Media Center: This Is Harvard
A Broad Curriculum
At the foundation of Harvard’s lofty reputation is a liberal arts curriculum taught by some of the world’s great scholars. Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors teach introductory and Gen Ed courses, and all faculty are readily available for students.
Now equally well-known for its professional schools, Harvard originally received recognition as the country’s first and finest undergraduate institution. It has long been committed to reforming college curricula and, in fact, the whole elective system began here over a century ago. Today, Harvard maintains its strong commitment to the undergraduate with one of the broadest programs in existence. Students may concentrate in any of 48 fields, including African-American studies, computer and environmental sciences, engineering, government, classics, and folklore and mythology. The majority of courses offered at Harvard have fewer than 20 students, and most departments feature a “tutorial” system of teaching and learning.
Tutorials are directed study courses in a student’s field of concentration, taught either in small groups or individually.
Harvard has a graduation rate of over 97 percent, and over 70 percent of students graduate with honors. Nine out of 10 undergraduates who apply succeed in gaining admission to a medical school, with similar rates for other graduate schools.
Contributing to these figures are first-class facilities such as a 12 million-volume library that is the largest university library in the world, numerous art and cultural museums, and 25 science/laboratory centers.
The Harvard Student
While Harvard has long been a leader among universities, it is equally committed to developing leaders among people. Thus, its enrollment is not comprised of 6,700 “geniuses.” Instead, the University prides itself on attracting the best all-around young individuals—those with the energy, innovation and creativity to enliven a classroom.
Some students show unusual academic promise through experiences or achievements in study or research. Others are more “well-rounded” and have contributed in many different ways to the lives of their schools or communities. Still others could be called “well-lopsided,” with demonstrated excellence in one particular endeavor. And many students bring perspectives formed by unusual personal circumstances or experiences.
The end result is an undergraduate population drawn from every state and many foreign countries, one that brings together a grand diversity of social, ethnic and economic backgrounds.
Both academically and residentially, Harvard College is fully coeducational. The centers of campus life are the residential houses. The house system, established in 1930, provides a small college atmosphere within the university.
Each house has several faculty members and a staff of residential tutors associated with it, as well as dormitories, dining halls, libraries, intramural athletic teams and a number of social events. There are 12 residential houses, while a 13th unit, Dudley House, provides a parallel life for the students who live off-campus.
All freshmen live in or next to Harvard Yard. “The Yard” is the center of the university, and the hub of Harvard’s activity. Resident adult advisers help students explore the academic and non-academic opportunities of their first year. A wide range of programs are designed especially for first-year students—in the arts, intramural athletics and Freshman Seminars.
Students run nearly 400 organizations and programs on campus. Last year, 70 plays and musicals were produced and directed by students. There are men’s, women’s and mixed voiced choruses, plus over half a dozen a cappella groups. Six orchestras, smaller ensembles, chamber groups and rock bands also thrive. Twenty-two dance groups represent diverse cultures and modes of artistic expression from around the world. There are two student newspapers and numerous political, feminist, ethnic, cultural and religious journals. In addition, there are several student organizations that focus on diversity and social justice issues. A majority of students participate in community service during their time at Harvard College through programs supported by the Phillips Brooks House: Center for Public Service & Engaged Scholarship.
Harvard’s faculty is large, diverse, and by any measure, an accomplished group of women and men.
Each faculty member is both a noted teacher and scholar. Harvard students learn in classrooms and labs from professors who are leading authorities in their fields. In this academic community, all members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, including the most prominent scholars, expect to teach undergraduates as well as graduate students.
Faculty members also instruct students outside the classroom. In addition to professors’ weekly office hours, students often spend time with their professors before or after class. There are also many occasions when professors take meals in Harvard’s residential dining halls, attend gatherings in the residences of House Masters, who are themselves senior faculty members, and participate in other programs and special events.
Over the course of a year, hundreds of students work closely with faculty members on their own or their professors’ research. The opportunities for formal and informal relationships with Harvard faculty are plentiful and rewarding, resulting in lifelong friendships as well as professional collaborations that can enrich students’ lives and careers.
Beyond the mentorship of a faculty actively involved in undergraduate life, Harvard students have access to other extraordinary academic resources.
