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Harvard University

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What should every freshman at your school know before they start?

When I started attending school, I was skeptical ? was it really worth $40,000 a year? After my first useless meeting with my ?advisor,? and my first 300-person class with a professor who could write books but not teach, my doubts became very real. Those doubts were never corrected ? my academic advising during school was non-existent, and I spent most of my time in anonymously large classes. But that was never the point. Ironically, it was not my college, but rather my classmates who defined my college experience. Surrounded by their talent and motivation, I was inspired to overachieve. Their support and instruction as we struggled through an intense workload taught me more than many professors. And, most importantly, our shared experiences as we grew together into adulthood connect us for life. College gave me many opportunities ? some spectacular professors who revolutionized my perspectives, post-graduate opportunities I never considered that have enriched my professional development, and incredible staff and support resources to help me navigate a new life away from home. But it was my classmates that were truly worth the thousands of dollars, an investment in permanent friends and colleagues with priceless dividends.

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My first semester at college allowed me to take independence to the next level as I chose from endless courses, making decisions based on my interests. The faculty is amazing--my life sciences professor created the famous animation, "Inner Life of a Cell," and pioneers modern day biochemistry. My global health class, in addition to being taught by Dr. Paul Farmer (founder of Partners in Health) and Prof. Arthur Kleinman (scholar in caregiving), invited some of the biggest names in healthcare to speak in lecture. And the best part of it all is that they care so much about undergraduate students (contrary to the Harvard stereotype) that they are constantly willing to discuss and share with their students. During the semester, I worked with my classmates and peers. I have become involved with the Harvard Pops Orchestra and Parliamentary Debate. As a result of this, I have become close with members of the most diverse student body imaginable. Not only are they from every racial, geographical, religious, and socioeconomic background possible, but they also have such a wide variety of interests. Altogether, I have made memorable connections with so many interesting and talented people, both in and out of class.

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First, one of the biggest considerations on my family's mind was the financial burden of college. Any student considering a top college should not cross that college off of their list based on money. Colleges like Harvard have great financial aid packages and their financial aid departments want to work with you to make sure everything works out. Second, the campus and student population are important considerations. A lot of the learning a student does is outside of the classroom, talking and being in extracurriculars with peers. Plus, classes can only be as engaging and challenges as the students in the classes allow them to be. Are there people at the college with similar interests to you? Are there students with diverse interests? Will there be interesting extracurriculars for you? Will there be things to do (bars, clubs, restaurants) on or close to campus? Will you feel safe around campus? Finally, although the name of a college isn't everything, a college with a great reputation can promise important alumni networks, opportunities (internships, extracurriculars, etc.), and resume building that will ensure amazing future opportunities that would not be as guaranteed at other schools.

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Just one piece of advice: Take economics. In economics I would have learned that the opportunity cost of something is what you have to give up to get it. And I would have realized that for many of the choices I made in high school--spending every night studying for exams, or eking out points on an assignment--the opportunity cost was much too high. Sure, grades are important. But after my first semester at a school where practically everyone graduated as valedictorian, I realize the true value of high school isn't the preservation of the precious 4.0 but rather the opportunity to make human connections and become comfortable interacting with others. Whether I?m interviewing for internships, making new friends, or working up the courage to visit my professor during office hours, I find myself wishing I had spent more time in high school getting to know people: talking with teachers and mentors, volunteering in my community, or even going to parties occasionally--anything to escape the stereotype of the bookish, reclusive intellectual. Studying cannot compensate for the importance of being confident and sociable; forgoing the opportunity to connect with others is simply not worth the cost.

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Along Massachusetts Avenue, on the perimeter of Harvard Yard, stands Dexter Gate. Above Dexter Gate, a simple inscription provides unique perspective: "Enter to grow in wisdom". The inscription reminds us that the college experience is made up of much more than a formal education. We will undoubtedly forget much of the minutiae that makes up our daily experience. What lasts, however, is the wisdom we attain by hurtling ourselves into new, potentially uncertain circumstances and discovering what it takes to succeed. More importantly, college allows us time to discover how to learn from our failures and then how to build upon our successes. This trial and error allows us to grow. It is important to find the best environment that will be conducive to growth. Every flower has a unique environment where it thrives best. Similarly, each student should strive to find the college that provides the best environment where he or she can blossom. Just as a flower needs the right mix of sunlight and water, you should find a college whose values best reflect your own. It is not the college?s name that is important. Rather, it is finding the best environment where your potential can blossom.

