How to get into Harvard with average-ish grades!
November 17, 2008 4:03 AM   Subscribe

How to get into Harvard with average-ish grades!

After a lifetime of british education, i was dropped into the deep end when my parents sent me to a German school when we moved to Germany four years ago.
I've really improved my grades since the beginning, but i've been unable to attain the grades i used to get in England.
This put a considerable damper on my Harvard ambitions, but i have other tricks up my sleeve.
I'm in my last year of high school, but i go to university two days a week alongside school. I also took the SATs and, although not having received the results yet, i think i got marks in the 650-750 area in each section.
I will also try and get letters of recommendations from two professors at university.
Should i even attempt to apply to the ivy league universities, with my momentary average grade being approximately 1.8 (1=A, 2=B)?

This would be for the application for fall 2009, but i also have the possibility of taking a gap year as a social worker in south america next year, and then applying for fall 2010 - this having the advantage of me also having "social" qualifications, which i heard was also important.

What can i still do to raise my chances of being accepted to harvard (or other ivy league universities) and should i wait till after i've done my gap year?
posted by freddymetz to Education (47 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If this fails and what you really, really want is a degree from Harvard you should look into whether it might work to take classes there part time until a preponderance of course credits persuades them to accept you. I know you can take classes without matriculating there, and this approach worked for me at the U.S. university I attended, but it may or may not be effective with so prestigious a school as Harvard.
posted by XMLicious at 5:14 AM on November 17, 2008

(I went to Columbia, have several friends who went to Harvard)

Virtually everyone who applies to Harvard (or any Ivy League school) has a better academic record than you, with three exceptions:

- Legacy
- Representatives of small geographic/demographic minorities
- Prodigies in some field

I'm assuming #1 and #3 are out. I assume by your profile you're white and German, which will give you a few points, but not much. Depending on what courses you're taking at uni, and what your grades are, that may help; but again, there are plenty of applicants in your position. Honestly, the only thing that I think could make you stand out is a letter from some incredibly important alumnus.

There's more to life than Harvard.

Though no Harvard alum would ever admit that. ;)
posted by mkultra at 5:26 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

One of my old employees is on track to getting his undergrad degree from Harvard. Previously, he failed out of two colleges (state and community) and assistant managed a McDonald's. His foot in the door was working at Harvard (for me) and starting to take night classes at the Extension School (40$ a course). Once he got his Associate's from the Extension School, he was able to parlay that into taking regular Harvard undergrad courses.

This process has taken him much longer than normal to get his degree, but he will be a Harvard man come the end of next semester, despite the fact that he only paid something like 160 bucks a semester.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:32 AM on November 17, 2008

I'm very ambitious, and i've written some great application essays too. Without trying to sound arrogant, i can say that i have great upward potential - the only setback being the German system, which took a bit of getting used to for me.
What else could i do to raise my chances?
posted by freddymetz at 5:46 AM on November 17, 2008

I strongly recommend reading around the forums on collegeconfidential.

Better grades and a better SAT score would certainly improve your chances, but you should also know the amount of valedictorians Harvard rejects each year, and how many people with absolutely stellar SAT scores.

To improve your chances, you need to have a hook, something that sets you apart from the rest of the roughly 27,000 other applicants, and then write about that in your personal essay. Your gap year will probably help you in this regard.

You have to remember, the Harvard admission process is basically a crapshoot. They admit only around 7% of applicants.

If it's an ivy league your heart is set on, why Harvard? There are ivy leagues other than HYP that you might be more successful at - Cornell, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, UPENN - and they're all amazing schools. And why limit yourself to the Ivy League? There are plenty of colleges that offer a good education - why not look at some liberal arts colleges, or state universities, or universities in Britain or Germany?
posted by spockette at 5:54 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

How to get into Harvard with average grades: Have your family donate a building. The admissions officers will find it hard to say no when they think about the tasty Riesling they drank at the groundbreaking for Freddymetz Hall.

Why do you only want to go to places like Harvard/Princeton/Columbia anyway? You haven't given anything close to a good reason here. Maybe you have some reasons you're not telling us about, but it seems likelier that you're just chasing brand-name prestige with no clear idea what makes people think these are "good" schools. Don't do this; it will only hurt you in the end. The best school for your interests and personality, the one where you learn the most and flourish the best, might easily be Small Liberal-Arts College X, where they support your exploration and engage you in discussion, or State University Y, where they have a world-class ethnomusicology department (or quantum physics, Uzbek literature, health-care economics, whatever) but never get undergraduates who are as compelled by that field as you are. Remember, "ambition" is the desire to learn and to accomplish things, not the desire to buy the best branded and marketed name on your diploma.
posted by RogerB at 6:15 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Second collegeconfidential.

You do need a "hook." You SAT and your grades aren't up to par. The gap year idea might work, but not on its own - what other qualifications do you have? Are you the president or founder of any clubs/activities/sports? Are you really talented in one academic field, or an awesome musician?

Harvard might also require you to take SAT 2s (some schools do, some don't - a lot of very good schools do.)

Absolutely stellar letters of rec might help.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:15 AM on November 17, 2008

This is anecdotal. A woman in my high school (in a couple of my English classes) had average grades and less than stellar grades in math and sciences. She did, however, send a portfolio of her poetry and fiction writing, which was amazing. She was accepted into Harvard, Yale, and Brown. (She's now a famous feminist). Her incredible writing was the hook that spockette and others refer to. Grades and high SATs alone aren't necessarily enough. You increase your chances by being exceptional and passionate in something - sports, writing, art, dance, music, or political participation.
posted by gt2 at 6:19 AM on November 17, 2008

So far you haven't really show us or those at Harvard Admissions why you deserve to get in more than the 25k people that don't get into Harvard every year, aside from your belief that you have potential. Be able to answer that question confidently and you'll have a fighting chance.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:37 AM on November 17, 2008

Your SATs, while good, are second-rate at best. Like the others say, you need something else compelling. Most universities and colleges in the US will list their expectations for applicants on their websites. Also, we calculate GPAs as follows:


At Harvard, most of the people applying have 4.0s and got at least 700 on all the sections of the SAT. But the question remains: why are you so fixated on Harvard? There are plenty of other good schools in America which may be more accessible.

Other people are mentioning CollegeConfidential. Stay the hell away from there, it is full of neurotic overachievers who will make you feel even more nervous about this process than you already do, and it has no actual college officials so it's all just hearsay and panicked half-remembered rumors.
posted by Electrius at 6:39 AM on November 17, 2008

I got into an Ivy despite being from an utterly average public school. I did have good grades (3.9-ish), but they were public-school grades. The things that I think helped were (1) extracurriculars -- I was a section editor for the school's newspaper for two years, team captain for the academic team, tech crew for several shows, etc. (2) solid recommendations, including from a family friend with a Ph.D (not from the school I applied to, though). I also applied Early Decision. (3) very good verbal SAT scores (790 SAT I verbal, 800 SAT II Written) even though my math scores were much weaker (650 I think). (4) A pretty solid record of AP classes.

It sounds like its too late for you to work on high-school grades or take more APs. Assuming you're good, though, you should be able to kick ass on the SATs/SAT-IIs, hopefully score some very good letters of recommendation, maybe do something amazing with your year off that'll make you stand out? My freshman year roommate spent a year volunteering in Americorps before applying, so, that seemed like it had a positive effect.
posted by Alterscape at 6:39 AM on November 17, 2008

Your "other tricks" don't really distinguish you very much from most applicants. The majority of admitted students will probably have better grades (As) and SAT scores (and SAT 2 scores - yes, you need those too) than you; many of them will have taken AP or university classes and yeah, many of them will have done volunteer work, in the US or even overseas. Furthermore, being an international applicant can be something of a double-edged sword: on one hand, it gives you an interesting background that sticks out, but on the other, spots for international students are often somewhat limited at many schools. Last year, only 9% of the admitted class came from abroad.

