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If you have the time, or when a high school senior you know asks for help with college applications, try revisiting the essays you submitted to Harvard. As cringeworthy as they may be, they are also likely to reflect the side of you that was full of hope and ambition to make the world a better place. Reading the brilliant essays and the lists of innovative or heartwarming activities you participated in, the Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid would surely have concluded that you are ready for a “deeply transformative experience… that will prepare [you] for a life of service and leadership.” Now think about where you are right now. How much of your admitted student self have you retained? What do you wish to get out of Harvard now?
After spending my first year at Harvard, I realized that I lost the ambition and sense of excitement I had about the education I would receive here. Thinking about my schedule, I am torn between challenging but rewarding classes and classes that are considered easier (often referred to as ‘gems’). Initially, I lean towards the more challenging class, thinking to myself that I need to have an intellectually stimulating and meaningful academic experience while at Harvard. Then, I take a quick glance at my GPA from last year, which needs some serious resuscitation. Knowing what I have to do, I cross off the difficult class and choose the gem class. Taking risks and jumping into academic challenges is a thing of the past. Now it is all about playing it safe and trying to make my GPA as pretty as possible.
The pressure does not dissipate when I speak to my dad. He tells me that time is too limited for trial and error: I need to lay out some extensive plan of my life so as not to fall behind other competitors. Once, I asked Dad if life always has to be a tiring continuation of aiming for the top while securing my spot. He replied that once I graduate from Harvard, I would be subject to the expectation that I would have a high social status and a job with a high salary. He tells me that he doesn’t want me to feel disappointed and worthless when I see other Harvard alums live successful, wealthy lives. When I tell him that I am considering taking a challenging class that would be a great learning experience, he replies that I should stop being naive, that employers care about my GPA, not the classes I take. My clueless self wonders if this is the real world. If so, I want no part of it.
We all struggle with our academic and career choices at Harvard, but the need to get a good job after graduation should not dominate our time in college. Many of us have grown accustomed to constantly thinking about the future and stressing out about our lack of credentials. It is truly a sad reality that the world tends to judge people based on results, not experience. But this does not mean that we should all be risk-averse when considering classes or careers. Harvard did not accept us to make sure that we can live wealthy lives and occupy the most prestigious occupations in society. Some of the missions of Harvard are to expose students to new ideas as they “embark on a journey of intellectual transformation” and to help them “gain a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents and learn how they can best serve the world.”
It saddens me to see the stark disparity between my daily concerns about how to get a better GPA and find a stable, well-paying job and what a Harvard education is supposed to bring. Making connections and landing prestigious careers indeed are valuable, but it is just as, if not more, meaningful to appreciate the learning experience and truly think about what your talents are and how to best use them. Not everyone gets to walk away from Harvard with an uber-selective job or dazzling credentials. But everyone does walk away from Harvard having been given a chance to explore the wealth of human knowledge and an array of pursuits. Instead of blindly following what society or our parents tell us are the safest pathways, keep meeting new people and expose yourself to various opportunities that interest you. Having done that, you will look back and realize that you have made the most out of Harvard.
Daniel Kim ‘21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House.
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