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Locking the Gates

Unforgiving admissions standards promote nothing but misery

By James M. Larkin

Monday, I tried to tell a high school junior on a college tour what life is like at Harvard. He wasn’t interested in the old wives’ tales he’d heard of mere graduate students loosed upon the world (they give lectures, coordinate review sessions, and worship the shape-shifter Loki), and lacked a susceptibility to that favorite sirenian suasion of the admissions department, the faculty-student ratio. Instead, he wanted to know what every Harvard applicant wants to know: Are people happy here? Might we, at day’s end, call Harvard “chill”?

I told the applicant in question “yes”—“enter to grow in insouciance.” According to a heedless survey of less than four of my classmates, this was a grievous error. For these few, Harvard is still less “chill” than it is poor or populistic. Many may submit that, more than anything else, Harvard is defined by its lack of perspective on the simple pleasures, its utter divorce in stress and striving from the Frisbee-hurling good nature that has come to epitomize other, more likeable schools.

At present, I maintain my disagreement: I have found among our student body a not unhealthy proportion of brilliant, entertaining, and well-grounded college kids amid that small but vocal class of mercenary careerists and social climbers, the oft-derided Golems of Goldman Sachs (are any investment banks still solvent?).

But my debatable contention might erode, and soon: yesterday, it was reported in this paper that Harvard’s undergraduate acceptance rate this year has sunk to nearly seven percent, a record low. This news came in the wake of the administration’s rightly unpopular decision to eliminate the transfer program for the next two years. Harvard’s gates are closing quickly, to the inevitable benefit of those few best equipped to claw their way in: those, that is, with ambitions and resumes as worrying as they are sprawling and meticulous, or aristocratic origins to which our (yes, munificent) institution cannot help but concede.

The most troubling of these recent developments has been the prohibition of transfers: Not only was the transition dreadfully mishandled, but it represents a fundamental misunderstanding amongst University leadership of the practical realities of student life—one still larger than Gavin DeGraw, and one that Method Man’s arrival likely will not solve.

Again, in the absence of any rigorous evidence, I would suggest that the transfer students I’ve met here have not been more driven (read: manic) than their lifer counterparts, but less so: they seem to have ended up where they know they will be not merely successful but happy. Whereas each class of high school seniors that touches down in Cambridge each fall undoubtedly consists of a sizable pack of strays who, in search of some pedigree in the snafu of college applications, have ended up where they can afford to be dedicated to success and little else. By contrast, transfers generally come because they know what they like, and see it at Harvard; they struggle against even slimmer odds to spend two or three years of tertiary education in the best way they can.

I’m not a transfer applicant, nor do I mean to create an overly broad or unreal dichotomy between them and four-year students. I admit this theory may not bear out in every case. But it seems undeniable that as the feeding frenzy thrashes each year with more intensity and less good sense, Harvard stands to lose quickly more than a handful of NYU sweatshirts. Rather, a precious and still-resilient resource may become endangered: the supply of congenial, self-satisfied enrollees more interested in making friends than meeting recruiters or Pulitzer winners. What, then, will we tell applicants worried that the stodgy Caucasian snow-globe rendered in the cinema classic and Wu-Tang romp “How High” is no fiction?

This spring break, over reading for which the due date had come and gone, I noticed the drone of parental concern. The silence was eventually breached in the middle of a Heidegger session: “Are you having any fun over there?” I told them “yes,” again—phenomenology is fun. But, really, where would I be without the uncompromising contingent of the “chill” I felt comfortable presenting to our future applicant? Probably at Lamont—so I can’t help but feel grateful.

James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.

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