I'm not saying this to denigrate your accomplishments - I know first-hand that moving to a new country and adjusting to their systems can be very difficult! - but rather to impress upon you the fact that getting into Harvard as an undergraduate should not be your one and only goal. Even people with impeccable qualifications (2400s on the SATs, straight A+ averages, university work and awards in many extracurriculars) get rejected every year. It's a crapshoot. The odds are pretty damn bad.

Consider whether or not there are other schools you might be willing to attend. A handful of people from terribly inferior schools like, oh, Yale or MIT or Oxford or U. Chicago do manage to succeed, you know. And don't limit yourself to the Ivy label: some of the Ivy schools won't give you as good an academic experience as their non-Ivy peers. Schools like MIT, U. Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Caltech, U.C. Berkeley, etc. are great examples of this (along with foreign schools like Oxford or Cambridge or what have you), and the admissions process at many of them is less of a meat-grinder than Harvard admissions. Coming from Europe, it might be a little hard to really get how very many universities the US has. An education from any one of the top 20 universities will be considered a world-class education, and you will have great opportunities at any one of the top 50 or 100. There're also experiences that aren't really available in Europe or even at top US universities: very small liberal arts colleges, for example, can give you many more opportunities to get to actually interact with professors than you would at Harvard. Don't limit yourself to Harvard because of name recognition, when you might be much happier and more successful somewhere else.

One thing you might consider doing to improve your admission chances: do you know what field you might be interested in? If so, you might want to look at trying to work in that field during the next year and your gap year, rather than going abroad to do social work (which is nice, and honorable, but which is something many applicants have done.) If you're interested in science, for example, take the initiative and asking one of your professors if you can work in their lab for the next year or two. If you're into graphic design, perhaps you could try to get an internship at a small magazine or design firm while trying to build up your portfolio. Find a way to say "look, despite my decent-but-not-great grades, I'm a serious student, I think I know what I might want to do and I've gone out of my way to get really serious exposure to the field." That kind of experience is still somewhat rare, because most students who matriculate at top American colleges do not take a gap year, and have had at most part-time or summer experiences with the things they think they may want to do. You say you have potential: demonstrate it.

Finally a note regarding the Harvard Extension program: while a few people do manage to become regular students after starting in the Extension program, it's not something you can depend on. Harvard doesn't want people using it as a way to avoid normal admissions, and it's really something of a standalone school. If you're not a Harvard employee, you'll be paying more than $160/term: it's more like $800 to $2000 per course, and financial aid is rather more limited for Extension School students. You can get your degree through the Extension program, but your diploma will note that you graduated from the Extension school, and you will probably not be taking classes with current undergrads, nor will you be exposed to the rest of undergrad life. You probably won't get the support that Harvard gives its regular international students, either, and you'll need to somehow get the funds to pay for courses and survive in one of the most expensive American cities on your own.
posted by ubersturm at 6:44 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Apply now, and if you don't get in apply again after your gap year. That said, considering your grades and SAT scores I don't like your chances. If you're a US citizen applying from overseas you might have a chance, assuming the rest of your application really stands out, but if you're an international student I'd say no way. (At MIT, and I think at most of the top US universities) the international admissions rate is a bit more than half the admissions rate for US citizens.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:56 AM on November 17, 2008

You might as well apply; applications while not free are cheap.

But you should not expect to get into an Ivy unless you can suddenly become very, very, very good at some obvious thing. So, what can you do? Become very, very, very good at some obvious thing. If you are English in Germany, suddenly thrown into a coursework in a foreign language, etc, you should probably note that in your admissions materials somewhere.

Add me to the list of "Why Harvard?"

In addition to the actual Ivies, I've heard tell that graduates of such craphole schools as Michigan and Wisconsin and Virginia and Berkeley and UCLA and Haverford and Swarthmore and William & Mary and Duke and Carolina and Stanford and Rice and Reed and, and, and, can sometimes do well in life.

If you're planning to return to Europe to live your life, you might do better with a good but not Harvard-good or Oxford-good British or German university than with any of the large number of astonishingly good schools with less reputation outside the US than they deserve.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:09 AM on November 17, 2008

I fully concur that there is far, far more to life than Harvard (where I did my AB) or the other Ivies (at one of which I now teach). You are fetishizing the place for no apparent reason. You haven't given a reason for *why* Harvard (or the Ivy League) is so important to you. If your rationale is the quality of the education on offer, trust me that you can get as good or better at many other schools. Harvard has a lot to offer, of course, but it's not on another planet. There's also plenty about the student experience at Harvard that just sucks ass, in my experience. And if your interest is prestige, you're over-thinking this entirely.

But on the face of it, mkultra has it right -- you're not likely to be competitive for Harvard unless you have some unmentioned extraordinary talent -- are you a math genius, a computer whiz, an amazing oboe player, a slamming hockey goalie? (Harvard has a very generous affirmative action plan for hockey players, if my experience is a guide; you can be a functional moron if you can score a hat trick once a season.) High SAT scores? So what? Harvard rejects people with 1500-1550 scores. I suspect they reject people with perfect scores but grades in the range you describe. I don't know the current cutoff statistics, but SATs are not determinate of anything, just a bare minimum threshold of qualification, an easy way to cut 12,000 applications down to 4000 or 5000 or so, maybe.

Your best approach is a clear explanation for the grades in your application essay, explaining the German system's standards and why the move from the UK set you back academically (should be a clear enough case to make -- Harvard's admissions officers certainly know that US high schools suffer from rampant grade inflation, which Harvard then continues, as do all the ivies; and most American academics know German and other European schools are far less grade-inflationary). And then a clear explanation of what makes you a better student than your transcript implies. And while a letter from a connected alum might help, it will sit on a stack of thousands like it. Thousands. I've observed the admissions process at my own current ivy league institution closely. You almost can't believe there are so many thousands of fabulously smart, talented, driven, motivated, high achieving kids out there in the world whose parents are willing to drop upwards of a quarter million bucks on a sheepskin. But there are. And only a small percentage of them will wind up in an Ivy League school. The rest don't cease being over-achievers or talented students because they go to Berkeley or Chicago or Indiana University or UNC or any of a hundred other top flight public and private schools in the US. As someone who does grad admissions for a PhD program, I can tell you that *no* undergraduate institution is a guarantor of future success or actual ability, and *most* produce some students of the highest caliber. Some of my best PhD students went to colleges you may never have heard of. I routinely see grad apps from Ivy league grads that don't come close to the best I see from major state universities.

My own view is that taking Harvard Extension classes will not help you gain admission to Harvard College. I think XMlicious is wrong about that (but it may be truer at other schools). Doing a year or two of undergrad work in a degree program at another good four year school (and absolutely kicking ass) has a better chance of making you competitive as a transfer student, but I wouldn't count on it. There is no real connection between the extension programs (a money maker) and the College. They certainly aren't in a farm-system relationship. And you aren't likely to meet many full time faculty members teaching in Extension.

The Ivies admit a *tiny* fraction of applicants (and it shrinks further every year). They pick the cream of the crop (and also a few jocks, legacy admits, prodigy musicians, and so forth). They reject more valedictorians than they admit. They reject people with 4.0 averages and high 1500 SATs. The scarcity of slots is waaaaay out of proportion to the value of the degrees sought. If everyone who *could* do well academically at an Ivy League school were admitted, they'd admit nearly all their applicants.

