Tour guides leading visitors around the Harvard campus are quick to mention that the school, founded in 1636, is the oldest college in the United States. In historic Harvard Yard,
tour guides explain that Hollis Hall, a red brick structure built in 1763, housed Washington’s
troops during the Revolutionary War. In front of Widener Library, tourists learn that the
library system is the largest university system in the world, containing more than ninety
libraries, more than fifteen million volumes, and some 100,000 periodicals.
The university’s age and outstanding physical resources
are among the college’s most distinctive features.
Yet, few alumni will say that the best part of
their experience was the fact that the college
is the oldest in the country. It is more likely that
they will mention the environment of daily life as the
distinguishing aspect of their experience, an environment
characterized by the cities of Cambridge and
Boston, a unique residential life system, and the
people who make the school tick.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been home for all of its 360-plus years.
Cambridge, located along the Charles River a few miles from downtown Boston, boasts beautiful
tree-lined streets as well as numerous shops, cinemas, restaurants, music stores, coffeehouses,
bars, theaters, and bookstores.
Students enjoy a great variety of academic offerings and resources. Pursuing
their A.B. or S.B., undergraduate students choose from about 3,500 classes every year and over
forty fields of concentration (or majors). Throughout the course of eight semesters, students
are required to take and pass thirty-two semester-long courses to graduate. The concentration
accounts for roughly half of the course load over the four years. Students major in such fields
as engineering, folklore and mythology, computer science, linguistics, economics, history and
literature, and biological sciences, to name just a few. Some students design their own concentrations
or pursue joint concentrations in two different disciplines.
The Core Curriculum
The remaining half of the curriculum is divided between electives and a new General
Education curriculum. With the help of your advisor, you decide when to take General
Education courses and which ones to take. Many students take more than are required
for their diploma. They are lively and interesting courses and provide an opportunity
to explore areas outside of your concentration.
The last part of the curriculum is composed of
electives, which allow students to explore any
other interests they might have. For example, some
students concentrate in a nonscience discipline and
use their electives to complete the premedical
requirements. Others become fluent in a foreign language
or take studio art classes as electives. Many
students use their electives to take classes that will be
fun and that will provide them with a different academic
experience or choose from a “minor” field.
The curriculum offers students a great deal of
choice and flexibility, and it includes special opportunities
such as cross-registration at M.I.T. and study
abroad. In a recent year, students studied in
thirty-five different countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Physical
resources, such as the world’s largest university library system, enhance the curriculum by
providing students with world-class facilities. Yet it is the human resources, namely the faculty
and students, that have the largest influence on the academic experience
at the college.
Freshman Seminars bring together faculty members and small groups of freshmen to
investigate specialized topics. Most members of the entering class take advantage of
this early opportunity to work closely with professors in an area of mutual interest. Some
recent Freshman Seminars:
- Child Health in America
- The Genome and Society
- Cyberspace in Court: Law of the Internet
- African Musical Tradition
- Public Policy Approaches to Climate Change
- Complexity in Works of Art. Ulysses and Hamlet
• AIDs in Africa
Academically, the experience at Harvard depends to a certain degree on what you
decide you want to do with your time in Cambridge. Small classes, accessible, friendly professors,
helpful advisors, and top-notch physical resources are yours to enjoy; ultimately, it’s up to
you to take full advantage of the opportunities.
Most Popular Fields of Study
Getting into Harvard is extremely competitive. Only seven to ten percent of the applicants
in the past few years were admitted, yet more than eighty-five percent of the applicants
were academically qualified. The school attracts some of the best students in the world: most
admitted students rank in the top ten to fifteen percent of their high school graduating
If you decide to apply, do your best to present yourself to the Admissions Committee
with a complete, concise application. Keep this in mind if you are thinking of applying:
- Harvard accepts the Common Application and the Universal Application, but does not even
have its own institutional form. The Common Application is fairly straightforward: send a
transcript, write an essay on a topic of your choice, fill in the biographical information,
provide a summary of your extracurricular life, and ask two teachers and a counselor to fill
- Harvard does have its own application supplement to be completed
in addition to either the Common Application or the Universal Application.
- An alumnus
interview is also a required component of the application. After you send in your application
materials a volunteer from your local area will contact you to arrange the interview.
