What surprised you most about enrolling at Harvard or any top university?


What surprised you most about enrolling at Harvard or any top university? Or in other words, how have your perceptions changed as you moved from applicant to student?


I am continuously discovering new things about college. While this may not be true for everyone else, when I first arrived at college I was surprised by how welcoming and co-operative everyone was. I didn’t really feel a sense of competition and my friends were always ready to stay up and help me through a tough pset. Despite that, every one is very driven.

Getting into university is really not an end goal, but just the beginning of more hardwork. Being around some of the most accomplished students around the world, the high stress level is imaginable and mental illness is a reality for some students.

I’m not sure if this is the kind of answer you’re looking for, if you have any more specific questions let me know.


5 Surprises (Not Necessarily The Top!)

  1. Student Body - One would think everyone at Harvard are super nerds (the few kids from your high school who are very academic). The reality is Harvard is more like the set of American Pie but with everybody’s intelligence and ambition dialed up 50%. There are athletes, musician, Harvard’s super academic types, student leaders, fraternity brothers - the whole social mix you would imagine.

  2. Finals Clubs - The concept of single gender, invite only clubs that have existed for sometimes more than 100 years existing alongside the hyper-liberal Harvard campus environment is rather fascinating, regardless of which side of the debate you land on.

  3. Politics - I would have guessed before coming to the US that most top American colleges would have an even split of the two major political parties (Republicans and Democrats). In reality, Harvard is more than 80% Democratic. This tends to create a little bit of an echo-chamber where people with staunch Republican views tend to not voice them so actively and the intensely Democratic environment usually dominates campus discussion.

  4. Variance in “holy grail” careers - broadly speaking many commonwealth countries emphasize Medicine, Engineering and Law as the holy grail of career paths. At top US universities, management consulting, investment banking, technology firms tend to be regarded as the holy grail of the majority of students.

  5. Impact of Affirmative Action + International Admissions - the variance in standardized test scores between different sub-sections of the student body (Asian-American v African American v South America v International) is surprisingly large. Additionally, international students, in general, tend to have substantially higher standardized test scores than domestic students.


Though there are some differences among peer schools – and you should discover those in the application process and may find them useful when determining whether you’re a good fit personally and as you present yourself for admissions – I believe I can answer this question somewhat broadly.

This is roughly in order of discovery:

1… Diversity and lack of diversity. My class year Princeton had almost every US state represented, around 10% international students, and half male and half female student body. More than half of students were receiving financial aid at the time as well. Keep in mind, that could literally mean $500 (or approximately 1% of projected expenses at the time). On paper, student backgrounds seem very diverse and to an extent they are. Where you grow up strongly shapes who you are as an individual.

At the same time, coming from one of the poorest states (again, based on numbers, which have limited function), I encountered an immense amount of privilege at Princeton that I had never come close to experiencing. People who were not necessarily wealthy by Princeton standards had more capital (not necessarily money), and more importantly, greater opportunities than virtually anyone who attended my public high school, the surrounding public schools, and some of the private ones.

As @jamie.beaton pointed out, there is quite a skew towards Democratic political leanings. This was problematic for me because I didn’t take my positions with that in mind but would still be accused of leaning heavily one way or the other. I still remember someone in my Outdoor Action (look this up!) group accusing me of “glorifying the South” when I drew comparisons of current British English and regional variants in the South that are now nearly extinct. The comment was so ridiculous that it was not worth getting upset over. I cannot imagine what it’s like in today’s political climate.

2…Stress of living in the campus bubble. People talk about being a big fish in a small pond in high school and then arriving to campus where that’s no longer true. I think there is a heavy psychological component that should not be ignored and it’s something that many of us learn to deal with. I find that people who have been exposed to more competition and come from more heavily populated areas tend to adjust more quickly, even when two students have strikingly similar stats at the time of admission such as test scores, prizes won, and ECs. Some of my good friends have pointed out that there can/will always be someone smarter as a fact of life. Have some perspective by venturing outside of campus at least once per week. It’s good to see people who are not on the Ivy League grind and you can also meet and help people whose circumstances are very different from your own (e.g. through local mentoring or volunteering).

3… The social nature of campus culture. A lot of people visualize a stereotypical bookworm when they think of a Princeton student. That student exists in nearly all of us, but we have just about everything else other campuses have too. @jamie.beaton already pointed this out. I would like to add that, with the stress of my surprise #2, it is very important to foster strong social ties. That is a huge part of the experience as a student and especially as an alumnus. I have some close friends who spent many hours socially isolated while they studied and made the grades who still struggle with the same issues in professional school. They don’t have as fond memories of campus life as people who established a stronger social network. You can still get into eating clubs and such, but actually having good friends in your club is what makes the experience enjoyable. College is also one of the optimal times for finding a compatible significant other, especially depending on the composition of your workplace later. Many people end up marrying former classmates. To sum up this point, studying at a place like Princeton or Harvard is inherently a social endeavor. If you are going only for the “educational” aspect, you may not appreciate as much as you would a technical school.

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