I'm not saying don't bother trying, but don't fixate so much on Harvard or the Ivy League. Don't confuse a "dream" with the reality of the situation. Dreams don't make careers. Hard work does. Ivies are neither the automatic success ticket machines they are sometimes made out to be, nor the only options for a top flight and career-launching education -- and sometimes, often, the wrong option for many people. (Harvard, for example, is a very alienating environment for a lot of people -- I was one of them, to the point of dropping out for several years.) Depending on what you want to do with your education, there are likely far more attainable choices for a quality US BA (or as Harvard calls it, an AB) degree that will work for you just fine. And in ten or twelve years, when you've actually accomplished something in your working life, no one will care where you went to school, no matter how unbelievable that seems from your current perspective. They will care what you have *done* with whatever education you've acquired. And they may well be more impressed if you've done extremely well coming from a more modest educational background. I know I am more impressed when I see someone who has put together their own serious intellectual life project at an underfunded and modestly ranked state school than someone who has done the same with the hand-holding guidance of a major senior scholar or two at an Ivy League school. And here's a secret -- while the Harvards of this world allow nearly every student to interact with major league faculty members -- to the point that students there take it for granted -- those same kinds of faculty members exist in nearly every good school, and are *more* accessible at schools where there are fewer highly motivated and interested students knocking on their doors at office hours. When you routinely teach classes of 100 or 200 students who are just punching the clock, it's a real treat to have one or two or ten who really care about your subject latch on to you for independent studies, thesis advising, etc. When you routinely teach classes of 25 super-motivated students, it's a different story. You almost long for someone who doesn't give a shit and needs help getting motivated. (Not really, but you get my point. Me personally, I look for the ones who feel lost and out of place at an Ivy, for any number of reasons, and take my greatest satisfaction from advising working-class students who feel like they don't belong even when they've earned the spot. Advising self-confident high achievers gets a little old sometimes.)

I did my undergrad work at Harvard, but my doctoral work at a large public university, despite having had Ivy options for grad school as well. I have never, ever regretted that choice - indeed, I think I made the best possible choice and came to regret not going to a large public university for undergrad work. In many ways, I think the large public university where I did my grad work was -- overall -- a better *school* than Harvard, and every bit Harvard's equal as a research institution. Granting that grad and undergrad are different beasts, I'd put the best undergrads I knew at that large public institution (and those I taught at the large public institution where I took my first teaching job, and granting they were both major state universities of high standing) up against the most talented of my Harvard classmates any day of the week. And I would rate the educational quality of these schools as functionally equivalent to anything I've seen in private universities. In other words, Harvard ain't got nothing you can't get somewhere else, except the name on the degree. And the value of the name on the degree is routinely over-rated by students and parents making the "which college is best for me" choice because they are looking through the wrong end of a telescope clouded by myths and baseless assumptions.

A final thought: Why, out of curiosity, would you not choose to go to university in Germany or the UK? If you're a citizen of either, that makes much more sense (or are you a US citizen living abroad?). Assuming you're a non-citizen of the US, you don't (legally, can't) fall into any official "under-represented" category (sorry to say, there is no bonus for being European and I don't think Harvard has a German quota). And you're likely to get little or no financial aid, meaning you're looking at a ~$300K investment in your BA degree if you attend an elite US university. On the other hand, you could attend college at much lower cost in Europe. So why not Oxford? Cambridge? Heidelberg? Etc. Then come to the US for (funded, hopefully) graduate study when you've got a dynamite transcript to shop around. Graduate fellowship funding, for the most part, has no citizenship restrictions.

Sorry if this comes across as harsh. You sound driven, but you're thinking narrowly and need to get some perspective here. Harvard is just one of many, many great universities in the world. It's better than some in certain respects, worse than others in other respects. It's not worth "dreaming" about, and certainly not worth seeing as an all-or-nothing goal.

Personally, on balance and in hindsight, I wish I'd gone somewhere else (U Chicago, if the truth be known, which the subsequent years have convinced me is -- by a notch -- the most rigorous and ambition-rewarding undergraduate liberal arts institution in the US). But I turned down Chicago -- and every other Ivy [I was a music prodigy with very high grades -- UK grades, in fact -- and a perfect SAT score] -- for Harvard. In retrospect, it was a far less consequential decision than it seemed at the time. I would have been equally happy -- or unhappy, as I was for reasons that had not very much to do with my choice of school -- at any decent school, and would have gotten a better education (for my own interests) at several others besides Harvard. It's all about you, not your school.

[One last pearl of hard-won wisdom from an over-educated geezer who knows the lay of the land: when you 'dream' of a future, make sure it's your own dream and not your parents' or your social circle's dream you're mistaking for your own. Seriously. Think hard about that.]
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:13 AM on November 17, 2008 [31 favorites]

I would second/third many posters' recommendations to consider schools that aren't as "name brand."

I go to a small liberal arts school and I love having the opportunity to really talk to my professors and know them as people. I have a friend at Williams (the top liberal arts school in the USA, but hardly a blip on the radar for many applicants) who loves it there, and the smaller applicant pool may give you an opportunity, if you showcase the unique aspects of your education and plead your case, to really shine.

As far as larger schools that are slightly less brand name but (IMHO) equally prestigious - I have friends at NYU, Vanderbilt, U.C.-Berkeley, Caltech, Johns Hopkins, Duke, University of Chicago, and, yes, Harvard (she got in off the waitlist). They all love their schools and couldn't be happier. I'd also recommend looking into Northwestern and Columbia. I really think it comes down to research - really look at a school closely and decide if it's right for you. Yes, you'll get a stellar education from an Ivy, but you'll also be held up against thousands of other overachievers who just want the Ivy experience and the bragging rights that come with it.
posted by SputnikSweetheart at 7:17 AM on November 17, 2008

If you just want a Harvard degree attached to your name you might consider going somewhere else for undergrad, getting straight As and generally distinguishing yourself in various ways, and then applying to graduate school at Harvard. But I would also advise you to take seriously the people who are questioning your fixation on one particular school, like 4cheesemac, given how many excellent universities and colleges there really are around the world as well as in the U.S.

That said, other factors can help your chances somewhat: enthusiastic recommendation letters from teachers who can speak specifically about your acheivements and talents, high school activities and sports achievements, community service, early prodigious achievement in some particular subject, and near-perfect scores on your standardized tests (e.g., SATs). I don't know how much combinations of those things, assuming you have any of them, can compensate for a B/B+ gpa.

Of course, if there are mitigating circumstances in your poor grade performance the last several years, and if there is a clear pattern of significant grade improvement that suggests the poor grades were a fluke and you have since returned to excellent form, then that might perhaps be something to address directly in your admission essay - what your challenges were, how you identified and overcame them, what you learned from the experience of significantly improving your school performance, how that would make you an excellent Harvard student. (Given your grades I think your only chance is to make a case for something about your own background and qualifications and aspirations being a specific fit with some aspect of the Harvard experience. I don't know what that might be, not knowing much about Harvard or you.)

Last but not least - isn't the deadline for getting materials submitted for next fall Dec. 1? That's only a couple weeks away.
posted by aught at 7:30 AM on November 17, 2008

Even some of the posts here are out of perspective and way into sarcasm. Getting into MIT, U Chicago, Caltech, etc is just as much of a crapshoot as getting into Harvard. All are great, but anything in the top 100 or so of public and private institutions has enough opportunities for anyone sufficiently ambitious.