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Go to any bookstore around October or November and you'll see a literal plethora of college-oriented how-to books littering the shelves. Most of them offer trite bits of advice, urging students to "follow their dreams" or "do what feels right." My advice (as a rising junior at Harvard)? Sit down and actually think about what you want in a school, instead of abiding by some clich?. Many students at Harvard College, often considered the most prestigious school in the United States, express discontent when asked about their academic workload or their advising situation. Despite its world-renowned teaching staff and an endowment that is larger than the entire economies of some developing countries, Harvard struggles to provide access to real professors at the undergraduate level. While some of my courses have been taught by brilliant professors, my math course freshman year was led by a graduate student who really could care less about univariate calculus. Given this situation, it's important that both prospective college students and their parents really consider what they're getting themselves into. After all, there's nothing worse than being stuck in a terrible class with no way out.

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I would suggest reflecting upon your high school experience as a whole. Ask yourself what aspects of high school you enjoyed the most and why you enjoyed them. Also reflect upon different extracurricular, academic, and social experiences you had in high school and evaluate what interested you or what you felt were rewarding experiences. Part of going to college is realizing who you are and the self-identity that you want to create for yourself. You start with a fresh, clean slate. In college, you get to choose what academic area to focus on, what activities to pursue, and what kind of people you want to be friends with. Also, recognize that this is true for everyone entering college. It is a shared experience, the excitement, nervousness, and experimentation of developing your "new life". Consequently, this environment helps your ideas and ambitions flourish as you and your classmates support each other. In brief, entering college is a unique opportunity to discover and define yourself, where your personal goals can become a reality. Having thought about what kind of life you want to lead in college, you will enter college with more confidence and excitement to begin your new experience.

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The best advice I would give to my high school self would be to never be afraid to ask for help. In high school, I prided myself on being independent, tackling every challenge I faced alone. Upon encountering new and more complex challenges in college, however, what I had formerly believed to be a strength quickly turned into my Achilles’ heel. Tasks that I handled deftly before, such as completing problem sets and juggling extracurricular activities, became much more formidable. I soon found myself barely being able to complete these tasks, struggling to maintain the level of competence that I had displayed in the past. However, I viewed asking others for assistance as a sign of weakness, believing that it was a concession that I could not handle my own problems. As a result, I struggled through freshman year. From sophomore year onward, I learned that asking for help was not only necessary, but also created a productive, collaborative environment in which everyone prospered. While I learned my lesson later in college, my largest regret has been that I did not learn this earlier, and I would highly encourage my high school self to get assistance from others whenever necessary.

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College life is incomprehensible if you lack the experience for yourself. My experience at school has been one of innovation. The passion that inhabits every one of us will be extracted through the expression of your work. We need to be challenged in our thought, and the professors that will stand in front of each classroom are eager to participate in creatively instructing you to think objectively. Your professors are incredibly talented individuals. They pride themselves in the topic that they have devoted their lives to teach. Be advantageous when you have an urge to ask your professors questions in class and in personal meetings. Inquiry should never be thwarted by your apprehension and fear of being viewed as ignorant. Professors are thrilled when young minds are curious about their ignorance. Delve into class discussion without remorse. Surround yourself with competent peers because encouragement from those who have a drive to succeed will prove to be crucial in the development of confidence! Unlike your high school companions, you will be elated to find men and women that are attending to focus on their goals. These will be the friends that you keep for the rest of your life.

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In high school, I equated maturity with perfect control over my life. So I set specific goals and worked diligently to achieve them, trying to never stray from my intended path. In college, the distinctions between school, social life, personal time, and world issues quickly broke down, and I realized the limits to what I could foresee. Seemingly out of nowhere, my friends would be in trouble - they were victims of sexual harrassment at school, or their relatives at home were ill - and I would be there to help them. Or, a hastily planned campus protest against rising student debt and income inequality somehow became national news. Suddenly, NPR and several major newspapers wanted to interview me, pushing me to make quick decisions about the direction of my own activism. College has at times been overwhelming, but on the whole I have never been happier. So, I would advise my high school self: embrace uncertainty, let the world take you by surprise, do something you never thought you would, and don't neglect to value the people around you. Through doing so, you will become more fulfilled, confident, and responsible and will gain a better sense of who you are.

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