By a wide margin, Harvard’s library system, with about 100 central and auxiliary collections and nearly 14 million volumes, is the world’s largest university library. More than two dozen university buildings are used exclusively for scientific research, including laboratories for astronomy; biology; biochemistry; chemistry; computer science; electrical; computer, and systems, and mechanical engineering, geology, as well as physics and applied physics.
Finally, the university’s many museums include one of the world’s most distinguished university art collections and a natural history museum whose scope and importance make it similarly renowned.
The Undergraduate Program
Harvard offers students everything necessary for a liberal education in virtually every imaginable field.
The sheer number of curricular choices — the catalog includes about 4,000 courses — opens doors for the exploration of widely disparate fields and also for concentration in special areas of interest.
Harvard’s philosophy has long been that an undergraduate education ought to have structure and coherence while allowing for maximum flexibility and individual choice.
Each student takes four courses in both the fall and spring semesters. Harvard students spend, on average, 12 hours per week in class and enjoy wide latitude in setting priorities for study and free time.
Course choices are made in close consultation with an academic adviser over a week-long shopping period at the start of both semesters. Over the four-year undergraduate program, each student will fulfill the requirements of a field of concentration (on average, half of a student’s total coursework) and the General Education (about one-quarter of the plan of study).
The remaining quarter of a student’s coursework is chosen freely from courses offered throughout the university. These three components of the undergraduate program together fulfill the fundamental aims of a liberal arts education.
There is no firm distinction in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences between undergraduate and graduate courses. Students may progress in the curriculum as rapidly as their preparation permits and may enroll in graduate-level courses in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Most of Harvard’s 10 graduate schools allow students to cross-register and to participate in special programs. A reciprocal arrangement with MIT, our Cambridge neighbor, also permits Harvard students to cross-register in courses offered there.
While some of Harvard’s most popular courses are taught in grand lecture halls to accommodate significant student interest, the majority of courses are taught in more intimate settings of 20 or fewer students.
Among Harvard’s most valuable intellectual assets are its students. Although they come from many different places and backgrounds and have a striking variety of talents, ambitions and convictions, all possess a passion for learning.
That energy can be felt in and out of the classroom. At least as much learning occurs in dorms and dining halls as in labs and course lectures. Because undergraduate enrollment is comparatively small, there are many opportunities to get to know fellow students well. Late night talks and dinner table debates are very much part of the daily experience of the women and men at Harvard College.
Harvard is committed to providing whatever guidance or assistance students may need. Given the university’s extraordinary resources, students’ needs are met swiftly and fully.
Perhaps as a result, Harvard’s graduation rate is over 97 percent, among the very highest in the nation. Similarly high percentages of graduating seniors and alumni express their satisfaction by stating in surveys that they would attend Harvard if they had to choose a college again.
Although Harvard’s academic programs are not “preprofessional” in the sense that they provide vocational training, Harvard students are very well prepared for admission to professional schools (business, law and medicine) and graduate programs. Our students enjoy an extraordinarily high rate of admission to graduate and professional schools of their choice. And Harvard College is almost always the best-represented undergraduate institution at Harvard’s graduate schools.
While some students select fields of concentration commonly associated with certain careers, many discover they can study in areas of intellectual rather than professional interest and still be superb candidates for jobs and graduate schools.
At Harvard, students can concentrate in history and go to medical school, or study engineering and earn a graduate degree in law.
Admission and Financial Aid
There is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard. Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but the Admissions Committee also considers many other criteria such as community involvement, extracurricular activities and work experience. There were over 37,000 applicants for the class of 2019.
Strength of character, ability to overcome adversity, and other personal qualities often play a part in admissions decisions.
Grades and test scores are relied on to help assess academic promise, but they are by no means relied on exclusively. Evidence that you are willing and able to take on academic challenges or that you possess strengths not fully revealed in objective information is also of interest to the Admissions Committee.
Believing that cost should not play a primary role in the selection of a college, Harvard has worked for many decades to attract students from all economic backgrounds.
Harvard is committed to admissions and financial aid policies that help it attract a truly diverse student body. Harvard makes admissions decisions without regard to a student’s financial circumstances or citizenship, and meets the full financial need of each student who qualifies for aid.