If you want a fancy label, buy a handbag.
posted by mezamashii at 7:35 AM on November 17, 2008

This was years ago, but ..

I had average-ish grades, extremely good standardized testing (800 Math, 770 Verbal on my SAT I & multiple SAT II's), a bunch of AP's (not 5's on all of them), and some A's from college courses (local university & distance learning, starting from 7th grade). I also had some scientific research experience.

I had a very mixed bag of responses from universities. Harvard rejected me. So did MIT, Yale, and Princeton. I got into Dartmouth, Columbia, Duke, and Stanford. Cornell said that if I went to another university and got at least a 'B' average, they would let me transfer in. Uhm. There were others, I don't really remember.

If you have average-ish grades, applying for colleges will be a crapshoot even with very very good everything else. There is no guarantee that you will get into Harvard. As someone said above, there are hundreds of people with perfect grades and very good SAT's who get rejected every year, and Harvard can afford to be picky.

Sooo ... it can be done, but nobody can guarantee an acceptance unless you happen to be Very Very Rich, and/or willing to donate a building.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:37 AM on November 17, 2008

Self-correction: I know I am more impressed when I see someone who has put together their his or her own serious intellectual life project

See, I told you a Harvard education wasn't so great.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:45 AM on November 17, 2008

fourcheesemac: These days, Harvard's financial aid policies extend to international students, as do the aid policies of many other universities. You're definitely right on the overall money front, though. When I realized (last fall, having gone to Munich) that students at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München pay a €400 Studentenwerkbeitrag every term, rather than the $40k tuition/etc. that's normal for private U.S. universities, it was honestly hard to believe.

Just to underscore my observations above: I went to MIT. I applied to many of the places I mentioned (and a few others), with an A+ average, near-perfect SATs and perfect SAT IIs, scads of AP courses, an art portfolio, and a bunch of scientific research under my belt. I got into some of them and got rejected or waitlisted by others - and not always the schools that you would expect. While I found MIT challenging and infuriating and incredible, it wasn't the name that made a difference. It was the ease of access to paid research opportunities, the value placed on creativity and innovation inside and outside of the classroom, the unexpected non-academic opportunities (booking bands for large events, learning how to weld and use powertools), and the insanely difficult/awesome coursework. Thing is, there are several other schools that would have given me many of those things too, at institutions with similar cultures: U. Chicago, for example, or Caltech, or even Carnegie Mellon. And yes, despite what mesamashii says, some of these top universities certainly have less insane acceptance rates than Harvard. Not MIT, perhaps, but U. Chicago and Johns Hopkins, for example, had acceptance rates of over 1/3 when I applied.

You should really sit down and figure out what you value most. Good programs in the specific fields you find interesting? An interesting student life? A large city, a college town, or something in between? Small class sizes and access to professors? (Classes that are actually taught by professors, rather than graduate students?) Opportunities for undergraduate research? Prestige and a well-known brand name? A program that will help launch you into graduate school, medical school, or law school? Once you have your answers, take a hard look at what schools in the US and elsewhere will best fulfill your needs, and which of those schools have students with similar qualifications. Within the U.S., do consider the top 50 or 100 schools, not just the top 10.

By all means, apply to Harvard if you think it's honestly one of the best options for someone with your interests, and apply to other schools that might be a bit of a reach, as well. But be willing to consider other places, too, and don't artificially limit your options by declaring that your plan is more or less "Ivy or bust!"
posted by ubersturm at 7:54 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

I will also add this: I neglected to address the "gap year" question. Absolutely, yes. If you can spend a year doing something difficult, challenging, worthwhile, and mind-expanding, and better still, something that serves the world in a serious way, you will greatly enhance your distinction as an applicant in the following year. It may not make up for the other less than perfect parts of your application, but you might find your own voice, your own project, and sort out your own "dreams" much more clearly in the process.

If it were up to me, *all* students would be required to spend a year or two working in the world beyond school before going to college. The single biggest obstacle to a successful college experience is, in my opinion, immaturity and a lack of knowledge about how people without privilege see the world. The single best thing I did for my own education was, in fact, to drop out of college for several years. I found my life project by doing that, and came back with a sense of purpose and a body of knowledge I would never have found in school. Don't do it just to pad your resume; do it in a spirit of exploration and service. Become a richer, deeper, more other-directed person and you will get a richer, deeper education no matter where you go to school.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:54 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Couple points when considering a college.

A. Never put all your eggs in one basket. Don't say it's Harvard or bust. Apply to about 10 different schools. Leave the door open.

B. Don't go to a school just because you hear it is good. Do research and find out what schools suits your individual needs first and foremost. You do not have to go to Harvard if they do not offer a program that you really have your heart set on. Some might think, "ew I'm going to BFE university!" However if you learn tons from there then who really cares.

C. Remember that you are going to have to pay back your tuition in one form or another. Is the tuition at Harvard really really really worth it? Do you have a fortune 500 company ready to offer you a job after graduation?

Just a few thoughts you might want to think about. Good luck!
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:57 AM on November 17, 2008

Yes, your gap year will probably help. I'd wait to apply for the year that you actually want to attend Harvard.

As others mentioned above, there are kids with stronger grades and scores than you that will be rejected. But, the converse of that is that there are kids with weaker scores than you that will be accepted. Scores matter to a degree. Harvard is also looking for something else that separates you apart from the crowd.

As Fitzsimmons has said many times in interviews, Harvard admits not just individuals but "a class." A little bit of this, a little bit of that. So they love kids that are legacies but also kids who are the first in their family to attend college. They love violinists and painters and Westinghouse winners. But they also love kids who are just sort of generally smart.

More specific advice:
-Make sure your letters of recommendation are extremely strong. Letters saying you are a good kid and all won't cut it. The person who writes the letter should essentially be in awe of you and your abilities. It also matters whether this person has written letters before, especially to Harvard. Believe it or not, Harvard also has a memory for recommenders. If this person writes thousands of great letters every year for lots of students, yours won't get noticed.

-Your essay is important. It is actually read and may tip you from rejected to admitted. Spend some time on it. It should be sincere and self-aware but also do not shy away from selling yourself. That is exactly the point. Mention anything that you weren't able to mention anything else.

-Quality vs. Quantity. Don't fill your extra-curricular activities with endless lists. Put down your strongest/most unique with an emphasis on why they are special.

-Stress/Other circumstances. Have you had any hardships? Had to work most of your childhood to support your family? Put that down. "Persevering in the face of Hardship" is something Harvard loves.

That's about it. If you want to go to Harvard, you want to go to Harvard. Everyone has their own reasons.
posted by vacapinta at 8:05 AM on November 17, 2008

I'm going to treat this as a more general question about getting into a good US university. I also applied as a foreign student, did my O' and A'levels, took a gap year in which I basically bummed, taught a little, worked in a bank a little, did a literature A'level. So nothing out of the ordinary.

Went to an Ivy League and got into a couple more, graduated about 5 years ago. Had slightly lower grades than most of the other people there. Didn't have the highest grades or SAT scores of my peers even at my own school. Here's why I think I got in (very general advice I'm afraid):

- First, an application is a package, and the grades are simply the first hurdle. There are a million perfect SAT scores applying. It helps to have a higher score than most around you, simply to get your application noticed (unless you are a prodigy)

- Now seriously think of yourself as a package. My feeling is that people who went to my university were, by and large, not much brighter. What they were was unique and, in a way, developed and interesting personalities. (This doesn't count the legacies, mind, whom I steered away from). How do your activities and interests, your writing style, create something that is unique, compelling and desirable? And more, how can you present that through your experiences, your writing, and your references?

