The Importance of “Undergraduate Education”

This weekend, I was dragged along by my friend Van to a birthday party at MIT. I got into a discussion with a nice bloke there, and I, of course, had to ask the ultimate question of self-absorbed Ivy League-ers: So, what brought you to MIT?

His immediate response was: The Quality of the Undergraduate Education.

I think my immediate response was some sort of confused look. Education? What is this thing called “education” that brings one to a particular college? Maybe it’s me, but from an informal polling amongst my friends, The Quality of the Undergraduate Education does not seem to be among the list of reasons of why YOU should go to Harvard.

What is the correct response to: So, what brought you to Harvard?

Besides, the satirical “because it’s Harvard,” the appropriate response is: The People.

1) Why not The Quality of Undergraduate Education?

Because unless you’re math, romance languages, classics etc., the quality of the undergraduate education here does not sit up and smack you with its brilliance.

  • The Core: A crippled system of half-heartedly taught classes, indifferent and incompetent TFs, topics that would interest no one but concentrators in that particular field, the lack of departmental courses that would count towards the core requirements, reduction of electives that would actually interest individual students, confusion, and some perpetually delayed move to some other Core-like requirement system that may or may not learning about religion — and you’ve got yourself a headache.
  • Large Introductory Classes: While Harvard notes that all classes are taught by professor, this does not mean that one learns the most from one’s professor. It is true that Gregory Mankiw teaches the “Ec 10,” but we see his lovely face about once a month. Most of the teaching is done in section where the learning experience is highly dependent on the language abilities of your section leader.

2) We the People?

The most fantastic (and sometimes damning) aspect of this college is the people who go here. You’ve got your math geniuses, your Swedish fencers, your literary super stars, your inventor of the AIDS vaccine. It is amazing to be around so many people who are dedicated and talented in a diverse array of interests. Chances are you’ll be able to find someone who is passionate about sheep farming, chocolate making, or airplane flying.

I was talking to a senior who was graduating. She was accepted to a very solid Medical School, however, it wasn’t a “brand name” school. She clarified her position as: I want to go to a school where the people make the institution great, rather than the institution makes the people great.

What exactly is this distinction?

  • A school can make you competitive, but that does not mean you enter the school as a competitive student.
  • You gain more from the classroom (The Undergraduate Education) rather than from your peers.

What are the implications?

  • At a school that emphasizes The People over The Undergraduate Education, your outside of class life is much richer. That is why Harvard has its thousand and one clubs, its world class hockey players, cultural festivals every month, events bringing in notable politicians and brilliant minds.
  • At People-strong school, you will probably learn the most from talking, working and being with others, rather than working on that 20 hour problem set.
  • At a People-strong school, you might end up focusing most of your energies on non-educational but beneficial pursuits. Aka, this blog is an example of me NOT studying for my Chinese test on Friday.
  • At a Education-strong school, you will learn what you will need to learn in order to be competitive in the area of which you are studying.
  • At a Education-strong school, you will most likely focus much of your energies on academics rather than non-academic pursuits.
  • At a Education-strong school, chances are the people while spectacular at studying, may not also be spectacular at other arenas.

Because I am biased, obviously, you have been given fair warning that I am a Harvard student coming who considers and appreciate the fact that Harvard is a People-strong school.

3) Why I Wouldn’t Want to Be Anywhere Else

Being at Harvard has opened my mind at the possibilities my life can hold. If I want to, I can start up the next Facebook. If I want to, I can earn six digits upon graduation (and not do much else). It sounds silly, but I didn’t really think that I could actually wrangle a trip to study the culture of plant domestication in East Asia (and get Harvard to pay for it!)

Being around a set of people who have a grasp of so many things I’ve never given a thought to is well, amazing. If I want to find out the basics of Topology, I can ask my math concentrator blockmate. If I want a breakdown of the presidential candidates with a complete appendix of historical events, I can ask my roommate. If I want to ask Mankiw why his textbook is so expensive, I can stroll right into his office and demand my moneys back.

4) It’s About Who You Know

The longer I’m here, the more I realize that the world is run by the maxim of “It’s who you know.” For better or for worst, you will get to know the people that you should know in the coming years here.

Yes, it is true, as that nice MIT bloke pointed out, that the reason why Harvard is full of great people is because of the name. Who would go to a school with a mucky-ish education system if it wasn’t “Harvard?”

But honestly, you may get a Harvard education at any of the other top 20 or so schools on the U.S. News and World Report list, but you ain’t gonna get that many Harvard-quality kids in one place but at Harvard.

(Note: This already partially assumes that you would prefer to get your learning from your peers rather than from your classes. For some, another school would be more appropriate. And you’re going to get your share of amazing people at pretty much any Ivy League-quality school.)

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4 Responses to “The Importance of “Undergraduate Education””

  1. 1 Jorge

    I enjoyed that. As a soon-to-be Princeton student, I’m excited to be in an atmosphere filled with people so passionate about what they do. It’s not just that they’re all great at every discipline: they’re often additionally phenomenal at one specific subject, and the passion is vastly superior to students who merely “study well,” as you say. These schools are filled with people that love what they do, and they do things that are often quite far from the usual; in other words, it’s not as interesting if the student body is more talented at chugging beer than playing the piano while writing proofs and discussing the economic feasibility of certain political plans, all while knowing that they wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.

    It’s a great environment.

  2. 2 Ethan

    I totally agree with you. The people should be what make the institution great. And that is definitely one of the great things about Harvard. But I think you distinguish Harvard a little too readily. As I’m sure you’re aware, admissions offices are pretty damn selective these days. I think you definitely WILL find a population of incredible, “Harvard-quality” kids at those other “top 20 or so schools.” You can bet a lot of the kids at those schools were the ones waitlisted at Harvard, and by Harvard’s own definition of their waitlisted students, they’re “Harvard-quality.” And even not from an admissions perspective, I think it’s silly to suggest that Harvard is where you’ll find the most “Harvard-quality” kids. Hell, some kids even get accepted to the big H and choose to go to other schools (maybe your “bloke” from MIT was one of them). Are they not “Harvard-quality”?

  3. 3 Sara

    Hi! I am a high school senior (I’m an international student from Spain, but I have done all my high school here in USA.) I already asked for the application for Harvard. I entered to this web page to look for tips that would help me get admitted. I understand that you need to be valuable as a person, but I wondered what things they were looking for.

    What about essays? I think I read somewhere it is good to send two essays, but, what kind of essays would they be most impressed with?

    All the information in this blog is really interesting WHEN you have already been admitted. But I think you are missing topics from when you guys were in the process of being admitted. What was special about you two? What kind of questions did they make you in the interview?

    I really want to be accepted to Harvard and I am trying my hardest to do everything I can, but it would be great if people that are already in the school would give me tips for the application.


  4. 4 avocado

    I think this blog is for those who are already attending Harvard. Hence the name, “Surviving Harvard” and not “How to get into Harvard.”

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