The Committee on Financial Aid determines aid packages — in the form of scholarships, loans, and term-time jobs — based solely on need using a full range of family income and asset information.
Over the past several years, Harvard has launched two major financial aid initiatives to benefit all students. As a result, students with financial need will now face less educational debt on graduation and will have more time to concentrate on academic and extracurricular opportunities.
These initiatives have featured significant annual increases in the undergraduate scholarship budget, reduced loan and term-time job obligations, and an outside award policy which allows students to use the full amount of their outside awards to reduce loans.
Together, with the College’s longstanding commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based aid, these plans will continue to keep a Harvard education accessible to students from all economic backgrounds.
Harvard guarantees every student College housing for four years, and nearly all students choose to live on campus for their full undergraduate careers.
All 1,650 first-year students live in or adjacent to Harvard Yard. The Freshman Dean’s Office assigns roommates carefully among 17 freshman dorms. Numerous proctors (adult residential advisors) and deans live among first-year students to help them explore Harvard’s broad academic and extracurricular opportunities.
One highlight of freshman year is dining in Annenberg Hall, where all first years gather to eat. Each house has several faculty members and a staff of residential tutors associated with it, as well as dormitories, dining halls, libraries, intramural athletic teams and social events.
As sophomores, students move from the Yard to one of the 12 Houses — small residential communities of 330 to 450 students. Each House has its own dining hall, library, common rooms, rehearsal spaces and other resources.
Houses also provide students with a wide range of extracurricular programs. A senior faculty member serves each House as a Master. Masters make each House a home by hosting frequent open houses in their private residences and by selecting an extensive staff of both resident and nonresident tutors and faculty fellows. Together, Masters and House staff set the tone for the House in its activities and in its functioning as a close-knit community within the context of a larger college and university
Life Outside the Classroom
Extracurricular opportunities at Harvard are virtually unlimited. There are more than 400 official student organizations at the College, and the number and nature of organizations change constantly as students’ interests evolve.
Casual beginners to accomplished masters find opportunities at all levels. You do not have to study music in order to play in a orchestra, nor must you have had experience in drama or journalism to act in a play or write for a student publication.
College facilities include concert halls, theaters with large stages and others with more intimate surroundings, dance studios, rehearsal spaces and practice rooms. Creative students may enjoy the visual arts as a satisfying hobby or a serious academic pursuit.
There are plenty of opportunities at Harvard to become a journalist, poet, disc jockey, or editor. Several campus newspapers have a wide readership, and there are political, academic, and literary journals to complement the humor magazines, yearbook, and radio stations.
Cultural and Ethnic Initiatives
There are more than 50 cultural, ethnic, and international student organizations at Harvard, as well as communities representing nearly every major religion.
The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations sponsors many activities during the year that celebrate the ethnic and cultural diversity at Harvard. One of the most anticipated events is Cultural Rhythms, a festival that highlights the talents of Harvard students and offers ethnic foods from around the world. The “Cultural Artist of the Year,” emcees the event, and past hosts have included Queen Latifah, Jackie Chan, Andy Garcia, and Halle Berry.
Cambridge, Boston, and New England
Cambridge combines the attractions of a cosmopolitan city with the charm of a New England town. Organized around traditional town greens, tree-lined squares, and the grassy banks of the Charles River, Cambridge is one of metropolitan Boston’s vital urban centers.
One-of-a-kind shops, international restaurants, bookstores, street cafés, and cavernous music stores occupy the streets surrounding the College. Sporting events, theater concerts, and colorful street performers also draw neighbors and visitors to Harvard Square.
While Boston is full of history and colonial charm, with its cobblestone streets and colonial church spires, it is also a modern city whose liveliness is apparent in its ranging architectural styles, thriving industries, diverse cultures, and important arts centers.
Boston Harbor, famous for its Revolutionary War “tea party,” is home to many new and busy waterfront restaurants and shops. The waterfront also boasts a world-renowned aquarium, science museum, and numerous opportunities to walks through historic districts or cruises to its many islands and recreational areas.
Within easy reach of Boston and Cambridge are the beaches of the Atlantic, cozy seaside villages from Cape Cod to Maine, ski slopes, forests, and historical sites recalling America’s past.