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More Transfers, Fewer Duds

The Academia Nut

By Zachary S. Podolsky

I’ve spent the last several weeks scouring every nook and cranny of Harvard for new transfer students. Alas, I’ve failed to find any.

For the first time in years, Harvard is starting a semester with no new transfers.

This isn’t a blip. In 1996, the College made the decision to raise the number of first-years entering the College by 30 per annum. Apley Court was added to accommodate the increase in first-years, and the number of transfer students has been accordingly reduced to make room for the extra students in the upperclass houses.

This year, in addition to no transfers being admitted in the spring, only 36 were admitted to enter in the fall—fewer than half the number admitted in peak years in the ’90s.

These would all be positive and wonderful developments, if all Harvard students admitted as first-years were brilliant, high-achieving case studies in the American Dream with great futures ahead of them.

Of course, in reality, they’re not. Not all of them, anyway. There are quite a few people here—indeed, perhaps even a great majority—that are going to do something special with their lives, and that’s splendid. But there’s also a significant and often underestimated number of duds in the student population. And it is the presence of these duds that makes the reduction in transfer students such a regrettable development.

Let me say right now that I have the utmost respect for the folks at 8 Garden Street in Byerly Hall who annually undergo the Sisyphean and, often, thankless task of telling nearly 20 thousand of the country’s best high school seniors that they are not good enough to come to Harvard. I think they do about as good a job as humanly possible selecting the right people to admit—but like all human beings, the admissions officers do make the occasional mistake, each year admitting—through no fault of their own—a small but noticeable number of duds-to-be.

What, exactly, is a dud? Well, it’s difficult to define with a great deal of precision, but for simplicity’s sake let’s call a Harvard dud a student in the College who is not performing—academically, athletically, artistically, extracurricularly—anywhere near the level that the admissions office envisioned when the positive admissions decision was made.

You might find a dud sitting next to you in Linguistics 80, “Dialects of English,” having just decided to quit her athletics team to allow herself more time to pursue other activities—like drinking at the Owl. You might find a dud, admitted to Harvard because he is an idiot savant of mathematics, who has decided to drop math and take up writing terrible poetry. Or you might find a dud who just wasn’t especially talented to begin with, but somehow looked good “on paper,” or, “on the common application.”

Incidentally, I’m not overly worried that my discussion of duds is going to personally offend anyone. The egos at Harvard are so big that even the most degenerate of duds will not self-identify as such. Quite the contrary, in fact. I’ve always been bemused that it seems to be the duds, more than anyone else, who tend to talk about how everyone at Harvard is so amazing (presumably, including them). By this account, I myself could very well be a dud; if that were the case, I—like the rest of Harvard’s duds—certainly wouldn’t know it or admit it to myself, much less anyone else.

I do anticipate, though, an angry email (or six) telling me that there’s no such thing as a “dud”—that everyone defines success in his or her own way, and blah blah blah. That’s rubbish. Yes, there are many different kinds of achievement—some that can be measured by one’s accomplishments, and some that cannot. A dud is a Harvard student that is faltering in the former category—and there are plenty roaming around Cambridge.

But can’t a transfer student be a dud, too? Yes, of course—but the probability is much lower. For one thing, transfers have already proven themselves successful at the college level. Julia G. Fox, coordinator of transfer and visiting student programs, wrote to me in an e-mail, “It’s safe to say that they have performed extremely well in their other colleges and universities.”

And, although she did not have any data, Fox also wrote that transfers “continue to do very well” here at Harvard. There’s no reason to doubt this. Transfer students beat spectacular odds to arrive at Harvard—odds significantly thinner than those faced by high school applicants. Further, Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-73—herself a former transfer to Harvard—told me yesterday that transfers are “some of our best and most interesting and most promising students.” Enough said.

While we certainly can’t altogether get rid of dudness (dudditude? duditry?), there is a very simple way to slightly reduce its prevalence. More transfers means fewer duds.

It’s time to take back Apley Court.

Zachary S. Podolsky ’04 is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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