A Student’s Perspective: 5 Key Lessons From Harvard 

The greatest lessons I learned during my time at Harvard weren’t from sitting through lectures or seminars.

Rowers on the Charles river in front of Dunster House, springtime

Harvard University is an amazing place, but you have to learn how to adapt to a competitive and academically rigorous environment (Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.com)

During my time at Harvard, I learned plenty of invaluable lessons, from how to manage time effectively to maintaining a sense of real-life perspective to entering different situations with an open mind. In this piece, I’ll talk about the five key lessons from Harvard that I have taken with me for the rest of my life.

Hopefully, you’ll find them useful if you’re struggling with time management or with finding the right balance between academic work and socialising or engaging with hobbies at university. 

If you want more insights into the American admissions process and college experience, check out the Studying in the US section of our website. 

  • Five key lessons from Harvard: always prioritise a good night’s sleep 

We live in a society that tends to glamorise the idea of working long, hard hours that eat into our meal times, diminish our social experiences, and limit the amount of time we spend resting and recuperating for the next day. 

As you can imagine, this so-called “hustle” culture (which not only rewards graft and initiative but emphasises the importance of prioritising these work-related processes at the expense of “other aspects of being human”) was pretty prevalent at Harvard. 

I knew many students who would use the fact that they rarely got more than 3 hours of sleep a night as a badge of honour, citing a tricky problem set, a complex written assignment, or a start-up they were in the process of building as the reason. 

I’ve always loved my sleep, and my time at Harvard really reinforced my belief in the significance of getting enough shut-eye every night (in my case, this was between 7 and 9 hours).

Those peers who regularly sacrificed sleep for the caffeine-fuelled grind of computer coding or start-up building would trudge around our house’s dining hall like loitering zombies during the morning, before taking several hits of coffee and manically professing how busy they were over a bowl of sugary cereal at nighttime. 

I’m not saying that you should never stay up late to put the finishing touches on a tricky problem set or job application or pull an all-nighter to get that essay done. That’s an unrealistic (if noble) expectation, particularly when you’re at an academically rigorous university or if you’re working on an assignment that you really care about. 

What I am saying is that you should find a sleep schedule that works for you, and try to stick to it whenever possible. When I say “works for you,” I mean that it’s a sleep routine that allows you to wake up feeling rejuvenated and energised every morning, and helps you to feel sustained and fresh throughout the day. 

  • Listen to the Science 

Medical research shows that adults need at least 7 hours of sleep every night in order to function as healthy and happy human beings. Getting sufficient sleep helps our brains to operate at full cognitive capacity the next day and allows our body’s immune system to recover properly

If you feel like you have to sacrifice either a decent sleep schedule or a healthy social life in order to achieve academic success, this is a myth. You just have to be clear about where your priorities lie and know that you can’t say yes to every opportunity that comes your way.

In my case, having a healthy sleep schedule and a vibrant social life at university only helped me to become more focussed and happy when it came to my studies, allowing me to create high-quality academic work on a consistent basis.  

While I was at Harvard, I regularly slept between 7 to 9 hours every night, and I managed to graduate with a relatively high GPA score and with Honors. If I could do it, you most certainly can too. 

  • Focus on the process, not the outcome

For myself, one of the five key lessons from Harvard was to learn how to focus on the process rather than the outcome. 

When you’re at a place like Harvard, people will often get caught up in outcome-oriented goals like grades, sporting results, job titles, summer internships, and graduate salaries. 

It can be quite tempting to get sucked into this way of thinking, but I found that I would always experience my greatest levels of success when I focussed on the process involved rather than on the end goal itself. 

I’ll give a couple of examples of when I set process-oriented goals: 

  • Working back to match fitness for my final rugby season

In the summer before my Senior Year, I decided that I wanted to be in the best physical shape possible for my final full season of rugby at Harvard. I had initially set a goal to become the first-choice fly-half for the team (I had been playing in the centres up until that point), but decided that this outcome-based goal was out of my control. 

Instead, I took the time to work, every day, on things that were within my control. I become stronger, aerobically fitter, and more self-confident about my playing ability. 

