What is it about Harvard?

So lately at work, I’ve (jm) been seeing lots and lots of kids.  Every single day there is at least one person who comes in and tells me they want to go to Harvard.  Sometimes it’s more like two or three a day.  Seeing as this was the first year that more than one Malaysian student was accepted to Harvard (they took 3- 2 Malaysian kids and an American expat living here), I have to politely inform them that their chances are not good.  I don’t get it.  How on earth did Harvard become such a brand name?  They don’t even usually mention the other Ivies, much less all the other fantastic schools out there, just Harvard.  It’s actually quite funny, they all ask for brochures and we don’t have any.  We get tons of materials from all over the states (I spent about an hour just opening mail the other day), but none from the top schools.  They all have huge endowments, but I guess they save it for things other than glossy brochures.  They don’t have to advertise because everyone knows who they are already.

Last night I went to a career fair with my boss at a British secondary school outside of KL.  It’s a school basically full of expat kids with a few other random people tossed in.  It was a neat event, the guidance counselor arranged to have reps there from all sorts of places so that the kids and their parents could see what some options were for further education.  We expected to be bored all night, figuring nobody would be interested in going to the US, but we were the busiest table there.  It was kind of interesting meeting these kids. Of the ten we met, at least three are going off to programs at Yale and Columbia this summer for some kind of thing where they take a class or two and get to network with guidance and admissions staff at the schools.  I guess they figure this will increase their shot at getting in.  I do hope that if they end up applying to these schools that they don’t apply for financial aid.  You know that at the first blank spot they find on that application, they will write about how they  attended a summer course on campus, and the college will immediately know that they spent $8000 for summer school.  So why not $42,000? (times four, of course)

Comments 7

  1. James April 21, 2005

    You know Julie, I’ve been wondering about this myself. It really pisses me off, because I’m embarassed by Harvard, or at least I’m embarassed by how people reach to me when they learn I’m from Harvard. So I don’t tell most people, and that way they treat me like I’m just another student. If they hear Harvard, they assume A) I’m smarter (when their knowing I’m from H. doesn’t make me any smarter than I was before they knew) or B) I’m a pompous ass (when, if I were, I would have bragged about H. sooner) or C) I’m rich (in which case, I wouldn’t be poor). ARGH! It really brings out the status-whore in people, and that really bother me. It also means people just see a brand name and not a person. And that last part’s doubly annoying as I’m a BROWN man, not a Harvard man. Judging by the undergrads H. puts out, I wouldn’t want to be one, either. Pampered wussies. When I was traveling around China in 2002, if I told people I was from Brown (or the Chinese-language word for Brown anyway) all I got was a blank stare. They probably thought I was mispronouncing something. But when I said Harvard, EVERYONE … even illiterate peasants reacted. It probably didn’t help that the #1 and #2 bestsellers in the train station bookstores that summer were “How to get your son into Harvard” and “How to get your daughter into Harvard.” But you know, I’m convinced this has an upside: Yale. Yale gets less press coverage (and presses rarely cover universities flatteringly, so less = better) and puts out better students because all the smart ones go there while the kids who want the brand go to Harvard.

  2. Dave April 22, 2005

    I see the Harvard-only recognition thing as another incarnation of the same rule that says I’ll never, ever find a Burger King out here in London, no matter how badly I want it MY WAY, RIGHT AWAY.
    It’s like when the bad guy in the cowboy movie moseys into the saloon and growls: “this society’s cognitive capacity ain’t big enough for the two of us.”

  3. Julie April 22, 2005

    I think the phrase status-whore is just right. I’ve gotten used to Americans being like that, but I still find it weird that people are just the same on the other side of the world. Part of the problem here is that this trend is self-perpetuating. People want to go to Harvard because not many people here have a Harvard degree. When they come back, employers throw themselves at the feet of the grads and give them great jobs, thus making sure that every single 17 year old here wants this to happen to them. I don’t know how this cycle got started, all I know is that Harvard must be loving it.
    I also don’t tell people I got my Master’s from Yale, for the very same reasons you’ve listed James. When they do find out (like when my boss told every single person who talked to us at the fair the other night), I get to play the “it’s just Music, not an academic degree” card. But yeah, it still makes me uncomfortable. I’m glad that pretty much nobody has ever heard of Oberlin. As far as your theory about Yale, I’ll let Tom respond to that one. He’s the one who has had contact with undergrads, but I suspect that most of them are pretty pleased with themselves, even with the “lesser” brand name. And I’m sure there are also many kids there just because they didn’t get into Harvard.

  4. James April 22, 2005

    Yeah, I wasn’t going to touch the Yale-as-fallback-for-Harvard one with a ten foot pole because if I mention it, it sounds like I’m one of those Harvard snobs I hate. But I’ve wondered. Also, my father, my brother, and my brother’s sons are all Yale men, so if I say that, I just sound like I’m being bitter because Yale won’t let me in. Anyway, my Yale theory BETTER be right, because when I compare what I know of undergrads at Brown and Harvard, I find undergrads much more intelligent, thoughtful, open-minded and willing to learn at Brown and much more concerned about padding their GPA with As at Harvard. Maybe it’s Brown’s niche, and how it attracts students who are more likely to be risktakers; Harvard students are really not risktakers. And they’re unwilling to learn if it means anything lower than a B+ might show up on their transscript. And the funny thing about learning is you have to start out knowing less than when you finish in order to have learned anything at all. So everyone just takes classes where they already know the material. Faced with these two disparate stereotypes, I prefer to imagine that undergrads at most other first-tier colleges are more like Brown undergrads than Harvard ones. And of course, that comparison would HAVE to start with Yale, the first school founded specifically because Harvard was full of it.
    But it may also be that schools like Brown/Oberlin/Wesleyan/etc and schools like St. Johns/Bob Jones U. attract earnest people who really believe in things (drugs/Jesus) and really work hard (rolling Js/praying) and even if they’re a little off the deep end from time to time are more sincere in their intellectual endeavours than all the teetotaling Athiests at Harvard. Teetotaling athiests! I’m not kidding.

  5. Sandy April 22, 2005

    Hey, kids! Don’t you think it’s all about branding? If you ask a Malaysian 17 year old to name 5 US hamburger joints, he’ll probably give you McD and Burger King and then draw a blank. HE doesn’t know that the best burger in the world is at Louie’s in New Haven. Same thing with universities. He’ll give you Harvard and Yale or Princeton and that’ll be it. He doesn’t know the vast array of choices, only the two or three with the biggest reps. After all, he lives in Malaysia! That’s where Julie can open a world of opportunity.

  6. Tom April 22, 2005

    Hey mom, of course it’s all about branding. That’s what’s so dumb about, and what’s also so amazing. Harvard has freaking movies about it. (I know at least “Stealing Harvard”, and I think that there are more that I can’t remember off the top of my head.)
    You know, James, I think that I agree when it comes to my remembering Brown. But I think that I may be misremembering things out of a romanticized vision of the past. Also, the fact that getting a “D” in a class is structurally impossible may make a bit of a difference. The fact that a failing grade does not even exist helps. There’s nothing like the idea of dropping a class on the day before the exam to make you feel better about a hard class.
    I’m trying to decide if “this society’s cognitive capacity ain’t big enough for the two of us” or “founded specifically because Harvard is full of it” is more awesome.

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