- In my case I think it was my writing that got me in. Actually I know this, because one of my interviewers let it slip. Something about it caught someone's attention. Someone liked the style or the humour or even the content enough to keep me going through the sifting.

- It helps if you have an interesting history or narrative. Admissions officers are people, if you can get them hooked then you have a better chance of getting heard.

- But most of all, stand out. Be different and don't be afraid to be different. This may be more of an issue in the Asian culture I come from than in your European. Seize chances you get to do interesting things: in my first year class there was an amateur fire fighter, a child star, the winner of a state-wide steak eating contest, any number of aspiring presidents, and me who wrote about singeing my eyebrows in a gas fire.

This is all fairly general advice, but that's not surprising because there is no answer, otherwise I'd bottle it and sell it to you and all your future classmates.

About Harvard Ext or even Harvard Summer School: I'd say don't bother. It's expensive and (in my experience at least) gets no respect.

@fourcheesemac: sure, the big Ivies are alienating and you barely ever get come within 50 feet of your big name professor. But this really truly depends on your department. In my miniscule department, I was frequently in a class of two (me and the professor) starting sophomore year. But if you're a gov or biochem major, forget it.
posted by tavegyl at 8:20 AM on November 17, 2008

sure, the big Ivies are alienating and you barely ever get come within 50 feet of your big name professor.

I didn't mean to say that, if I did say that. Actually, I think I said the opposite. It's relatively *easy* to have extensive contact with big name professors at an elite college, Ivies included. Classes are small, and profs do a lot of the teaching. My point was that in spite of that, you can *also* find that kind of contact at a big state university with 200-seat classes, precisely because the profs are less besieged by highly motivated, very talented students.

What I found "alienating" about Harvard was the absurd amplification of social class privilege in the social life of the institution. I worked full time when I came back after dropping out, paid my own tuition, and nothing ever focused my attention on studies so well as that.

There's a good reason I have spent the rest of my career studying social class in the US, and working with and in impoverished blue collar and Native American communities. Actually, I thank Harvard profusely for teaching me the meaning of "class privilege," and teaching me to despise it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:26 AM on November 17, 2008

What do you want to do after college? If you have a passion for something (could be as broad as liberal arts, but the more specific, the better), you should find a school that has an excellent program in that field. Not only will it make your 4 years more interesting, it'll also give you a boost on the application essays since you by default have something interesting to talk about that the college would love to see.

(Most likely, that school with your field of interest isn't an Ivy. IMO, that's something that should be #10-#20 on your list of priorities.)
posted by shadytrees at 8:43 AM on November 17, 2008

My own view is that taking Harvard Extension classes will not help you gain admission to Harvard College. I think XMlicious is wrong about that (but it may be truer at other schools). Doing a year or two of undergrad work in a degree program at another good four year school (and absolutely kicking ass) has a better chance of making you competitive as a transfer student, but I wouldn't count on it. There is no real connection between the extension programs (a money maker) and the College. They certainly aren't in a farm-system relationship. And you aren't likely to meet many full time faculty members teaching in Extension.

Actually, yes, it is not uncommon to get into Harvard by taking Extension classes. My sister received her Harvard diploma in that way. And yes, full-time faculty do teach at the Extension. It will not, however, give you a "Harvard experience," which seems to be what you want. You'd be living and working in Boston and taking classes with folks from all over the community, not living in a Harvard dorm (or whatever they call them) and rolling with the silver spoons.
posted by liketitanic at 8:44 AM on November 17, 2008

yes, it is not uncommon to get into Harvard by taking Extension classes

Frankly, I'd love to see non-anecdotal evidence for that. It was not at all the case back in the dark ages, but I haven't paid any attention to Harvard's institutional structure in the last decade or so. I don't doubt your story, but what degree did your sister earn? An ALB from Ext or an AB from the College? Because "get in to Harvard through Extension" implies the latter.

On the surface, it just seems unlikely to be a good plan *if* what you want is the AB from the College. You can take a Harvard Extension class practically by signing up for it (open enrollment, I think it's called). There didn't use to be any significant financial aid for Ext students (and tuition is quite low by comparison). And a significant majority of ext students were either adult learners not working toward degrees, or foreign students. You seem to be saying that you can take extension classes straight through to the AB degree and get a Harvard education that is equivalent to the College minus the Harvard social experience (ugh). As I understand it, Ext does not even offer the same degree. It's not an AB, it's a ALB (Liberal Arts Bachelor). And most students in Ext earn only an associates degree, not even offered by the College. There are far fewer majors available than in the College, and students take less than half their coursework with F/T faculty members. The rest are taught by adjuncts, grad students, and retired professionals who often don't have terminal advanced degrees.

I don't doubt there are occasional students who transfer into the college from ext, but I doubt it's common. At least in my time, Ext students were decidedly second class citizens of the institution and there was little or no interaction between Ext and the College. I'm not saying that's right or good or that they were not as smart, just that the two entities -- the College and the Extension school -- had almost nothing to do with each other socially or academically. Ext was designed as a public service outreach many decades ago.

So yes, technically, almost *anyone* can get a Harvard degree through Extension. It won't be the "same" degree in the eyes of graduate schools or employers, however. And it is not otherwise "the same" as the educational experience (not to mention the social experience) of students admitted to the College. Otherwise, who would bother applying to the College or paying the much higher tuition at the College?

In 2005, the NY Times ran an interesting article about the Ext School (which gave out a whopping 118 ALB degrees in 2005, vs. around ten times that for the College in the same year). Worth reading. It's an effective and useful program that serves a lot of students very well. It's just apples and oranges.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:13 AM on November 17, 2008

You will not get into Harvard with those marks. My advice, if you are seeking a degree from Harvard, is to get into a school (not Harvard) that has a program that is respected in your field of study. Excel in that program, being not only the top of the class - but marketer of your ideas: befriend your professors, try to get some work published, meet others influential in your field, etc. Complete that program with High Honors and apply to one of Harvard's fine graduate school programs, Harvard Business School, Law School, Medical School, School of Government, School of Design (ok, I threw that one in for me).

Employers tend to look at your graduate school work for you qualifications, and your college work for your connections.
posted by spoons at 9:16 AM on November 17, 2008

Unless you can convince in 200 words or less why you must go to Harvard and nowhere else the admissions office and all the doubters here, you're better off looking at the wonderfully diverse and top-rated opportunities outside of Cambridge.

Now for the somewhat off-topic answer...about an aspect of your Harvard fixation not yet addressed, although many answers hint at it when they encourage you to explore other options possibly better suited to your personality and learning objectives.

Do you understand how different the Harvard undergraduate experience is from other universities? In a bad way. Undergrads have limited to no contact with professors, must live on campus for four years, at least two years longer than you'll want to live in a dorm (not that you could afford to live anywhere else in Cambridge) and you'll be expected to participate in traditional, structured group activities, with people you happen to live with, not necessarily the people you'd choose as friends. And I may exaggerate a bit, but from day one at the big Ivies, the imperative is network, network, network with your peers and whatever person with slightly higher status who comes your way.

Harvard doesn't give you opportunities to "find" yourself, to ponder great books and ideas any more so than any other school, and perhaps less so because of the Ivy networking imperative.