By focussing on the process rather than the result, I came back to the team in far better physical shape, playing at both fly-half and inside centre as we won our first Ivy League Championship for years and were close runners-up in the National final. 

  • Writing a creative non-fiction piece for a class

In one of my final semesters at university, I enrolled in an intensive creative non-fiction writing class, where our end goal was to develop a long-form piece of imaginative and evocative factual storytelling. 

Rather than focus on the outcomes of the final grade or the resulting portfolio, I took this opportunity to explore my own emotional processing of grief with regard to a close family member who was struggling with a neurological disease at the time. By using this assignment as a space to work through these personal feelings, I found myself expending a lot of time and energy on the piece because it was something I really cared about. 

Once I’d finished writing the piece, I had come to terms with my personal feelings on a far more intimate and self-aware level. As a byproduct of focussing on the process of expressing my emotions itself, I also received one of the best grades I got at Harvard for my work, and have gone on to use this piece as part of my applications for professional writing jobs. 

  • Creating an application for a Harvard alumni Spring Break trip

In my Junior Year at Harvard, I applied for a Harvard Alumni Association-sponsored trip to America’s Deep South: around ten or so alumni were heading to Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama to learn more about the American Civil Rights Movement, and there were two spots available for undergraduates to join, free of charge. 

As you can imagine, the application process for this type of trip was a highly competitive one, so I made the decision to enjoy the process of writing a reflective prompt for the committee in question. I took this prompt (to talk about why I wanted to go to the Deep South) as an excellent opportunity to articulate my desire to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement as a young Brit living in the States. By the end of the process, I felt a deep sense of urgency that I would have to find out more about these racialised (and ongoing) struggles in America, whether or not I earned a spot on this particular trip. 

As it happens, by focussing on the process rather than a goal-oriented outcome, I wrote an engaging piece of work that enabled me to go on the trip and have an extraordinary (and humbling) experience. 

  • Get out of your bubble and explore 

The Great Dome, MIT, pictured in December 2016

You can get out of Harvard Square and head down Mass Ave. to Kendall (where you’ll find MIT, pictured above) or into downtown Boston (photo by Paper Cat/ Shutterstock.com)

Another of my five key lessons from Harvard is to know when it’s time to get out of your comfort zone and explore what’s happening around you.

Let me explain. Whether you attend a campus university or get caught up in the daily social politics of college life in a predominately student-populated area of a town or city, you may well find that you live in a bit of a bubble. 

This was really evident for undergraduates at Harvard: the majority of us lived around Harvard Yard in Freshman year, before moving into one of twelve residential houses for our Sophomore, Junior, and Senior years. Generally speaking, if you were an undergraduate at the college, you lived in or very close to Harvard Square, in a pretty sheltered area near the centre of Cambridge. 

I knew a lot of people who rarely (if at all) ventured across the Charles River into Boston, or got out of the Harvard bubble on weekends or in the evenings. It was so easy to get sucked into a false sense that university was all that mattered, that there wasn’t a life outside of grades and deadlines and sporting match-ups. 

I made a concerted effort to get out of the Harvard bubble whenever I could: I would book a cheap Greyhound ticket to rattle down to New York and stay with my friend for the weekend or take a road trip with mates up to Vermont and Montreal for a few days. One Saturday morning, I took the T into Boston and spent a few blissful hours wandering around the North End as restaurants and cafés prepared to open up for the day. 

Simply put, getting away from various aspects of university life for a few hours (or a few days) helped to lend me a much-needed sense of perspective, and reminded me that there was a vibrant, dynamic, and exciting world out there that existed before, existed during, and would exist long after my Harvard college experience.

  • Five key lessons from Harvard: don’t lose perspective of what’s really important

Speaking of perspective, I learned a lot about prioritisation and my own core values when I was at Harvard. 

When you’re living, studying, and playing sport in a highly competitive environment and at a northeastern American liberal arts college, you tend to interact with a lot of people who are quite highly strung and who focus disproportionately hard on results-oriented outcomes like exam grades, vocational titles, and yearly salaries for graduate jobs (I must stress that my friends weren’t like this and that I also met some of the most genuine, generous, and inspiring people I ever had the pleasure of engaging with at Harvard).  

