written by
Julia Lu

What I Wish I Knew as a Harvard Freshman

Advisor Tips 7 min read

During the first year at Harvard, there is so much to see and to do. Every experience feels new, and there are so many people to meet! It can be easy to spread yourself too thin as you try to balance difficult coursework, a new environment, and many new friendships. Where should I focus my attention? What opportunities are out there? How much time should I devote to my grades, internship searches, my social life, and everything else?

In the whirlwind of the first two semesters, it is totally alright to feel lost. College is a process of discovery, and Harvard wants its students to reflect deeply upon their experiences! I’m sharing some tips below that I wish I knew as a freshman. Hopefully, they will help you clarify your priorities and interests to best take advantage of your time at Harvard. Four years can be shorter than it seems!

When joining organizations, pay attention to the community that is being fostered: You probably don’t need my encouragement to sign up for student organizations, but make sure to diversify your interests in this regard! Different clubs have different cultures and styles of interacting. Some communities on campus are easier to join your freshman year, including theater and journalism. While the content of the organization is important, it is also helpful to think of the type of community in which you want to find yourself. Do you prefer an organization that is extremely tight knit and travels together? Are you happier with a smaller group with a regular time commitment, but the club members don’t spend time together outside of meetings? Are you looking for an intellectual or social experience or maybe something in between? Do you want to be part of a club that is heavily skewed toward students from one concentration? Finding a community that makes you comfortable and to which you want to contribute your time is an important task.

Go to study breaks: If you are not familiar with the term, a study break is a small, casual hangout during the week usually hosted by a resident tutor or organization, often with free food. During freshman year, it can be easy to fall into a rhythm of only hanging out with the people around you, but study breaks are a great opportunity to see people outside of your normal social circle. Get to know other people in your entryway and the tutors, who are often grad students on campus. Who knows, you might find your next study buddy or even a future roommate. Plus, why would you ever say no to free food? Be sure to check out Lowell Tea which happens on Thursdays at 5:00pm. It shouldn’t be missed!

Students learning together
Photographer: Alexis Brown | Source: Unsplash

Get to know your professors and have something to talk about if you go to office hours: At some point, you will need a recommendation letter from your professor(s). Invest in these relationships early, and visit your professors during office hours, especially if it is a smaller-sized seminar class where the professor knows you by name. There are other wonderful opportunities to get to know your professors outside of class, such as the student-faculty dinner each semester and the Classroom to Table program where a group of students can take a professor out for lunch or dinner at a participating Cambridge restaurant. It is always helpful to have some questions on hand. You don’t have to ask all of them, but be prepared and be curious!

Find opportunities to go abroad: Studying or taking part in programs abroad are some of the most memorable parts of college! I met my closest friends on these programs, and they have shaped my professional aspirations and personal values as well. Being abroad is a great opportunity to learn about other cultures as well as yourself, and Harvard offers a lot of funding to make this happen! While Harvard Summer School offers many formal study programs, other large organizations with international summer internships include DRCLAS in Latin America, the Harvard China Fund, and the Center for European Studies. There are also shorter one- or two-week engagements for which students can apply. Among the most popular are HSYLC (China), Israel Trek, HCAP (Asia), and travel opportunities through student organizations and conferences such as HPAIR and World MUN.

Movie Town
Photographer: Denny Ryanto | Source: Unsplash

Leave campus from time to time: There is so much to discover on campus the first year that sometimes, it can be hard to leave! However, going for a small adventure to see the rest of Harvard, Boston, or beyond can be refreshing and a great memory with friends! You can start off with exploring the rest of Harvard’s campuses. Some of the most beautiful parts include Radcliffe Yard (an intimate garden space), the Business School campus (great for a morning run), and the Law School campus (on the way to Honeycomb Creamery, my favorite ice cream place!). The ART is also Harvard-affiliated and has great theater year-round. Some shows that started there, such as Waitress, have gone on to Broadway. Some other great places in Boston include Mt. Auburn Cemetery which has amazing foliage in September and October, the Sommerville Theater, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Apple picking is another activity that many students take part in during the fall. Be sure to get some cider donuts!

Take advantage of the resources you are given: Keep informed about the different resources that Harvard offers to students. You will miss them when you don’t have them anymore! One great service is URAF, which is the fellowships office at Harvard, i.e. they give you free money to pursue projects abroad. While certain fellowships are intended for upperclassmen, get to know this office early and know what opportunities are out there. OCS is another helpful resource. Apart from jobs and internships, they also offer workshops throughout the year and during winter recess that can help you clarify your professional direction. Harvard’s library system is also incredibly extensive. Make sure you look beyond the usual haunts of Lamont and Widener to Houghton Library (rare books collection) or even Dumbarton Oaks (located in DC and offers summer internships). Lastly, don’t overlook health services included in your health fee, including counseling offered through CAMHS. While the onboarding process can be lengthy, they are incredibly helpful and it is much easier than finding a private counselor off campus. Take advantage of all these resources when you are confused or don’t know how to proceed. Talking to others and gathering information can be extremely valuable.

Make friends with upperclassmen: They have been where you are, and they know how to help. Many will take you under their wing, and you will find certain upperclassmen that really click with you. As you join organizations, take classes, or find summer programs, think about cultivating these relationships even as you get to know people in your own year. Look beyond the people who are frequently around you. There is much to discover on Harvard’s campus, and many people have something interesting to share.

Photographer: Eliott Reyna | Source: Unsplash

It’s okay if you don’t find your best friends the first year: While some people immediately find their best friends freshman year, it takes other people longer to find those with whom they really get along. I didn’t really find my closest friends until studying abroad the summer after freshman year, and by senior year, I was still getting to know people who I now consider my close friends. During freshman year, finding your blocking group (i.e. the people who will be in the same House as you) can be stressful. Many people seem to have the perfect blocking group filled with a perfect group of friends. Reality, however, can differ. Remember that finding friends is a process, and there will be many changes along the way.

Going into freshman year is an exciting time that allows you to explore new interests and reflect upon your priorities and values. It is a time to make new friends and to embrace the diversity on campus. Make use of all your resources. Information is key. And Harvard is ready to welcome you to the start of a great four years!


This informational essay was written by Julia Lu, Harvard Class of 2019. If you want to get help writing your Harvard application essays from Julia or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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