What is it Like to Attend Harvard College?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. James is a New York City tutor and graduate of Harvard College. He studied History during his time at Harvard and now tutors many subjects including World History tutoring, Literature tutoring, and College Essay prep tutoring. See what he had to say about his alma mater:


VT:  Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike? 

James: Harvard’s campus is located in Cambridge Massachusetts, next to Boston. Thus, it provides a perfect balance of urban opportunities and the serenity of a quieter, less hectic environment. I don’t see “urban” and “safe” as antonyms. The campus is both urban and reasonably safe.

VT:  How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants? 

James: When I was an undergraduate, professors were mostly quite remote figures, except for certain subjects where the departments and classes were smaller, and professors therefore were more available. Professors were typically illustrious figures who lectured and otherwise dedicated themselves to research. Consorting with undergraduates was not high on their list of priorities. Obviously, there were plenty of exceptions, and graduate students—often very accomplished scholars in their own right—could be very cordial and helpful.

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students? 

James: I found dorm life a bit disappointing, but it was probably adequate. Given the size of the school, it is difficult to generalize about student life. However, MIT was reputed to have livelier parties and socializing opportunities, which says something.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study? 

James: Some programs certainly were rumoured to be more prestigious: Social Studies, History and Literature. To some extent, the undergraduate majors followed the fortunes of the graduate schools. For instance, English was reputedly a somewhat disorganized and fractious department, with numerous tensions between the faculty, and this seemed to affect the undergraduate experience in subtle ways. However, in almost all cases the university made an effort to ensure that undergraduates were taken care of. My advice is to pick a smaller department and less common majors. That was the path to more attention and TLC from the departments.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?  

James: Meeting people was not hard, but depended to a considerable extent on the initiative of individual students, like most aspects of life at Harvard, intellectual or social. The “Greek Life” consisted of a few clubs that only were sufficient to include a fraction of undergraduates—presumably rich and connected ones; I would say that these clubs were not a huge factor in undergraduate life.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? The Office of Career Services was very helpful and accessible. 

James: Certainly, there was plenty of recruiting on campus, though the efforts of the CIA and other government agencies to do so was a political hot potato, as I recall.

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, student union, and dorm lounges?  Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious? 

James: I remember a wealth of libraries and places to study. Students there are very fortunate in this sense.

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus? 

James: Cambridge is a quaint, manageable town with fine cultural and gastronomic resources. Boston, nearby, is big enough to accommodate any reasonable desires for entertainment, cultural immersion or escape. The diversity of these towns culturally and racially was quite rich, though Boston and Cambridge when I was there were both still quite racially divided, echoing the tensions and turmoil of the 70’s and 80’s, perhaps. Whether or not this is still the case, I don’t know.

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes? 

James: The student body is large, and class sizes could also be big, as in one Political Philosophy class with c. 700 people. Although this question does not ask me about the quality of my peers, only their quantity, I probably learned more from my fellow students, and that despite containing a disproportionate number of socially inept and tunnel-visioned overachievers, the student body is a remarkably fascinating and impressive bunch of students with an enormous range of interests and accomplishments. I was very impressed by them on the whole. 

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

James: The Political Philosophy professor of the above-mentioned class of c. 700 people (Michael Sandel) was very charismatic, and the well-conceived and organized class stimulated my thinking, due to his teaching and the excellent reading list. I wrote him a quixotic letter challenging the course’s central communitarian premises, and received an invitation to come speak with him in his office. Though the conversation was brief due to my being overawed and tongue-tied, it was an honor to be taken this seriously.

Check out James’ tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.