On the weekends, you won't be looking for the perfect group of brilliant outlandish friends to hang with like you would be doing at State U or Liberal College Y. And you will never have close relations with your professors. To see them you typically go through secretaries. They might lecture in your classes. More often you are taught by harried graduate students. Sure, sure in a handful of departments that might not be the case, but if you've got unspecified I-wanna-go-to-Harvard-itis, you probably also have I-wanna-sip-sherry-on-Thursdays-with-famed-professor-X-and-discuss-the-ways-of-the-world-itis.

Harvard will scratch neither itch and will probably humiliate you as you try to satisfy those impulses. That's true for undergrads, for grad students, even for junior professors. Finally, school is enormous and consequently is run more like a corporation than a college.

If you want to come to the US for college, great! AskMe is full of people who can provide advice. There are many books and resources to help you find the right experience.

But think carefully about Harvard and what it is that appeals to you about it. Whatever it is, can probably be satisfied by some other school that's a lot more affordable and personal... Unless it's the name, Harvard, you're after. In which case, use the gap year to mature a bit and think about colleges for next year or so.

Good luck.

(Coming from a BA from US state school, Japanese univ. w/MA --wrote in Jpn., Ph.D. from Princeton, and time on postdoc at Harvard.)
posted by vincele at 10:37 AM on November 17, 2008

This thread is turning into a fantastic resource by itself, but still, here are a few places to look for further reading, about both why and how to broaden your college search beyond the Ivy League brand-name universities:

* Colleges that Change Lives (the college guidebook, and the organization of schools)
* Looking Beyond the Ivy League, another guidebook by Loren Pope (the author of the above-linked Colleges that Change Lives)
* Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League, a guidebook in a similar spirit (haven't read this one, but it looks like a useful supplement to the Pope books despite the dopey title)
posted by RogerB at 12:11 PM on November 17, 2008

If you're really set on Harvard, for whatever reason, remember that you can always transfer. I know several people who couldn't get into their choice school, worked hard for a year or two of undergrad at a different school, and then transferred.

You might even save yourself a good deal of money, depending.

I also know a lot of people who went to that other school and ended up loving it... so you don't necessarily have anything to lose by applying to a range of universities.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:55 PM on November 17, 2008

There's some disagreement in this thread about access to faculty at places like Harvard. It does vary by department -- smaller majors provide more access. My experience entailed frequent contact with faculty, junior and senior, including some of the most amazing minds I've encountered in my life -- this was the best part about Harvard for me.

In general, as life advice for students, your most senior professors -- most of them (us) -- still love teaching, still find interacting with individual students who are developing a serious interest in their field stimulating and rewarding and central to their vision of professionalism. No matter what a school's reputation for faculty aloofness or inaccessibility, you *can* find serious scholars who will engage with you and even mentor you if you are yourself serious about the subject of their research. You have to make a serious effort, but advising motivated and curious students who do so is, at least for me, the very best part of the job. Sure, there are rock stars who are too busy, and jerks who are too self-important, but those are minorities even at the most elite institutions. Sure, people are busier with non-teaching work at bigger universities, and perhaps (at the margin) at more prestigious universities (where promotion requires commensurately more scholarly productivity). No matter what you hear, however, most serious scholars also love to teach. The idea that they are two radically different callings is bunk. They feed each other fundamentally.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:05 PM on November 17, 2008

FCM, yes, it's an ALB. The thing is, the distinction seems to matter most to Harvard folks. If you want a "Harvard degree," the ALB appears, for all intents and purposes, to be one to folks outside of the Ivy community. The degree served her well--if you're really curious, send me a MefiMail, they're her details and not mine, but she has been an Oxbridge fellow, among other accolades, with that ALB.

So if the OP wants "a Harvard degree," the Extension would serve. If the OP wants a Harvard experience it's something else entirely.
posted by liketitanic at 1:47 PM on November 17, 2008

Thanks SO much for all these answers! Some of them really made me think about my choice.
It's true that my primary motivation is the reputation and the networking possibilities.
I wasn't just considering harvard, but all the ivy league colleges, and yes - any one of the top twenty would suffice - but whatever happened to aiming high!

Some things i didnt mention earlier:
-I skipped a year of school, so i'm graduating a year earlier
-im writing a symphony and i write poems and short stories
I guess these could be useful in building a creative portfolio then!
posted by freddymetz at 2:03 PM on November 17, 2008

liketitanic: the Harvard Extension website specifically calls it a "Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies." In other words, it will be clear that the degree is for an Extension program, and employers, graduate schools, and the like will probably make judgements on the basis of that - rightfully or not. Furthermore, note that it's simply a "Bachelor of Liberal Arts." You don't get a major at the Harvard extension school, and the "optional fields of study" are fairly limited. (Note that the physical science are pretty much absent!) So no, it's not really a normal "Harvard Degree," and if you're trying to, say, head to grad school with your Extension School Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree, you will probably face an uphill battle trying to convince admissions officers that it's worth as much as a normal Bachelor's degree from Harvard. It's possible, of course, as your sister's success shows - if you're talented, determined, lucky, and stubborn, a great many things are possible. But if you have the option to be a full-time student pursuing a normal B.A. with a fully supported major at another very good university, you'll probably have to struggle less, and the lack of the Harvard name is unlikely to make that much of a difference.

And freddymetz: of course you can aim high! However, you need to know what you're aiming for, and you need to have contingency plans. If getting into one of the top 20 schools is going to be a crapshoot, you need to be prepared to work on accomplishing your goals somewhere else where you can be happy, at least for a while. That is, I suspect, is what many of us are trying to suggest.
posted by ubersturm at 2:57 PM on November 17, 2008

And yes, if you're writing a symphony (!), that's definitely the kind of thing that you should consider bringing up in your essays or sending in your supplemental materials. Same goes for any creative writing, particularly if it's been published outside of your school.
posted by ubersturm at 3:01 PM on November 17, 2008

ubersturm, I understand that--which is why I made the distinction between the Harvard "name" and experience--and I also pointed out to the OP in correspondence that grad school would be a hurdle. I know what the Extension School is and does, and I also think there's a lot of--frankly--snobbery about it from folks who were educated at Harvard and elite institutions in that circle. My point was only to reaffirm an earlier comment that you can get a diploma from Harvard through HES, and that in many paths and circles, it would be significant and important. In any event, I actually think he (?) would do better at a top-tier liberal arts school.
posted by liketitanic at 4:42 PM on November 17, 2008

Sorry, fourcheesemac, I clearly read your message too fast.

Not to turn this into chatfilter about life at Harvard, but wow, I clearly have had a different experience from most of the rest of the universe. Worked my way through (within limits as a foreign student), barely noticed the class issue (admittedly you Americans don't know how to do class issues), got to work closely with top professors, loved living on campus, had brilliantly quirky groups of friends, etc. I do however admit to the same prejudice against Harvard Ext. I do feel that the 'Harvard experience' is part of what you pay for. If the degree is what you want, great, but the rest of it: the dynamic people, the oversize egos, all of that were great learning experiences.

Returning to the original question: my own feeling is that your gap year is a great idea. I see you've got it planned out, going to South America as a social worker, but urge you to keep your eye open for other interesting things you can do there. A gap year is a great opportunity to fling yourself into situations you could never imagine yourself in and come out the better for it: both in terms of your application and your personal growth. Don't underestimate the personal growth: if nothing else, it will show in your application.
posted by tavegyl at 7:56 PM on November 17, 2008

Do you understand how different the Harvard undergraduate experience is from other universities? In a bad way. Undergrads have limited to no contact with professors, must live on campus for four years, at least two years longer than you'll want to live in a dorm (not that you could afford to live anywhere else in Cambridge) and you'll be expected to participate in traditional, structured group activities, with people you happen to live with, not necessarily the people you'd choose as friends.

