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A Staircase Too Far

By James S. Davis

Year after year, the sorting hat works its magic. The Harvard supplement to the Common Application asks applicants for their fields of study, giving them seven options. Leaving aside the two percent or so each year who brazenly thumb their noses at Byerly Hall and do not indicate a field of study, the application process, like the Hogwarts sorting hat of Harry Potter fame, divides up the class upon entry.

We are thus forced to spin ourselves as specialists from the outset of the admissions process, although a core of uncertainty may lurk behind this effort. Even Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 acknowledges that the number of applications with no field of study marked “greatly underrepresents the actual numbers” of undecided candidates.

In the four-and-a-half years after applying, the pressure to clarify one’s plans and ambitions only climbs. Students find themselves forced to defend the viability of their future earning potential. “What kind of job will a Folklore and Mythology degree get you?” “Which graduate school will you go to?”

Some evade these ubiquitous questions by opting early for a vocational degree. More than 10 percent of Harvard College is pre-med, toiling away endless hours on organic chemistry problem sets. An additional 89 students are in the engineering program. Many of the rest of us choose concentrations that are not as job-specific, though they still give their undergraduates plenty of room to be aggressively pre-professional. We’ve all met our share of economics concentrators who hail the supposed profitability of their field of study. And our enormous government department serves the politically ambitious in the student body. Still others try to mitigate the hopeless impracticality of their concentrations by going to law school. In 2002, 331 Harvard graduates went off to get their J.D.s.

Why are we so directed? Perhaps it is because we are perpetually aware of our futures, even at the expense of the present. In an Atlantic Monthly article entitled “The Organization Kid,” David Brooks critically examined the drive and minute planning that characterize the lives of young people today, particularly Ivy Leaguers. “College is just one step on the stairway of advancement,” Brooks writes of students at top colleges, “and they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school, medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after that.”

But for those of us who do not know quite where our personal staircases lead, the pressure can be uncomfortable. Not knowing how best to prepare for life in the real world, we press on with the vague notions that grades are somehow important and that we should engage in some motley assortment of extracurriculars. This indecision carries with it no shame; students who haven’t yet found a calling should not sell themselves short by faking one. Eventually, the guillotine will fall, and we must finally face our fates and enter the real world. But not yet.

—James C. Davis is an editorial comper.

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