Monday, October 20, 2014


"Only by working to reverse-engineer a cutthroat admissions process can we tackle mental health issues and improve the academic environment on campus. Once we make it clear to freshmen that they need a mentality shift for college, they will respond. And only then will students be able to enjoy their time here."

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A Dash of Insanity


There are three sure ways to get into Harvard:
  1. Have a lot of money
  2. Do a crazy amount of extracurricular activities
  3. Say on the application that your Mom was a chicken
The first one is fairly easy. Just open up a lemonade stand. Then, turn that lemonade stand into a multinational corporation that rakes in bank for your CEO mother or father. If there’s enough potential for Harvard to get a lot of money in donations, admittance is assured. But that’s a bit difficult for some people, for some reason. 

The third one is really easy. You just have to write an essay about how you were raised by a chicken.  Your story of somehow maintaining your GPA while defending your mother from hungry farmers would be inspiring to any admissions officer. 

But a lot of people don’t do that, for some reason. So that leaves most of us with the second one: Do a crazy amount of extracurricular activities. And this, sadly, is what most people who come here do.

That shouldn’t be sad. But it is. And here’s why: 

Doing a ridiculous amount of extracurriculars in high school is rewarded by admission to college. It’s the formula for success. So, when people come here, that formula is what they know, and they implement it. A trend arises: As admission becomes tougher and requires more extracurricular work, students in college continue the habit of taking on more and more extracurriculars. The result is that whenever I try to set up lunch with someone, our Google calendars only match up for one 30-minute slot in December; that is, only if my chicken mother doesn’t visit town that day. And we’re stressed out and haven’t done a lot of the reading for that one easy Gen-Ed course with a midterm the following day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d hate to be on a campus where every student is literally just a student, without an interest beyond his or her major.  But there’s a point where extracurriculars go too far. 

The evidence isn’t only anecdotal. In an email sent out by Dean Rakesh Khurana in September, he cited that “the fraction of seniors who report spending less than six hours a week on (extracurricular) activities has decreased from 49 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in 2013. The fraction of students spending more than 10 hours per week has increased from 27 percent to 43 percent.” If more students now are spending upwards of 10 hours a week on extracurricular activities, that means one of two things: Either they are spending less time on their academic work. Or they are keeping up with academics and more extracurriculars, resulting in less downtime.  

Neither option seems good. At the end of the day, we grow more from getting our papers read by world-class professors rather than getting our articles read by some senior in Lowell who edits a campus publication, or by dancing on a team, or by playing an instrument on a student orchestra. Sure, at least part of the value of our education is being able to explore other interests with our talented peers; but the foundation for it all must be our education. 

The second option—that students are keeping up with academics at the same time as increasing their extracurriculars—suggests that students are working more overall and have less downtime. Of course, Harvard has had constant struggles with mental health in recent years, and decreasing recreational time only adds to the stressful atmosphere.

But here’s my question with all this: why? Will a law school care if I participated in certain play? Will an employer care if I went to a PBHA event? Will anyone ever care about this column? (Please? Somebody? Anybody?)

They may, a bit. But, unlike the admissions office here, it won’t be a determining factor.
So there’s a problem: Students divide themselves between too many activities. It’s unnecessary and it’s costly. And it’s hard-wired in freshmen through the admissions process.

However, there seems to be a simple solution. And thankfully, our new dean seems to get it. At convocation, Dean Khurana said to freshmen, “Now that you are here, you may feel that you are expected to do high school all over again, to jump through a series of hoops and prove yourself. But one of the most important things that I want to tell you today is that you don’t.”

We need to make this message more clear, precise, and explicit in terms of extracurriculars for freshman. We need to have an Opening Days session, much like community conversations, where a discussion leader drills the point home that the students won’t be standouts by doing 1,000 things on campus. They’re at Harvard: They’re already standouts. And loading up on too much will only lessen their well-earned, standout experience at the school. It’s not only unnecessary—it’s counterproductive. And students should fully enjoy and utilize the privilege of coming here.

Only by working to reverse-engineer a cutthroat admissions process can we tackle mental health issues and improve the academic environment on campus. Once we make it clear to freshmen that they need a mentality shift for college, they will respond. And only then will students be able to enjoy their time here. Otherwise, they’ll continue acting like my late mother: running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays. 


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