Getting In is the Hardest Part

Everyone at Harvard gets straight A’s (except me)

I’ve got an embarrassing secret for you. Now I’ve got a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. For instance, I am 21 years old and I am still not allowed to use the oven without supervision. I am embarrassed that I have been wearing the same T-shirt for five days in a row because I have simultaneously run out of detergent and clean clothes, causing people to mistake my eclectic mix of ketchup, mustard, and grass stains as tie-dye. I’m ashamed to admit that one time I got so angry at my roommate over an argument concerning Harry Potter that I threw his shoes out the window and dunked his toothbrush in the toilet (he only knows about the shoes). While these private shames of mine are difficult for me to confess, the secret that I’m going to share with you today is something that is truly shocking for a Harvard student: I don’t get straight A’s.

Think back to high school and the time you received your acceptance letter from Harvard. How sweet was that moment? You officially were going to college, an accomplishment that—according to your guidance counselor’s constant warnings to you and the rest of your class throughout the application process—only occurs to students who are way more intelligent, athletic, artistic, and cooler than you. I was particularly excited about getting into Harvard because, as everyone in the world quickly informed me, “getting in is the hardest part, but once you’re there they give everyone all A’s.” Wow! Finally I would be going to a school where my success in video games would not be inversely correlated to my success with grades! No more essays would be returned to me covered in red ink with helpful comments such as “?”, “confusing,” “C+,” and “SEE ME AFTER CLASS.” Finally, I thought, I’ll be getting my much deserved partial credit on multiple choice tests.

Now, after three years as a student here, I can safely say that I was grossly misinformed about the popular notion that getting good grades at Harvard is easy. My first introduction to the difficulty of Harvard academics came freshman year, when I realized that the titles of some classes in the course catalogue had words that, as far as I knew, did not exist in the English language. You can understand my trepidation when I read about classes such as Biophysics 360, “Enzymatic Mechanisms and Antibiotic Biosynthesis.” While that class seemed cool (sounded like you’d be spending the semester experimenting with DNA of super-humans or radioactive mutants or something) it did not seem like the type of class that would yield an “easy A.”

The CUE Guide was also a little disconcerting to me. If the rumors I’d been hearing about Harvard’s grade inflation were true, then why was there a “difficulty” rating listed for each class in the CUE? What was this rating referring to? Difficulty in finding the classroom in the Science Center? Difficulty not to smile from the sheer awesomeness of the Professor? Surely this rating was not referring to the difficulty of grading in the class. I figured that maybe a 1.0 difficulty rating would mean the average student was awarded an A, while a 5.0 rating would mean the average student was awarded a Nobel Prize. I was glad to see that most of the classes in the CUE had a difficulty rating that fell somewhere in between the two extremes, so I told my parents to expect plenty of A+++’s and maybe a couple of Hoopes Prizes.

As you already know, the end of my story is not a happy one. It’s been three years, and somehow the infamous Harvard grade-inflation bus keeps forgetting to pick me up. If there was a war between the vowels and consonants on my report card, the vowels would not stand a chance. Despite my embarrassing secret that I’m a Harvard student who doesn’t get straight A’s, I am still very happy with my academic experience here. I try keep to keep things in perspective, and learn for learning’s sake. After all, written above the gate entering Harvard Yard is the phrase “Enter to grow in wisdom,” not “Enter to get easy A’s and a kick-ass job after you graduate.” I may not have aced all of my classes, but I am confident that I have grown in wisdom. In high school my mom used to tell me that I had the maturity of an 8-year-old, but now she compares me to 12-year-old. At this rate I may even be allowed to use the oven by the time I graduate.

Don’t get me wrong—I care about my grades, and work hard in my classes largely because I want to get good grades. I am scared of C’s and D’s, which is really silly considering they are just letters and I’m bigger than them and can almost certainly bench-press more than they do. I do all the things required to get good grades–I go to class, do my homework, steal other people’s notes, etc.—but I still don’t get the straight A’s that Harvard students are known for. Wait—you’re telling me that you don’t get straight A’s either? Well then that makes 6,000 of us.

Eric A. Kester ’08 is an anthropology concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears regularly.