I also don't want to derail the thread too much but it does seem to be about Harvard. But the experience described above is I think misleading. I went to Harvard as an undergrad. I knew many Professors, even personally (invited to their homes for dinner, etc) and was doing graduate-level independent research one-one with a well-known Professor by junior year. Each student is also assigned a full faculty member with whom you discuss your courses, career track etc. One of my friends, a physics major, was assigned Sheldon Glashow. It is true that Harvard is what you make it. Few things are handed to you on a platter. But thats a good thing for an ambitious kid.

Also the House system is one of the best parts of Harvard. Freshmen are all put together in the Yard the first year but, after that, you *choose* the people you want to live with. So I'm also not sure about the "people you happen to live with" part either.

Finally, I went to Harvard as a scholarship kid from broke parents. And I had no class issues whatsoever. None. It is still one of the most deeply memorable times of my life. And many of my close friends today are ones I have carried forward since then.
posted by vacapinta at 3:04 AM on November 18, 2008

I also think there's a lot of--frankly--snobbery about it from folks who were educated at Harvard and elite institutions in that circle. My point was only to reaffirm an earlier comment that you can get a diploma from Harvard through HES, and that in many paths and circles, it would be significant and important

Nuhuh. You said it was "not uncommon to get into Harvard by taking classes at the extension school." Unless "get into Harvard" means "earn an Ext degree," you're simply wrong about that despite the double negative for emphasis.

So here's a double positive (=negative, very rare in English) response: yeah, right.

Of course having any degree is 'significant and important,' but a regular four year college degree from Williams or UNC or Tennessee (or anywhere else that has competitive admissions and a standard four year degree program) is worth a good deal more than an HES ALB (or any other non-competitive non-traditional continuing ed degree) as a credential for grad school or employment. So whatever "paths and circles" you're talking about, they aren't the paths and circles where one needs to leverage the reputation of one's degree program to move ahead.

And the difference is indeed quite salient to people with *no connection to Harvard.* Those of us here who are alumni are not being "snobby" about it because we have "real" Harvard degrees -- and I don't think I've been snobby about Ext (or Harvard in general) at all. I said very good things about Ext upthread. I have read *thousands* of transcripts in my life as an academic, with hundreds of colleagues on search and admissions and fellowship and grant and hiring committees. Any of them would note the difference immediately, even those who went to school in other countries. You may fool people who don't know the difference, but do you want to count on people not knowing the difference when it is spelled out in black and white on the degree, the transcript, and on Harvard's website? And when reviewers in many situations make it their business to know the difference?

The fact of the matter is that an Ext ALB is not worth nearly as much on the career market as the AB, period, and in general. That is not to say that it's a bad education or a bad degree, or that people like your sister (and thousands of others) have not gone on to good careers with an Ext ALB. They have. With real Harvard (ALB) degrees. But unless the world has changed dramatically in Cambridge since the 1980s, an Ext education is not nearly as rigorous as a College AB (yes, you can slack at the latter, and bust your ass for the former -- I'm not talking about effort, but difficulty or, as I prefer, "rigor"). The irony here is that *you* are making the case that the "Harvard name" is all that matters once you leave school. This Harvard grad, at least, is saying it's the content of your educational experience, and the commonly known distinction between an open enrollment program for non-traditional students and a competitive program for the best and brightest students of each annual cohort, nationally and internationally.

There is a good reason nearly anyone can get (into) the Ext ALB (program), whereas you have to survive a horrific winnowing process (admissions, with a less than 5 percent chance of success) to get into the College. Like I said, if the two were functionally equivalent in the real world, who would bother applying to the College, taking that chance, and paying *much* more money for the degree?

The fact is, a solid BA program in a good liberal arts college or a major state university (where admission is competitive) will far exceed a Harvard Ext ALB degree in career value, in rigor, and in reputational capital on the job and grad school markets. It does not matter whether it is reviewed by people who went to Harvard, or by people who went to Slippery Rock (a fine little college, actually). The word "Extension" is on the transcript and the diploma, and anyone whose job it is to review college transcripts knows and understands the difference, whether that's a law school admissions officer or a PhD program director or the HR department at fortune 500 company (if there are any left).

My school has something equivalent to Ext (it's actually a little better as an approximation of the traditional degree, in that the students are essentially fully integrated into the existing majors and courses, though they are separately advised and have somewhat different core requirements, but again, nearly anyone can enter the program and it shows). I work with students in that program all the time. They take my classes. For five years, I was my department's adviser to that program, and individually counseled several dozen students in that program who majored in my field. Many are foreign students who need to be in a degree program to maintain their student visa status, and for whom the name of my university is enough social capital back in Japan or Korea or India. Many (if not most) of them are planning on transferring into straight ahead four year competitive college programs, and mostly *not* at my university (which could absorb at most a few of them), after a year or two of classes in our Ext equivalent. Others are older non-traditional students returning to school to finish degrees, or to get second degrees. Some are even home-schooled kids who have trouble applying to many colleges (for reasons that belong in a separate discussion).

They are rarely as strongly prepared or studious (I'm not saying "intelligent" or "hard working" -- please note) as their counterparts in the regular college at my university, including the foreign students from those same countries who have applied and matriculated in our regular college through the competitive admissions process. Unless I am sorely mistaken, Harvard Ext is pretty much the same thing, and the main purpose it serves the university is as a source of cash on the barrelhead tuition from foreign students, and the students as a jumping off point to enter the American system with a few classes and grades earned in the US to leverage into a transfer to a four year traditional BA program (or BS).

I hope it's clear I am NOT looking down my nose at the students who do Ext degrees or coursework. I'm one of the few full time tenured faculty members I know who makes *a point* of scheduling my undergrad classes in the evening, for example, so that students in our version of Ext (many of whom work f/t jobs) can take my classes, and many do, and I like a lot of them and work as closely with them as I can. I admire many of them -- many are adults with families and full time jobs who are busting their asses to get educated at the same time. Others are scrappy immigrant kids who are climbing the ladder with determination and guts. I fully agree that Harvard is a snobby environment that produces a plethora of snobby graduates who were already snobby when they entered -- I said so above -- that it was the worst thing about Harvard for me. But I'm not being a snob here. I'm being realistic, which is what the OP (and anyone else who takes advice from this thread) needs to hear.

So you're kidding yourself and anyone reading this thread when you argue that there is no career-building or -- more importantly -- educational distinction between the two that anyone other than a "snobby" Harvard alumnus/a would notice, or that it is "not uncommon" to move from Ext to the College. I bet it happens, but very, very rarely. In other words, I think it IS uncommon. Or not common. Or whatever.

Maybe it's a functionally equivalent degree in Bhutan or Nepal, where even educated people might not know the inner details of the US higher education system and just see "Harvard" on the diploma. But in China, Japan, India, Korea, anywhere in Europe, and the US, the high likelihood is that your educational credentials will eventually be reviewed for employment or further education by people who do know the inner details (my Chinese students seem to be more familiar with the fine grained distinctions between universities and their reputations than my US-born students, actually). And anyone who knows the US system knows the difference between an Ext degree and a College degree. Really, they do. People who hire and do admissions for grad school are not gullible or so poorly informed, usually, that they swoon at the sight of the word "Harvard" and fail to read further down the page.

So who's *really* being "snobby" here -- the person who says "the content of the education doesn't matter as long as it says 'Harvard' somewhere on the degree?" or those of us saying "a regular competitive four year BA from any well regarded American college is a better choice if you want the best education you can get . . . "? Because I, at least, am saying the latter. Forcefully.

