who fill their days with time-consuming extracurriculars, maintaining the hectic high school schedules that helped them get into college.


Such “joiners” are almost compulsively busy: They can’t say no to a project that interests them, they rarely—if ever—back out on a commitment and they regard sleep, leisure and other hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle as bargaining chips in the war against their limited time.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says these students are a product of the achievement-oriented culture that pressures young people to accomplish as much as possible, sometimes sacrificing happiness for the sake of success.

But once these students achieve what is often their ultimate goal, admittance into a prestigious college, why then do they continue to run themselves ragged?

Some students say they join activities to burnish their resumes and get pre-professional training, all in the hopes of securing that dream job. For others, however, a variety of short-term motivations replace the former goal of getting into college.

“It’s a sense of habit—we’re used to being so busy and now it’s such a part of who we are that we don’t know how to slow down,” says Ann S. Chernicoff ’03, whose activities include Harvard Hillel, Model Congress Europe and the prefect program.

Lauren E. Bonner ’04, a former presidential candidate for the undergraduate council, says she wants to take full advantage of her time at Harvard.

The underlying cause though, she says, is genuine interest in various activities.

“I get really excited about the possibilities, and it’s hard to turn that enthusiasm off just because you want to sleep,” says Bonner, whose activities include working with the Harvard College fund and fundraising for AIDS.

“You have people who are almost unable to do things half-heartedly. You have people who are interested in a million things. Put those together, and you know why students can’t stop themselves from being involved.”

And for some, it’s simply a matter of chance.