Harvard freshman recounts enriching first year

May 27, 2010 — by Denise Lin and Christine Tseng

Michael Chen was at the top of his game in high school—salutatorian, president of the Key Club and editor-in-chief for the school newspaper—just to name a few of his impressive positions. He continued this remarkable streak by getting accepted to Harvard University.

Acceptance into Harvard University is a goal that many top students aspire to. Not only is it hard to be accepted, but the classes there are difficult as well, even for the supremely gifted. However, Chen finds that life at college is not as daunting as he had feared.

“College is a lot of fun,” said Chen. “You have a lot more freedom than you did in high school because you’re able to choose from a much wider of variety of courses with much fewer restrictions on what you can take.”

For Chen, the acceptance into Harvard last year was a pleasant surprise, as he was not really expecting to get into the school.

“To be honest, Harvard wasn’t even really on my radar when I was applying to schools,” said Chen. “I didn’t think I had even a small chance of getting in and just kind of applied for the [heck] of it.”

Chen speculates that the reason his application was chosen out of so many was not only because of his stellar grades, but also because of his positive recommendation letters.

“I actually had a chance recently to go in and see the summary notes written by the people who read my application,” said Chen. “They mentioned the high level of support I got from my letter writers, who apparently wrote some nice things.”

Chen feels that the biggest jump between high school and college is the fact that there is much more freedom and focus on projects rather than classwork.

“You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who puts classwork at the top of their list of priorities. Obviously it’s still important to most, but a lot of people are much more concerned with [things such as] the activities in which they’re involved [and] their work.”

Since Harvard has a relatively large budget compared to other schools, it is able to put its students’ needs first. As a result, there are numerous grants to fund research projects and other what Chen calls “crazy things.” This large budget has also played a role in the quality of Harvard classes and professors.

“There are a lot of incredible classes being taught by world-famous people,” said Chen. “When a lot of people decide not to study abroad, it’s because they’re concerned about missing out on stuff going on at school, not because they don’t have the chance.”

Along with the work in college comes the precious opportunity to pursue one’s true interests.

“One of the greatest things about college is probably the ability to really explore your interests without penalty,” said Chen. “At Harvard, we have a ‘shopping period’ at the beginning of every term, where we stop in and out of classes that we’re interested in. This gives us time to really check out classes beforehand.”

While Harvard has helped Chen develop academically, it has allowed him to develop mentally as well.

“I think the exposure to people with different interests and ideas has really helped me develop as a person,” said Chen. “It’s important and useful to have a good grasp of other fields.”

College has also proved to be an eye opener for Chen to the plethora of diverse students. Chen feels that although Saratoga High is quite ethnically diverse, most students have come from similar life experiences.

In college, as in other areas of life, people come from a variety of backgrounds, said Chen. “You get diversity of these life experiences, so you can really mix with people who have radically different ideas. It’s been a blast,” said Chen.

However, in the midst of the benefits of attending Harvard, one thing that tested Chen was the East Coast weather. Luckily this year, the winter weather was not too harsh, and he missed the brunt of the chilly season during winter break.

Chen encourages incoming freshmen to take advantage of their first year in college.

“Don’t feel tied to doing anything just because you think you should or because it’s always been ‘your thing.’ Do what you want and have fun in the process! If you aren’t enjoying yourself, chances are it’s time to look around,” said Chen.

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