A Harvard Extension School ALB is *not* a reasonable equivalent to a BA from Duke, Texas A&M, Michigan, or Williams (to pick examples of four classes of university/college randomly) because it says "Harvard" on the sheepskin. Unless you can't get in to one of those schools or their hundreds of equivalents, can't leave Cambridge/Boston, are on a non-traditional path (an older student, a foreign student without a marketable degree, for example), or just want to take some classes or do a certificate program (Ext has a strong IT certificate program and a well regarded pre-MBA program for people who majored in non-business-related subjects in college), Ext (and its many equivalents) is a second tier option at best. Sure, you can do it well and succeed just fine. You can succeed just fine without going to college at all too. Smart, talented people go to Ext and some don't go to college at all. College is not the only path to success, and there are many different paths to success through many kinds of educational experience. Education is always a good thing, always a career booster, no matter where you get it. Ext does what it does exceedingly well. What it *doesn't* do is give you a degree that will otherwise be indistinguishable from a Harvard College AB "except among snobby Harvard grads." Or a BA from Temple or Appalachian State, for that matter (actually, I have particularly good opinion of Appalachian State, for what it's worth. Great school.)

The whole point of this thread, it seems to me, has been to separate the "snobbery" factor from the educational substance question, which the OP was unclear about. If your "dream" is to see the name "Harvard" on your office wall when you hang the diploma, an Ext degree is a fine choice. It will save you money, be easier to get, and not require a low-odds admissions gamble. But if your aim is to get the best possible BA education at an American university with decent grades and SAT scores and fresh out of high school (or Gymnasium, I suspect, in the OP's case), then Harvard Ext is somewhere far down the list of good choices.

You can have a rich and rigorous educational experience at hundreds of decent colleges and universities in the US, famous and not. And yes, at some point in life, where you did your degree simply ceases to matter, and who cares if it was ALB or AB, College or Extension? -- the question is, what have you *done* with your education? I could not agree more. But you might as well get the best education you can afford and qualify for, and at the best institution *for you* and given *your* interests, strengths, weaknesses, and locational and cultural preferences. And once again, I'm saying a BA at nearly any competitive four year American college will be as good or better than one earned at Harvard through HES in both educational quality terms and career capital terms.

I know whereof I speak. This stuff is my life and has been for nearly 15 years of teaching in higher education, mostly at an Ivy but also at a large, relatively underfunded (which is why I left) public university. I'm not generalizing from my own college experience, but being specific from the point of view of someone who has watched hundreds (maybe thousands) of other people have college experiences, and who advises many students about how to pursue and proceed with that experience. My first undergraduate student advisees (from that public university, in fact) are now doctors and professors and film-makers and many other things. My newest freshman students are all scared and starry eyed and not at all sure where they're going or whether they "belong" in an Ivy League school ("imposter syndrome" is rampant, especially among working-class, minority, and female students). My job is to get them from the latter condition to the former one, and I'm pretty good at it based on my record. There are several other faculty members (some of us senior) contributing in this thread. Consider that we have a bird's eye view of these issues, day in and day out, and weigh the opinions expressed herein accordingly. I'm not guessing about the value of particular degrees. I make consequential decisions that affect the lives of students after poring over student transcripts on a regular basis. I attend conferences and read journals where these issues are the focus, as I'm sure do some of my colleagues upthread, many of us concerned about how to make the process more open, fair, and merit-based than it is.

So I might be wrong, of course. But snobbery has nothing to do with my opinions.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:02 AM on November 18, 2008

I'm also going to second vacapinta. I had a more uneven social experience than s/he had, and don't have very many friends from my college years (or rather, friends from college from those years; I ran in blue-collar circles while in college, and am still close to some people from that world). And for me, the house system was a downer -- when I came back after dropping out I lived off campus and kept my distance from the social life of the college. Everyone is different.

But I had *tons* of access to professors -- some of them major rock star types. I got a great education at Harvard. I was in a smallish major (music), but I had memorable relationships with several senior faculty members (one of whom was Stephen Jay Gould, who despite being both critically ill with cancer when I was at Harvard, and a huge rock star, always made time for students who were seriously interested in the history of science, as I was and am, and with whom I kept up a personal correspondence for a decade after I left Harvard).

Anyone who says you won't have contact with faculty at Harvard either doesn't know the place, or didn't make the effort when they were there. My career (and life) were deeply shaped by half a dozen senior faculty members (and about as many again from the untenured faculty) who gave deeply of their own time to help a curious kid figure out his future. I try to carry it forward to honor them.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:16 AM on November 18, 2008

Okay, fcm et al, you've convinced me that I'm wrong on at least some--if not all--fronts. Sorry for dragging this out and derailing it. I misspoke and misunderstood in my first comment and it was all downhill from there. Apologies!
posted by liketitanic at 7:14 AM on November 18, 2008

A significant data point that it didn't occur to me to bring up during this discussion, as far has how academically formidable Harvard may or may not be, is that George W. Bush received an MBA from Harvard.
posted by XMLicious at 4:24 PM on November 28, 2008

As others have pointed out, getting into Harvard w/o straight A's or some other incredible accomplishment is nigh impossible, and even with them, it's a crap shoot. I had straight A's, 1500 SATs, 800 on my chemistry Achievement Test, etc., and didn't get into MIT under Early Action, though they did take me a few months later under normal admissions.

A friend of mine at MIT did manage to get in with sucky high-school grades, though, so it's possible that his strategy would work for Harvard too. He did nothing but drugs during high school and so could barely get into community college, but once he was there, he decided to get off his butt and make something of his life. So he worked hard, got straight A's and then transfered to Georgia Tech and worked hard and got straight A's there. With that record, he was then able to get into MIT.

I'm sure it was still a crap-shoot. Don't have your heart too set on any one school. Apply to a bunch, go to the best one you get into, and if you're not happy there, work hard so that you can try to transfer to a place you'll like better.

An advantage of Harvard College that I haven't noticed mentioned, is that although the nominal tuition is huge, they waive tuition for most students whose parents aren't very well off, and it ends up in reality being cheaper than a state school. How do I know this? I currently work at Harvard at a research lab, and I talk to our student employees. I've also taken classes at Harvard. You get a 90% discount (!!!) on Harvard College and Harvard Graduate School classes if you work here.

Too bad about Harvard's endowment, though. My lab may be shut down soon, and I'll have to look for work elsewhere.

Regarding Harvard Extension, many of the classes are excellent. Some of the classes are even taught jointly with Harvard College and/or Harvard GSAS. (I know this as I'm a teaching fellow for one such class at the moment.) As others have mentioned, though, there's no way that a Harvard Extension degree has anywhere near the same level of prestige as a Harvard College degree.

And, as others have mentioned, there's nothing particularly magical about a Harvard degree (or an MIT degree, for that matter, though both certainly help to get your foot in some doors). A friend of mine did lots of drugs, dropped out of high school, but then got his act together and took his high school equivalency exam. He went to University of Maryland, where he got both a BS and PhD in math. He's now a professor at UPenn.
posted by nessus at 12:27 PM on February 21, 2009

Perhaps some students foster close relationships with "rock star" professors, but part of why the rock stars develop followings and cults of personality is because of their unique availability to students. In my experience at Harvard and with Harvard graduates a running theme has been the distance between students and professors. It is profound but of course can be bridged in some cases.
posted by vincele at 2:39 PM on February 21, 2009

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