- Students are required to submit either the SAT or ACT with writing and any three of
the SAT Subject Tests. Finally, a Secondary School Report and Mid-Year School Report
must be filled out by your college advisor or school counselor.
- In making its decisions, the Admissions Committee considers all aspects of a person’s
candidacy. You will be evaluated on your academic performance and potential, your
extracurricular talents, and your personal strengths. First and foremost, the committee
wants to be confident that you can handle the coursework. Your high school
transcript is important here; take the toughest classes your school offers and that you
can do well in. Once it has been determined that you could swing it in their classrooms,
the committee will look for what distinguishes you from the thousands of other
qualified candidates. Some applicants set themselves apart from the rest of the pool based
on their extraordinary academic promise. Others are distinguished because of their well-roundedness
or their specific talents beyond the classroom. Personal qualities are important
in every decision.
There is no formula through which one is admitted. The committee reads
every application with great care and strives to identify and admit those students who will
make an impact during their college years and beyond. Be yourself on the application and in
the interview and let your strengths, talents, and accomplishments speak for you. You certainly
can’t get in if you don’t apply.
The university is committed to a need-blind admissions process. This means that an applicant’s
candidacy for admission will be evaluated without regard for the family’s ability to pay. So, let’s
say you’ve been admitted; now, how to foot the bill? Fortunately, Harvard is generous in its use of funds to support students.
Once you have been admitted, the school will meet your family’s demonstrated need to
make it possible for you to matriculate. All of the financial aid is based solely on need. The school
believes that all of its students make valuable contributions to the college; therefore, the college
offers no merit-based scholarships. In addition, as part of the Ivy League, athletic scholarships are also not available.
Approximately seventy percent of students receive some form of financial assistance.
In recent years, the average scholarship was $37,000; the average financial aid package,
including a grant, a loan, and a campus job, totaled over $40,000.
The Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) has eliminated parental contribution from
families earning $60,000 or less. Families with income of $180,000 or less with typical assets
are now expected to pay an average of up to ten percent of their income.
Applying for Financial Aid
Logistically, it’s important to submit all of the forms
required for a financial aid application on time (by February 1 of your senior year).
- You will need to fill out the CSS Profile, a form that you actually file directly with the
College Scholarship Service.
- You need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form that is
available in your school guidance office.
- You are also required to submit your own and your parents’ federal income tax returns.
- Students applying from countries other than the United States should fill out Harvard’s
own Financial Statement for Students from Foreign Countries instead of the CSS Profile.
This is the only difference for international students in the financial aid process.
The financial aid officers are some of the most helpful people on campus. They want to
work with you and your family to make it possible for you to come here once you have
been admitted. Stay organized so that you always give the Financial Aid Office the most accurate,
up-to-date information. It’s also a good idea to photocopy all of the forms you submit as
part of your financial aid application.
Student Financial Aid Details
Students here are amazing in the diversity of their backgrounds, interests, and perspectives.
Students come from all fifty of the United States as well as more than seventy foreign
countries, and nearly seventy percent of them come from public high schools. The college is
entirely coeducational and has been since 1977, when Harvard and Radcliffe joined forces in
a unique partnership (Radcliffe was completely assimilated by Harvard in 1999). Students hail
from many different religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is impossible not to
feel energized by the presence of so many different people and ideas.
The exciting atmosphere of the area surrounding the campus complements the
college’s unique residential system. Students are guaranteed on-campus housing for
each of their four years at the college, and about ninety-eight percent of them choose to live
on campus. First-year students live in Harvard Yard, the historical, academic, and administrative
center of the campus. This first year is fun, and living with all of your own classmates
in the heart of the campus is a great way to create class unity and to adjust to college life
in a friendly, supportive environment.
Sophomores, juniors, and seniors reside in one of the twelve residential houses, which
are large dorms accommodating 350 to 500 students. Each House has its own dining hall,
library, computer lab, weight room, music practice rooms, and other facilities. Faculty members
are in residence as well as a team of advisors or tutors. House spirit is strong, as students
represent their houses on intramural sports teams and spend hours socializing in the house
dining halls and common areas.
The second tier of social life, after the houses, is Harvard Square and Cambridge. On the
weekends, students flood the Square, taking full advantage of this unique urban atmosphere. Even during the week, the Square offers a refreshing break from the books; a study
break might include a movie, a cup of coffee with a friend, or an hour of listening to
Cambridge’s fantastic street musicians.
