By Rivoo Bagchi
Chances are that most students will answer yes to this one - after all, who doesn't dream of securing a place at the most famous of universities? This Boston-based Ivy League institution is one of the oldest in the United States of America and carries immense brand cachet. In fact, Harvard is virtually synonymous with the top-tier of tertiary education. Leaving that sizable reputation aside though, does it have what it takes to be the correct fit for you? This is what alumni who have studied at Harvard seem to suggest.
Ivy League Cachet
Let's address the elephant in the room once again. Yes, it is true that getting accepted into Harvard does confer a certain social status upon a student. Your opinion seems to carry a little more weight, and peers that used to bully you will now ask you for college application advice. However, Harvard is distinctly perceived as 'elitist' in certain circles, and carries a connotation of privilege, unlike the fully meritocratic admissions system at its cross-town rival, MIT. As such, students would do well to let the new-found fame get to their heads. Enjoy it - because it's a momentous achievement - but be aware of how you are perceived by those around you.
Some students would rather not have the weight of the 'Harvard' name on their shoulders, and they might prefer attending a more low-key institution in terms of global prestige. For example, institutions such as Caltech are just as well recognized in academic circles but will likely avoid the name-pressure of Harvard.
In terms of the quality of undergraduate teaching, Princeton University is generally considered to be the benchmark among the Ivy League colleges. However, Harvard doesn't lag far behind and most students feel that it is nearly as good. The difference lies in the fact that Harvard is just a touch more research-oriented, which means that there is more focus on graduate students and less on undergraduate students.
For most entering students, these differences will be trivial. Classes will be engaging and incredibly rigorous. In fact, though Harvard is perceived as less 'nerdier' than MIT, it isn't much easier. Expect hours of work to get a GPA of 4.0. On that note, it is generally noted that Harvard isn't too afraid of grade inflation or awarding students higher marks. And despite the already-mentioned elitist reputation, most students and lecturers are very approachable - even the Nobel Prize winners. There's a lot of them on this 209-acre campus.
Not all Harvard degrees are equal though - this illustrious name carries more value in certain disciplines. For example, a Liberal Arts degree from here (Harvard was originally a Liberal Arts university) is virtually worth its weight in gold. It will open doors everywhere, from politics to the financial industry. On the other hand, an engineering degree - though well respected - may not be worth as much as one from Caltech, Stanford, MIT or UC Berkeley. Harvard doesn't have the biggest engineering department and is not generally perceived to be an school with an 'engineering focus' so as to speak. In fact, due to the general standardization of engineering (and similar) degrees worldwide, what you learn at Harvard may be quite similar to what is learnt at other institutions. This goes for many other technical subjects.
In summary, the academic experience depends on what a student decides to study. Harvard certainly offers a quality education in every single subject, but that competitive edge is better realized in some subjects over others.
As with any other university, a lot of the social scene depends on what you make of it. Boston is one of the liveliest American students with a burgeoning student population, and Harvard students truly have the opportunity to meet a truly diverse set of individuals. In fact, there is even the chance to take classes at MIT - which opens up the door to make a whole new group of connections.
Be warned though - the student population is very smart. Most of them were likely class-toppers at their respective high schools and some of them are prodigies in their field of choice. It is advised that students are prepared to be humbled - there's always someone better than you at Harvard.
There is a quiet undercurrent of competitiveness - as it happens in any other top-ranking college. Every student wants to make the most out of their opportunity, and as such, Harvard can certainly not be considered a party school. Do expect some riveting conversations though. Harvard is known for fostering spaces for debates and intellectual discussions
Harvard has a burgeoning student research system for budding academics, and this is certainly one of the best ways to bolster your resume for the future. Every department offers this facility, and students can be expected to be helping PhDs and professors conduct their studies. On some occasions, students may be allowed to conduct their own research. Don't count on this happening though.
All manner of clubs are available, from developer societies to Formula Student teams to investing groups. Harvard is a highly motivated place, and students are expected to explore a few of these clubs while juggling their coursework. And even if the listed names don't appeal to you, Harvard almost certainly has another club that might appeal to you. And if they don't, there is almost certainly someone else in their student base that might be interested in forming a club with you
As you might have guessed, a historic institution like Harvard has a truly eclectic list of traditions, ranging from mildly interesting to 'I can't believe they actually adopt Polar bears'. It's safe to say that such an incredible collection is out of the scope of this article, but if you're staying on campus (as all first years are expected to do), you can expect this and a whole lot more.
Your Harvard experience will likely be a lot of things, but uneventful it will certainly not. There is always something to do and some way of improving yourself. At other institutions this may seem tiring - and it often is - but this is simply the expectation at Harvard.
To answer the question posited in the title of this article: Yes, you should consider Harvard unless you have an inclination towards another institution of a similar calibre. It offers an unmatched reputation, with an experience that genuinely lives up to it. It is no wonder that so many alumni still hold the same passion for Harvard as when they first strolled its ivy-lined alleyways. Simply put, there are a few chances that one regrets not taking - and this may be one of them.
It has its flaws: it's considered elitist, it's nigh-on impossible to get into, and to survive in an occasionally cut-throat environment needs (or perhaps encourages) incredible mental fortitude. But then again, most people considering applying to Harvard have likely enjoyed a challenge - and this is one of the biggest challenges as far as universities go.
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