What Is It Like to Go to Harvard?
[This article originally appeared in Indonesia Mengglobal, a site where Indonesian students and alumni from US top schools share their study-abroad tips and experience. The site aspires to make high-quality global education more accessible for Indonesian students]
Two questions most people often ask me upon knowing that I go to Harvard are: “What is it like to go to Harvard?” and “How to get accepted at Harvard?”
Here I will answer the first question because naturally it is more important than the second. Here are the benefits of studying at the university with the most famous brand in the world:
There is an argument saying that the most important output of going to school is not the degree, but education. This argument, while romantic, may not be accurate. Brand, or the degree, is at least as important as the knowledge and skills gained.
There are at least two things that make the degree as important as the knowledge. First, the degree signals the skills and knowledge. Someone with a bachelor degree finds it easier to get a job than someone who doesn’t go to college but read all college books. Someone with a degree from the University of Indonesia is called for a job interview while her counterpart from the University of Bengkulu is not, although the skills of both are the same.
Someone with a degree from Harvard University gets a better job than someone with a degree from the Harvard State University of Southern Idaho, while both may have exactly the same knowledge. Some industries, such as management consulting and investment bank, will only consider applicants from certain universities. Tragic, but that’s the reality.
I feel a lot of doors opened after becoming a Harvard student. When conducting research in Indonesia, all of the important resource persons that I’d like to meet were willing meet. If I had come two years prior, as a recent graduate with a degree from the university of Indonesia, some of these people may not be willing to schedule meetings. During a study trek in Turkey with other Harvard students, we met with the president, deputy prime ministers and a number of Turkish cabinet ministers. Had these VVIP been willing to schedule meeting if the students are from other universities?
The second reason why the degree or the brand is important is that the brand attracts resources that enhance the quality of education. The best applicants are attracted to study at the universities with strong brands. Inputs of good students improve the education process. The brand also attracts professors, investors and donors to the university. All these provide for abundant resources to support the education process, such that the graduates are tangibly equipped with better knowledge and skills.
Harvard is the university with the largest endowment fund in the world, amounting to US$ 32 billion (Rp 305 trillion). With this funding, the educational facilities provided are among the best. For instance, Harvard has been able to build the library that is the biggest academic library system in the world, encompassing 80 libraries and 15 million books.
In terms of students, in 2012, there are 34,302 applicants to the undergraduate program at Harvard. Half of them have the top 3 percent SAT score of all test takers, and 3,800 of them are the top graduates of their high schools. Of these, only 2,032 or 5.9% percent are admitted. These good inputs make the academic environment competitive. Will the investors and donors be willing to put their money in other universities? Will the same number and quality of applicants apply to other universities?
I have elaborated how a strong degree or brand signals the quality of education, as well as tangibly improves the quality of education. Why have I done this? Should we all only aim for degree?
The issue is, most applicants from Indonesia are discouraged to apply to universities with strong brands, or not even knowledgeable of the universities with the strong brands and the benefits of studying there. I repeatedly heard this directly from potential applicants, scholarship providers and professors. The number of Indonesian students at the universities with strong brands in the US is very small, under representing the huge population of the country. This is in contrast with the number of students from, say, Thailand or Singapore.
It’s not the case that Indonesian applicants are not qualified that they are not admitted, but the number of Indonesian applicants is already small. Other destination countries such as the Netherlands, Japan and Australia are more popular among scholarship seekers – note that cost is not an issue here, while American universities have the strongest brands in the world, such as the Ivy League universities.
It is important that prospective students are made aware of the benefits of studying at the universities with the strongest brands in the world, as these are also the universities with strong qualities. Don’t only get an education or a degree; get both.
Donny Eryastha is a graduate of the Master of Public Administration in International Development program at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He currently works as the special staff to the Chairman of Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board. He received his undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Indonesia, where he was awarded the National Best Student award by the Ministry of National Education the Republic of Indonesia in 2005.