This kind of environment served only to bolster my belief in the power of perspective, and allowed me to clarify what really mattered during my time at university (and what didn’t): 

What mattered (process goals that were in my control)

  • My relationships with people: my greatest moments at Harvard always involved my friends, and came about as a result of me prioritising my friendships throughout my five years there.
  • Putting sustained effort into work I cared about: it always felt amazing to put a lot of effort into an essay or piece of creative nonfiction that really meant something to me. 
  • Working hard with my teammates on and off the pitch: one of the most fulfilling experiences I had at Harvard was my time on the rugby team. We all worked hard, grafting together day after day, month after month, year after year, to build a team and a culture that felt inclusive and exceptional. 
  • Prioritising both my mental and physical well-being: there were definitely times that I didn’t prioritise my mental and physical health when I was at university, and this had negative effects on both myself and those around me. When I did take the time to practice self-care, I enjoyed my time at Harvard significantly more. 

What didn’t matter (results-based goals that were out of my control) 

  • Achieving a B, A- or A on a piece of work: it was always a cathartic realisation to recognise that your final result was out of your control, and up to external factors like the whim of the teacher or grade inflation. What mattered was investing in the process, of doing the work and taking pride in the final piece that you submitted. That’s where the satisfaction came into play.
  • Getting into a Finals Club: exclusive social organisations like Finals Clubs and fraternities or sororities may have mattered to many of my peers, but they felt superficial and trivial to me. I found far more personal satisfaction and fulfillment through investing time and energy into developing meaningful relationships with those around me, rather than through dressing up for functions and fostering acquaintances and social connections. 
  • Being a starter on the rugby team: I learned to appreciate the process of working hard, day by day, to become the best rugby player and teammate that I could be. I found great power and strength in the fact that I could only get better by my own standards and by my own expectations: I couldn’t control or change anyone else around me, but I could focus on getting better, and this would have a positive impact on myself and my teammates as a result. 
  • Five key lessons from Harvard: be willing to change your mind, and to be proved wrong 

Finally, the last of the five key lessons from Harvard I learned is that life gets a whole lot easier (not to mention far more enjoyable) if you approach it with an open mind and a capacity to be flexible. 

When I began my time at Harvard, I thought that I wanted to study Sociology or Social Studies. As Harvard is a liberal arts college, undergraduates declare their major (or “concentration”) midway through their Sophomore, and I ended up taking an inspirational History & Literature seminar during my second-year Fall term. 

The class motivated me to change my mind about my course of study the night before I had to decide, and I ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in History & Literature. This was the best academic decision I made whilst at Harvard. 

My time at Harvard also taught me the importance of going with the flow and accepting major life changes as they came. Leaving home to live in America at 18 was a daunting prospect, and I struggled a lot with this transition during my first year in the States.

However, by the time I was an upperclassman, I had created a life in America that felt rich and meaningful. My time in the States wouldn’t have been imbued with nearly as much substance and joy had I not had to overcome adversity and extreme homesickness in the first place. 

My Final Thoughts 

I learned a lot of invaluable life lessons during my time at Harvard, and the most meaningful ones owed little to the books we read or the essays we wrote, or the lectures we attended. 

These lessons came wrapped up in daily early morning lift and fitness sessions with my teammates, in late-night chats about my deepest hopes and dreams with my best friends, in trips to the Deep South and into downtown Boston and in experiencing ruminating thoughts and enacting unhelpful behaviours after a poor night’s sleep or when engaging (however briefly) with a few disproportionately competitive and self-centred people. 

Wherever you go to university, I would encourage you to take these lessons on board, and to think about where your priorities lie, and what matters most to you when it comes to your interpersonal relationships, your studies, your future career, and your overall experience during your time as a student.

Think about what qualities you’re looking for in your friends, which subjects move and inspire you, what you want to do in the world, and the type of impact you want to make. 

If you want some more in-depth information on the university admissions process, check out our website. You can also look through our Studying in the US section to gain more insights into the American college experience.

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