Oh, Harvard.

Often being considered the singular most difficult college to get into in the United States, Harvard has an esteemed reputation as an academic institution, whose hallowed halls only beckon those with the highest grades and standardized test scores.

 

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Set in idyllic Cambridge, Massachusetts, the campus calls out to visitors around the world who come to Boston for vacation. Maybe some of these people think by setting foot on campus, they will have some of the prestige of the brightest minds in the world seep into their veins. Maybe when they rub the foot of what they think is the statue of John Harvard – but is actually the statue of Sherman Hoar – they think some of the intellect of Harvard will rub into their veins.

Image credit – even the Boston Herald gets it wrong by saying this is John Harvard. Nope. It’s Sherman Hoar.

At the beginning of the school year, our son, who is a senior in high school, made the following comment, “Do not laugh at me, but I want to apply to Harvard.”

Me: I’m not going to laugh, but why Harvard?  And I don’t want you to think anything I say from this point forward is any indication that I do not think you can get in. I actually think you could, but it’s going to take a whole lotta serious work from this point forward. What does Harvard have that you cannot get at any other school? (Inwardly: Dude. It’s Harvard. You’re kidding, right? Remember what your test scores were??!!)

Son: They have an incredible Business and Finance School.

Me: Yes, I know. It’s Harvard. Kinda one of the gigs they’re known for. I will only say that a whole lot of Harvard MBA’s are working at Starbucks. As daddy and I have told you and your sister multiple times, you must have a viable plan for work upon exiting college. We love you, but coming home and living here because you didn’t make an exit plan that includes work isn’t on the docket.

Son: [looking away] I know.

Me: And it’s one of the more liberal think-tanks in the country. By your own admission, you are not someone who aligns with that thought process.

Son: [staring me in the eye] I know.

Me: OK. Well, my only comment is that you will need to take the test prep process way more seriously, and that you need to book a tour and schedule a meeting with the coach. You are going to need pull to get in, and I think you know that. Shoot for the moon, kiddo. Shoot for the moon.


If you’re wondering what pull is, for an athlete, it’s when the student is close to meeting the criteria for getting into the college, and the coach of said sport goes into Admissions and advocates for that student’s admission. Whether you agree or disagree with this, it’s a reality in college sports. No coach can advocate for a student who doesn’t come close to the admission’s standards, but it simply means the student is close.


A few weeks later, we’re sitting in an information session about attending one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the world.

As a point of observation and nothing else, I will note that my son and I were one of only six or seven caucasian families in the room of about 70 families. I say this because Harvard is currently in the midst of a lawsuit suggesting their admissions policy is skewed against Asian-Americans. Several college counselors I know have commented in recent years that Harvard has – as well as other Ivy League institutions – come under fire for simply taking students of various ethnic backgrounds based solely on high test scores.

And then multiple college counselors have said to us when we’ve asked advise since this visit on getting into Harvard that, and I quote, “Being a white boy from semi-rural Northern New England may actually play in his favor in the current climate.”

I will also note here that of the families in the room on that day, about a third of the kids were slumped over in their chair, scrolling through their phones, while the parents were sitting bolt upright, taking notes.

It made me wonder who wanted to go to Harvard more.

And then there was the young gentleman in a suit and tie who approached the Admission’s Officer immediately after the session to introduce himself. I leaned over to my son when I saw that and said, “I think we might be outta our league here, buddy.”

His comment? “I dunno, mom. Maybe not.” I love his tenacity.

It’s all a curiosity to me, how any higher education institution admits or rejects students who all meet the entrance criterium – whatever that may be for said school. This may all potentially be exposed, depending on the outcome of the above court case.

It seems the nebulous piece of admission, after test scores and GPA, that is somewhat under fire here. When almost every applicant meets the same academic standard, where is the line drawn? Does race really matter in Ivy League admission?


At the beginning of the information session, the Admissions officer states, “Look around you. This is likely one of the only places in the country where you can sit and the average ACT score is 35 (perfect is 36). Yes, your grades and your test scores matter, but they are not the singular pieces of what gets you into Harvard. Every year, tens of thousands of students with perfect scores and 4.0 GPAs apply, and only 4-6% each year get in. What sets you apart?”

