A Graduate’s Guide To Thriving At Harvard

The summer before my freshman year at Harvard, I received two very important pieces of advice. The first: buy a tuxedo.

“When they say black tie at Harvard, they mean black tie.” This is the truth. I wore that tuxedo at least three times a year while in school. Sadly, In the ten years between graduation and that time of life when everyone starts getting married, I wore that tux maybe half-a dozen times. I have since upgraded.

The second was less direct, but left more of a lasting impression. I remember asking one of my father’s friends, “How did Harvard change you and how did you change Harvard?” Assuredly, I had read this question on some horrible college-advice blog and it seemed profound to my 18 year old self. He answered the first part with the usual platitudes about the thrill of independence and becoming an adult, but for the latter he said “You know, I don’t even think they noticed my presence.” That night, I became determined not to give the same answer after four years.

When I was asked to write this article about “How to Survive at Harvard,” I thought about others who felt like they hadn’t made much of a mark. Obviously, my father’s friend “survived” in that he graduated and has led, by all accounts, a successful life. The same is true of many alumni I know who “survived” but say they didn’t love their time at Harvard. I did. Tremendously. So rather than coming up with survival tips, I offer the following as a checklist for thriving at Harvard. It’s a whirlwind, magical experience that goes by all too quickly.

Here’s how I made the most of it:

Find your Tribe. Quickly.

I always say that the best thing about my experience at Harvard was the people. You meet passionate, dedicated, inspiring, brilliant people in your dorms, dining halls, and classes every day, and many of my closest friends are still those I met at Harvard.

Harvard will match you with Freshman year roommates, but proximity shouldn’t be the only requirement for friendship. My people were the theater people. Outside of class, I spent most of my time at Harvard in rehearsal for a play, musical, or opera. These are people I still collaborate with more than 10 years later. Find people who love to do what you love to do, no matter what that is.

Remember that it’s Your Education.

Core Curriculum requirements have changed since I graduated, but there are still a number of classes you are required to take as an undergraduate. Depending on your major, you’ll also have certain requirements to fulfill. This may sound constricting, but within these rubrics is a plethora of choices. Take courses you want to take, that interest and excite you, not classes you think you should take or that your friends are taking. Ditto your major. Major in what excites you academically, not the degree you think you need for a particular job. Your time as an undergraduate isn’t the place to specialize; on the contrary, it should broaden you.

Get to Know Your Professors

Harvard boasts some very famous, seemingly untouchable professors. A perpetual myth about the place is that you don’t really get access to these bold-faced-names outside of lecture halls packed with thousands of eager students. Nothing could be further from the truth – you just have to choose wisely. My major (Literature), was very small and most of my classes were seminars with 15 people or fewer. The director of my concentration, Sandra Naddaff, a tenured Harvard professor, still knows my name, answers my emails, and gave me a huge hug when I went to visit her at my 10 year reunion. Recently, I was reminiscing with a friend about one of our favorite film professors, Despina Kakoudaki – sadly no long at Harvard – who would invite students to her house for movie marathons: “Saturday is a Douglas Sirk Fest,” she would email the class, “The schedule is below. Come by anytime. Popcorn provided.”

The masters of your house can also be a great resource here. When you get assigned to a house at the end of Freshman year, the Master of your House will be a professor who knows many other professors. I got to know the masters of Adams House, Sean & Judy Palfrey quite well – one of them recently officiated a friend’s wedding! While these professors are available to you, none of them will chase you down. You’ve got to seek them out, and there are many ways beyond taking their classes or signing up for office hours.

Apply for Grants and use Harvard’s Resources

It’s no secret that Harvard has a lot of money. A lot of money. Most of that money is there for you, the students.

I had enough money to fund two weeks in Seville.

All you have to do is ask. I wrote my senior thesis on the Don Juan myth, and thought it might be useful to do some research in Spain on the Tenorio family (on whom Don Juan is based). A few quick searches and a simple application and I had enough money to fund two weeks in Seville. I was shocked at how easy it was. That is the tip of the iceberg. If you have an idea for just about anything, there is money, space, and people who want to help. That’s not something that will be always be true in life, so learning how to take the best advantage of the resources you’re given is an extremely valuable life skill.

All Work and No Play… Well, You Know

When I gave tours and info sessions for the admissions office, prospective students frequently asked if anyone at Harvard had a life. The definitive answer is yes. While I’m sure there are many people so overwhelmed with work that they never see the sun, that was decidedly not my experience. There is a rich, vibrant, social scene at Harvard. From parties in the Pfoho Bell Tower Suite to House Winter Formals to Charity Fundraising Events to Finals Clubs to the Hasty Pudding, there is lots going on (I promise, you’ll use the tux). No, Harvard is by no means a “party school;” students do tend to take their work and their activities seriously. But again, there is no lack of opportunity to cut loose and have a good time.

It’s also important to mention here how important it is to get out of the Harvard Square bubble. Boston is a big city filled with tons to do. Those who explore the city’s restaurants, museums, and nightlife tend to have a better experience than those who never leave campus.

I was very fortunate to have been accepted to many great schools, but as I was making my decision, an aunt who worked in academia reminded me that “Harvard is Harvard for a reason.” She was talking primarily about its resources and the unlimited opportunities available to students there, but also about the reputation. My Harvard degree has opened countless doors for me, and despite the recent spate of articles condemning an Ivy League education, I agree with Stephen Pinker that “an Ivy degree is treated as a certification of intelligence and self-discipline.”

Harvard can seem like an intimidating place from the outside. No other school has more immediate world-wide name recognition or as well deserved a reputation for attracting a particular kind of overachiever: the self-starter. If there’s one thread throughout these tips (and one final piece of advice I can give) it’s that the Harvard experience is what you make of it. There are limitless opportunities, but you have to go get them. Those who thrive at Harvard are those who use everything the University has to offer. They don’t let Harvard pass them by.

Author: Sam Perwin. Sam graduated from Harvard magna cum laude with a degree in Literature in 2004. He has been tutoring in a wide variety of subjects for over a decade. 

A version of this article was published on Forbes on March 8, 2017.

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