It’s the oldest college in the United States and a tourist destination. It’s also one of the most prestigious and recognizable institutions of higher education in the entire world.
With that kind of reputation, you can bet that the Harvard undergraduate experience is exceptional in many ways, and competition for spots in each matriculating class is fierce. In recent years, only around 5% of applicants have been accepted to be among the roughly 6,700 undergraduate students enrolled at Harvard at any given time. Despite these odds, Harvard still draws great interest from college-bound students, and receives nearly 40,000 applications each year. If you plan on being one of these applicants, it’s in your best interest to learn as much about Harvard as possible, from its academic opportunities to the less tangible aspects of its on-campus atmosphere.
Morning: Waking Up at Harvard
If you’re waking up as a Harvard undergraduate, chances are it’ll be in on-campus housing, along with 98% of your fellow students. During your first year, that housing will be located in the area of Harvard Yard, right in the center of campus. Your new home will be a place of grassy lawns, spreading trees, historic buildings, and easy access to campus amenities.
In your second year, you’ll enter one of Harvard’s twelve residential colleges, where you’ll stay for the rest of your time at Harvard. Residential colleges are smaller communities within the Harvard campus that provide housing, dining, and shared spaces to their inhabitants. Wherever on campus you wake up, your first thought will probably be getting fuelled up for the day — and maybe today you don’t feel like visiting the dining hall. You’re in luck, because just steps away from the main part of campus is the bustling Harvard Square neighbourhood, full of coffee shops and restaurants.
After breakfast, it’s time to head to class, and that means traversing the campus by foot. Be prepared to navigate crowded sidewalks, dodge meandering tourists, and otherwise practice your skills as an urban pedestrian. If it happens to be autumn when you’re taking this walk, you’re in for a treat — New England is particularly glorious in the fall, and the bright leaves lend a special glow to the ivy and brick of the campus. Your destination might be on the main Harvard campus, or it might be across the Charles River in Allston, a nearby neighbourhood of Boston where Harvard is currently expanding undergraduate offerings in engineering and related sciences. Whether you walk or take the shuttle, you’ll be among many students doing the same, and you’ll have great views of rowing teams practicing on the Charles.
You may have heard of “Harvard time,” the practice at Harvard of beginning classes seven minutes past their ostensible start time, but a recent faculty vote has ended this venerable tradition. As of fall 2018, you can expect most standard class periods to last around 75 minutes, allow 15 minutes of passing time in between, and start when they’re scheduled to start.
Your morning class might be an intimate seminar, a classic lecture (likely with a small discussion section later), or something in between these two archetypes. Either way, you’ll get to learn from professors who are at the top of their fields, among fellow students who are talented, motivated, and representative of a whole world of future potential.
Early Afternoon: Schoolwork and Socializing
After your morning class, let’s say that you have some time to spare before lunch. That’s a perfect time to fit in some studying, whether that takes the form of reading a few short stories for your literature class, finishing a physics problem set, or reviewing the vocabulary list for your Arabic quiz.
Besides the obvious spots like the libraries and your dorm’s common areas, Harvard is full of nooks and crannies that make great study locations. If the weather’s warm, you can settle into one of the lawn chairs scattered throughout Harvard Yard, or snag a table outside the Science Centre. For a change of scenery and an escape from other undergraduates, you might head to one of Harvard’s graduate schools, many of which you’ll be able to access with your Harvard ID.
Then it’s time for lunch, an opportunity not only to fuel up for the afternoon’s activities, but also to socialize and take a break with your friends. In your first year, you’ll eat your meals in Annenberg Dining Hall, an incredibly impressive space filled with stained glass and chandeliers. In later years, you’ll have your meals in your residential college’s dining hall so that you can build community while you eat.
After lunch, it’s time for class again. Of course, your real-life schedule will vary, and occasionally, courses will even last into the evening hours. With a whopping total of nearly 3,900 courses offered to undergraduates, there’s something for everyone, including a whole range of options for fulfilling your graduation requirements.
Late Afternoon: Errands and Extracurricular
Being a student at Harvard isn’t all about being buried in your books; there are also all the little tasks and errands that you’ll need to take care of in order to keep your life running smoothly. Fortunately, downtown Cambridge is jam-packed with goods and services for your perusal, whether you need shampoo, have a package to mail, or are looking for a new pair of shoes.
You never know what you’ll encounter in Cambridge, even when you’re going about totally mundane tasks. Musicians entertain the crowds, every spoken language you can imagine is in the air, and tour guides dressed in 18th-century garb mingle with people zipping past on self-balancing electric unicycles. (Seriously.) It’s a perfect illustration of Harvard’s combination of cultural diversity, historical relevance, and futuristic innovation.
For those who are even more adventurous, Boston itself is only a few subway stops away, and offers a huge number of other opportunities to learn, develop, and enjoy yourself. You might be a little nervous navigating public transit if you’re not used to using it, but Boston’s system is relatively simple, and it’s well worth the effort to expand your horizons while you’re at Harvard.
Once you’ve finished your errands — or made plans for future adventures this upcoming weekend — there’s more to do on campus. Late afternoons and evenings are prime time for working on your extracurricular projects, holding group meetings or practices, and otherwise exploring the non-academic side of campus life.
Whatever you want to do, Harvard probably has an opportunity for you to do it — over four hundred student groups currently call the campus home, along with dozens of athletic groups on the varsity, club, and intramural levels. If your favorite activity doesn’t already exist, there’s always the option of starting your own club or group.
Evening: Relaxation and Campus Culture
Before you get started on your evening activities, you’ll want to take a break for dinner. Again, most of the time, you’ll likely eat at Annenberg Hall (or, later, your residential college), but the surrounding Harvard Square neighbourhood also beckons with alluring dining options. Some restaurants in the square even accept Crimson Cash, funds that you or your parents can load onto your ID card.
While you enjoy your meal, you can feel secure in the knowledge that you’re being provided with nutritionally sound options. The menus at Harvard’s dining halls are chosen to reflect the dietary recommendations of the Department of Nutrition at the university’s very own T.H. Chan School of Public Health — another example of the exceptional resources that will impact your life as a Harvard student.
Of course, every day at Harvard won’t necessarily be this action-packed, and your experience will depend on lots of different factors, from your major to your friend group to your personal preferences. When you finally get to bed in your dorm room, though, however late the hour, you can rest easy knowing that in the morning, you’ll again have access to all that Harvard has to offer.
For More Information
If you’re one of the many students who’s interested in learning more about Harvard, the TeacherNI Pre-college Campus Tours blog is a perfect place to start your research.