What sets you apart?

I look over at my son, and he at me, and we both smirk. I whisper out the side of my mouth, “Dude, you have so much work to do on standardized testing, it’s not even funny.”

He smirks. He knows I’m right.

Not much later, he leans over to me an whispers, “I think every kid in this room is a spelling bee champion.”

I almost had to get up to leave the room because I almost peed myself.


The Admission’s Officer then proceeds to go into the Financial Aid piece. Harvard’s current tuition is around $67,500. And then this slide appears.

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My question to all higher education institutions is this, and simply this: If you’re giving out such significant financial aid to the vast majority of your incoming students, then why not level the playing field? Can we go back to making college affordable for all? Once upon a time, college was only for the elite wealthy, and I don’t think we’re too far off that reality today. I know families of 4 kids, where only one member works, and they quality for NOTHING in the realm of financial aid. When I was in college, I saw the tuition rates increase a whopping 66% in three years.

Parents are now having to choose between sending their kids to college and having a retirement plan. It’s not right. And truthfully, some state school’s pricing isn’t too far off that pricing. New Hampshire holds the 2nd highest in-state tuition cost in the country – Vermont being the highest. While 30K is less than 67K, it’s still absurd.


We begin our tour of Harvard, and I’m thinking I’m going to get to see some of the hallowed halls. Wrong.

Polly Peppyanna was our tour guide, and her enthusiasm for Harvard was infectious to a point. And then she started overusing words, and using curious words for the situation she was describing. And then she became part of my tweet storm on the whole day:

Clearly, the Admission’s Officer wasn’t expecting his candidness. Wonder if this student will be invited back to the next information session?

I meant to say any, but she was that annoying by this point in the tour. I couldn’t give her much credit. And we’d schlepped around chunks of campus without setting foot into a single building yet.

This is the part of the tour where we learned that lots of visitors to campus come and get intimate with the statue of what they think is John Harvard. We got the back story that Sherman Hoar’s family had donated copious amounts money to Harvard back in the day, and like all heavy-handed donors, they get some recognition. The school couldn’t really name a building Hoar House or Building, so he got a statue. Now people think it’s John Harvard. Nope. It’s Mr. Hoar.

My son and I were immensely humored by this. So much so, that I forgot Polly Peppyanna wasn’t extremely annoying. And then we went down the rabbit hole of dorm life. And faculty living with students, etc. And ev-ver-ry-thing was intimate.

And this is when she started to heinously annoy me. Even my son started asking, “Why is she using the word intimate so much?”

Me: You know, as a former English major and teacher, she’s used it appropriately maybe twice. Outside of that, she is starting to make Harvard sound slightly incestuous.

Son: Yeah. I don’t know that I want every aspect of my teacher relationships, my dorm room and floor mates relationship to be that intimate. And it’d be lovely if we could see the inside of a building. I dunno, maybe an intimate dorm room.

Me: Trying not to snort. This kid is soooooo my child.

We visited the building which houses the freshman dining hall, which also has a concert hall upstairs. You think we got to see inside any of it? Sure. Hold onto that fantasy for me, will ya? No. I didn’t tweet about any of it because I was in awe of the beauty of the inner area.

Why would perspective parents and students get to see what the dining hall looks like? Why would we get to see what the inside of any of the classrooms or dorm rooms look like?

Oh, cause it’s Harvard, and only 4-6% of any of the fools who set foot on a tour will get in. Maybe once you get in, you get to come back and see inside?

And when Polly Peppyanna started talking about how Harry Potter’s Great Dining Hall was modeled after Harvard’s freshman dining hall, that’s when everything became awesome. Amazing.

Lovely.

Gag. Sweetheart, you attend Harvard, and it’s clear you love it. I love that you love it, but come onEngage in different word usage.

And then we came to the library. I was so ready to see what the inner sanctum of Harvard’s library was like. And we only got to stand on the steps hear some story about the original library and original patron being on a plaque.

