Harvard isn't what you're led to believe. In fact — it's much better.
When I first visited Cambridge, MA last year I was left absolutely speechless. Hundreds of students were jogging around campus; smiles on every face, and you had a feeling as though you just rubbed shoulders with the next Steve Jobs.
Alumnus Thomas Sowell once said the best thing about graduating from Harvard is the privilege of never having to be impressed with someone who graduated from Harvard.
I will never relate.
However, as my admiration for the campus continued, my natural contrarian tendencies flipped the Harvard dream completely on its head.
“I wonder what the dark side of this place is?” I asked Cody Collins who was with me at the time.
All that glittered couldn’t be gold. Thankfully, one of my closest cousins Jordan Alston Harmon graduated from Harvard in 2017. His insights, along with my own research, revealed a few little-known criticisms of Ivy Leagues.
Hopefully, if you’re aiming to get into an Ivy League school — or are just morbidly curious like I was — this will give you a more meticulous picture of what lies behind Harvard’s doors.
Why a 4.0 at Harvard is a Failure
“The only thing harder than getting in is failing out.” — Reddit user Prometheus1
An A- is the most common grade at Harvard with the former Dean of Undergraduate Education confirming rumors that grade inflation — the process of awarding students higher grades than they deserve — exists.
You’re more likely to get straight As than flunk out of Harvard. I wish the same could be said of my far less prestigious public college.
Meanwhile, insanely high GPAs do in part stem from the students being overachievers, but they also come from this dishonest system of grading.
“This kind of thing can straddle the line between fair and unfair,” Jordan told me. “It’s common for students to lobby for better grades if they receive something like a B+ on a paper.”
Damn. B+ usually meant that paper was going on my fridge.
Either way, it makes sense for Harvard to do this. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2013 that 66% of employers screen candidates by GPA.
Is there a problem with this?
Give me my free A.
That’s what I’d say if I was a student at least. But in an interview with the Harvard Crimson (the school paper), the current dean of students told reporters that this generation of students was soft, spoiled and privileged.
“This is a generation that has never been allowed to skin their knees. They all won awards at everything they ever tried — most improved player, fourth runner-up, best seven-year-old speller born on March 8,” the Dean said. “They grew up with an inflated sense of accomplishment and expect to continue to receive awards or at least praise for everything they do.”
As you can see, the professors and deans can be cutthroat at Harvard.
More on that later.
Harvard Vs. Asian Americans
“As an Asian, I feel very underrepresented in the NFL and NBA.” — YouTuber
A 2009 Princeton study found that Asian Americans SAT scores had to be 140 points higher than White students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points than Black students.
All of this led to the Students for Fair Admissions suing Harvard in 2014, claiming the school reduces the number of Asian-American students through evaluations that are subjective and racially biased.
It didn’t help that in 2020 the Justice Department found Yale guilty of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants.
Since the 90s the Asian American population has more than doubled, but their representation in top universities has remained the same.
In an interview with Business Insider, 4.7 GPA Asian-American student Michael Wang felt he couldn’t have done anything else to improve his chances of getting into an Ivy League. He even sang at Barack Obama's inauguration.
Wang, however, was rejected by seven of eight Ivy League schools.
“If race is being used as a positive factor, meaning that it helps an application that’s good,” said Wang. “When it hurts the application I feel like that’s not fair.”
Does affirmative action hurt Asian Americans?
As Chang pointed out, if race can be used for a positive form of inducting new Harvard recruits then what’s the harm?
Unfortunately, there are only a limited number of spots at Harvard. So if one student gets in on the merit of race then one loses out for that very reason.
All of this is to dance around the polarizing question, “Is affirmative action needed today?”
According to the Supreme Court in 2003, the answer is no —
“I believe Blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators…The Court… holds that racial discrimination in the admissions be given another 25 years. While I agree that in 25 years…these practices will be illegal, they are illegal now.” — Justice Clarence Thomas in 2003
The Unspoken Reality Behind the Harvard Gates
My cousin took a year off from Harvard. It was cathartic. One year away gave him added perspective and a much-needed break from the stress.
Other students, however, put so much pressure on themselves that stress is all they know. Take Harvard alum Alex Chang —
“If you go to a place like Harvard or any top universities around the world you’re expected to do well — you’re expected to be a perfect model for everyone else,” said Chang in a Ted Talk.
Things weren’t going well for Alex at Harvard. His grades slipped — so yeah, he got Cs — and he didn’t land his dream jobs at places like Microsoft or Google.
His parents made weekly phone calls to hear from him. But these quickly became a mental burden as he faked his own happiness in those calls.
In the Ted Talk, Alex compared his college-self to Judy Hopps from the Disney movie “Zootopia” following her terrible first day as a police officer.
I think we can all relate.
Then one morning…
The resident Dean knocked on Chang’s door. Everyone was there. All the RAs, proctors, and a few other school officials. They wanted to tell him and his roommates something important.
Feeling grumpy from going to bed at 4 am due to homework, Chang let them in. He explained to them that whatever they had to say, their roommate John was not around right now.
“Yeah — that’s the reason why we’re here actually,” they told him. “John committed suicide last night in his lab.”
John looked perfectly happy only a few days before, according to Chang.
We’re very good at hiding our feelings
John broke up with his high school girlfriend a few weeks before he killed himself.
As Chang describes it, they knew he was sad, but he seemed to be getting out of it. No one expected this.
Life is an internal battle.
At Harvard and other Ivy Leagues, everyone is a master at hiding their feelings from the people who matter most — their friends and families.
It’s all to service this veil of perfection.
This sensation hit Chang the hardest when he couldn’t find a job as a senior ready to graduate.
“I thought about what would happen if I didn’t find a job,” Chang lamented. “Would I be an embarrassment to my parents? Would I be an embarrassment to Harvard?”
College is a weird social experiment.
Ivy leagues more so.
We ship off the world’s geniuses to a few places hoping they become better for it, and optimistically, change society.
But behind those walls the pressure is on. In some ways, it’s warranted. It’s freaking Harvard. You just hope the person doesn’t lose their humanity — or worse — their life along the way.
Thanks for reading.