The City of Boston
The final tier of the social life here is the city of Boston, where students might attend
the theater, go to museums or concerts, visit other local colleges, or walk and shop in the
city’s historic neighborhoods. While the Harvard campus itself provides all students with
social options, many do like to explore the surrounding environment in their free time.
Students like socializing and relaxing, but they also tend to be busy, as most are
involved in two or three extracurricular activities. All told, there are more than 400
official student organizations on campus, including five orchestras, two jazz bands, a
marching band, a gospel choir, a glee club, over ten a cappella groups, both a daily and a
weekly newspaper and dozens of other political and literary publications, more than sixty
theater productions per year, and student government, debate teams, religious groups, and
minority and other public service organizations.
Student Enrollment Demographics
Student Graduation Demographics
Forty-one varsity athletic teams are on campus, more than any other college or university
in the country. If you don’t think of this as a jock school, think again. In recent
years, their athletes have won Ivy League championships in men’s and women’s soccer,
women’s basketball, men’s tennis, baseball, football, men’s and women’s squash, and men’s
and women’s crew. Harvard athletes have earned NCAA Division I championships in
women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s hockey, crew, and squash. In addition, intramural,
club, and recreation-level sports are extremely popular; about two-thirds of undergraduates
are involved in some sort of athletic endeavor. You can take aerobics, learn a martial art,
row novice crew, or play soccer for your house or dorm intramural team. Even if you are a
non-athlete, you’ll probably enjoy the Ivy League rivalries and the school spirit they inspire.
The Harvard-Yale football game continues to be one of the highlights of the school year.
This example of athletics demonstrates the scope of extracurricular life here; it is
astounding if not sometimes overwhelming. You will probably never be able to take part in as
many activities or groups as you would like; however, you can rest assured that the opportunities
for involvement will be numerous regardless of your level of ability.
The liberal arts curriculum provides students
with a base on which to build their futures.
Students graduate with a comprehensive
understanding of their concentrations, and with an
appreciation for other disciplines. In recent years, the
most popular concentrations have been economics,
government, and biology. This may reflect many students’
interest in business, law, and medicine, respectively.
But many graduates who were government
concentrators are not aspiring lawyers; they are pursuing
various career paths. The message here is that it is
impossible to generalize about Harvard students and
Students receive excellent career counseling
from the Office of Career Services, where they are
encouraged to explore possible career paths. More
than 300 companies recruited on campus in a recent
year. These facts illuminate the degree to which students
are exposed to different possibilities before they
- John Adams, President of the United States
- John Quincy Adams, President of the United States
- Leonard Bernstein, Composer, Conductor
- e. e. cummings, Poet
- W.E.B. DuBois, Educator, Writer
- T. S. Eliot, Poet
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Writer, Philosopher
- Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jurist
- Henry James, Author
- Tommy Lee Jones, Actor
- John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States
- John Lithgow, Actor
- Yo-Yo Ma, Cellist
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States
- Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States
- George Santayana, Author
- Henry David Thoreau, Writer
- Paul Wylie, Olympic Figure Skater
The student body benefits from a great human resource—the faculty. For the most part,
the professors are kind, approachable people, as well as remarkable scholars. They
make themselves available to students through office hours, by leading students in research,
and by chatting informally before or after class or in the Yard during the school day. The
enthusiasm of the professors is a perfect complement to that of the students they teach.
The Harvard professors are superb scholars, but they also prove to be caring and
devoted teachers. Ninety-eight percent of the faculty teach undergraduates, and the average
class size is smaller than you might imagine (about sixteen or seventeen students, according
to a recent survey). Students take advantage of the small class sizes provided by numerous
seminars and tutorials. Many students are involved in research at some point during their
college years, which might include one-on-one work with a professor. A senior thesis project is
an option for most concentrations, although a few of the departments do require a thesis.
Additional School Information
Libraries at Harvard
- Harvard’s Widener and Pusey Libraries
contain millions of volumes on more
than 57 miles of bookshelves.
- Harvard’s libraries contain more than
just books: a set of Harry Houdini’s
handcuffs; Charles Dickens’s walking
stick and paper knife; T.S. Eliot’s
panama hat; a set of George