What I Wish I Knew My Freshman Year at Harvard

Two years ago, I arrived on Harvard’s campus with my mom, both of us pulling a suitcase in each hand. That was all I was able to bring with me all the way from Florida. I had just turned 18, and I was going to be living on my own for the first time. There was a big sign that read “Welcome Freshmen” hanging outside of Johnston Gate. I made my mom take pictures of me standing next to that sign. At that point, I felt like getting into Harvard was my greatest achievement, my wildest dream come true. I was excited to have a roommate, to challenge myself with difficult coursework, to join clubs, to make friends, and to meet a boy.

Looking back, I feel a sadness at how impressionable, naïve, and unprepared I was for the culture at Harvard. I came from a small town in Florida, where sports were more important than academics, and no one ever went out of state for college. I had always wanted bigger and better things, but there was no competition at home. I was the best. I’m sure this is true for many other freshmen coming into Harvard. We were big fish in small ponds.

Many highs and lows later, I’m 20 and starting my junior year. However, I wish I could turn back time, and do it all again, much differently this time. Unfortunately, we are currently unable to manipulate time, so I’ll settle for bestowing my retrospective wisdom here. These are the things I wish I knew my freshman year:

1. Do NOT compare yourself with the people you meet here. During opening days and shopping week, there is no doubt you’ll meet some incredible people. Inevitably, high school accomplishments will come up, and the crazy things you hear will seem to dwarf your achievements. I started experiencing imposter syndrome very quickly during these first few weeks, and I wish I could go back and tell myself that I was just as passionate, accomplished, and bright as everyone else. I wish I could whisper in my ear and reassure myself that I belonged here just as much as they do.

2. Do NOT sacrifice your mental/physical/emotional health to take difficult classes. At Harvard, not all classes are created equal. Some require 15 hours of work a week, others require 40. Don’t fall into the trap of wanting the street cred by taking multiple pset classes your first two semesters. Everything at Harvard seems to be a competition. Who sleeps the least, who takes the hardest classes, who joins the most clubs. Don’t over commit because you want to keep up with others. Freshman year is already incredibly stressful without the pressure of crazy classes.

3. Don’t comp that many clubs, and don’t be upset if you aren’t accepted. This is easier said than done, but it’s so important! A ridiculous aspect of Harvard student life is the competitive/elitist comp processes of their student groups and organizations, with some having an acceptance rate comparable to Harvard’s. Focus on a few groups with missions that you are really passionate about! If you don’t get into one that you were really interested in, odds are there is another similar club that you will get into.

4. Eat healthy, workout, and sleep! Having unlimited swipes into Annenberg can be both a good and bad thing. The good thing is HUDS makes it incredibly easy to eat healthy. There is nutritional information about all the foods served available on their website. But food is only one part of staying healthy in such a competitive environment. Exercise is also incredibly important! You have access to all of Harvard’s gyms, some of which are open 24/7. Not enough students make time for working out. Most prioritize classes and clubs over physical health. Also, sleep! It seems like all anyone wants to talk about is how much work they have, and how little they sleep, but it is so dangerous to get caught up in that! Without sleep, your body and brain cannot perform the way you want it to! It’s better to get an extra hour of sleep than to obsess over a pset problem that you just can’t wrap your head around. Go to bed and try again in the morning when you are better rested.

5. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. There is something called a Harvard Game Face. Everyone is going to seem more put together, more capable than you are, but don’t fall for this. Everyone is struggling to keep up here. Don’t pretend to be okay if you are not. This is a trap that many freshmen, including myself, fall into. There are so many resources here for a reason. This is a terribly high stress, competitive environment. Most people will find it overwhelming at some point. Reach out to the Bureau of Study Counsel, your proctors, PAFs, and Campus Mental Health Services if you are feeling anxiety, depression, or anything else that is bothering you.

Freshman year is a year of growth and change for everyone. Making mistakes is how we learn, but I hope that fewer freshmen get sucked into the competitive and toxic culture that can be prevalent at Harvard sometimes. My parting advice would be to tell all the frosh to explore new things, be true to themselves, and to enjoy their first year at this incredible institution as much as possible!