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And then she threw this out, and my son and I were done. Her actual commentary was, “There are 55 miles of stacks below us. [claps her hands] What does that mean? There’s a lot of books down there.”

You cannot make this shit up.

Our tour literally consisted of something I might have gotten if I’d signed up for a tour through Cambridge. It was nothing but fun facts, with a smattering of actual information about what life at Harvard as a student is like.

My son and I’d have thought it intriguing if we were on a tour of Cambridge, and not a tour of the actual college as a potential, perhaps unlikely, candidate for admission.

At our next street crossing, where the guide reminded us to look both ways so she could maintain her “No Hit” record on her tours, I stepped forward and asked where the Field House was since my son and I actually had a meeting with the ski coach in about 15 minutes.


Somewhere along the way, my son said to me on the tour, “Mom, I think I’ve heard 6 kids say to the parents, I got a 36 on the ACT. I thought that set me apart.

No, my dear child, a perfect score does not set you apart at Harvard. That actually makes you just like pretty much everyone else there.

What sets you apart?


Literally 15 minutes later, my son and I are standing at the front door to the building that houses the ski team, calling the number on the door since it’s locked, and get voicemail. My son pulls up his email and says, the coach told me to go to Loading Dock E.

WHAT??!

We walk around the side of the building and sure enough, Loading Dock E is there and we shout inside, and the Coach appears.

We had a great meeting with the Coach. He was honest with my son about the realities of getting into Harvard, telling him that he had to hunker down hard on the testing front. He agreed with the annoying, BS nature of standardized testing on the whole, but called it a necessary evil.

I liked this guy.

He asked if my son was planning on applying for next year.

Son: No sir. I know I will be taking a Post Graduate year, if not two.

Coach: [looks at me, eye widening with hope] Seriously?

Me: Yes. Absolutely. We know that’s a reality in this sport, and we know he needs it.

Coach: OMG! That is so refreshing to hear. I generally have to talk most families into that idea. There are so few kids who’re physically ready to compete in this sport at the D1 level right out of high school, and the extra years only help with maturity…their ability to handle the stressors of physical and academic rigor.

Me: Agreed, Coach.

In further conversation, I asked the Coach what HE was looking for in an athlete. His eyes widened and he ran his hands through his hair, “NO ONE has ever asked me that question! Wow! I’m so impressed you want to know what I am looking for.”

This shocked me. Honestly, it shocked me. I can only presume most families go in thinking they have exactly what the Coach wants – academically, athletically, leadership, etc.

His answer boils down to that unique kid who can actually get into Harvard academically, stands out from the flat academic kid who is only a set of perfect grades and test scores, and can actually ski at and remain competitive at the Division 1 level. Oh, and they need to bring something to the team in terms of leadership, charisma, dynamic human being. To make a long version of what he said short, he ended by saying, “I’m looking for magical unicorns.”

A magical Harvard unicorn.

Okey Dokey.

Maybe this should be their athletic mascot.

Throughout the conversation, the Coach would revisit the question about What sets you apart? 

He knew my son is an Eagle Scout. The Coach is one, himself. However, his commentary was, “Trust me, I understand what it takes to become one, but I’m not sure that even will be enough to set you apart for Admissions, even with the athletics.” <sigh>

The Coach’s final words to my son were, “Look I like you, and think you’d actually make a great addition to our team in a year or two. I know based on your personal background that you will bring something to the team, but I also need you to know that I can’t do anything for you until your test scores go way up, and your skiing points come down. And I think you can do both. Keep me in the loop.”

Positive end to a first meeting.


As we begin our trek back to the academic side of campus – the athletic side is on the other side of the Charles River – we both giggled at the fact that we could now say we “Pahked our cah in Hahvahd Yahd”

And then I asked my son his thoughts about Harvard.

Son: You know mom, I can see myself going here and doing well.

Me: Agreed.

Son: I just don’t know if I can get in.

Me: Shoot for the moon kid. Shoot for the moon.

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