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9 Things to See On Your Campus Visit to Harvard
When you’re making your college list, it’s always a good idea to visit colleges in person if you’re able to do so. You can learn a lot about a college online and by speaking with students or alumni, but actually visiting campus can give you a much better idea of what it’s actually like to live, learn, and work there for four years of your life.
If you’re thinking about visiting Harvard University and possibly applying to the school, you’re not alone; the college is not only an educational powerhouse, but also a popular destination for visitors from around the world. Attending an information session and taking a guided tour through Harvard’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions is a good idea, but those activities may not tell you everything you want to know.
In this post, we’ll go over some options you may want to add to your agenda for your Harvard visit, both on campus and off. These sights and activities can give you a uniquely valuable perspective on whether Harvard is truly a good fit for your college plans.
A brief introduction to Harvard
As we describe in greater detail in our Ultimate Guide to Applying to Harvard, Harvard University is possibly the most recognizable institution of higher learning in this country, and is widely know as an exceptionally prestigious and accomplished school. It also holds the title of the oldest university in the United States, so it’s been a fixture of the American educational scene for a very long time.
Harvard’s main campus is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the river from the city of Boston. Most of its undergraduate facilities and resources are nestled into this campus, which is both a historically significant site and a center of cutting-edge resources. Its ornate architecture is reminiscent of the venerable colleges of England, or, as some recent students have noticed, of J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts.
As you would imagine, such a well-known and well-regarded school receives a huge number of applicants—nearly 40,000 per year in recent years. Consequently, its admissions rate is very low, and currently hovers around 5%. Still, many students dream of heading to Harvard after high school, and some number of them eventually will become students there.
Since Harvard is such a popular choice among college applicants, we’ve covered issues specific to the Harvard application process several times before on the CollegeVine blog. In addition to our Ultimate Guide to Applying to Harvard, you may be interested in the following posts:
Things to see on campus
Before we begin our list of things to see on Harvard’s campus, it’s necessary to mention a few items about how Harvard responds to and accommodates visitors, including prospective applicants touring the school. While, as we’ve said, Harvard is itself a tourist destination, it’s also a functioning university and community that has a lot going on besides entertaining guests.
One factor to keep in mind when visiting Harvard is that many campus buildings aren’t open to the public. For example, Annenberg Hall, the ornate first-year dining hall, is among these private facilities. Harvard’s libraries, while fascinating, are also very strict in their admission policies, with even some visiting scholars having to jump through hoops to get access. For some facilities, if you’re visiting with a current student, you can be admitted as a guest, but that isn’t true everywhere.
Another important reminder is that Harvard’s campus is a place where people live and work year-round, so as a visitor, you’ll need to be respectful of those who call the school home. In the past, students have complained of visitors blocking important pathways—a real hassle when you’re rushing to class—or even taking pictures through dorm windows. New policies posted on campus make the rules clear, but it’s mostly a matter of common sense.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the practical advice, here are a few things you may like to add to your agenda while you’re on Harvard’s campus.
It may seem like a bit of a cliche to start with Harvard Yard, as it’s arguably the most recognizable part of the Harvard campus. However, this area is genuinely important for you to see as a prospective applicant, not least because it’s the area in which all first-year students live. If you attend Harvard, you’ll spend a lot of time in Harvard Yard that year—there’s no way around it.
After the first year, Harvard’s students enter residential colleges that are scattered across the campus, but they still have plenty of reasons to go back to the Yard. Not only do student events take place there, but it’s a great place to kick back and read a book. It’s also centrally located, so walking through the Yard is often the most convenient way to get somewhere you need to be.
Right across the Charles River from Harvard Square, you’ll find Allston, a neighborhood that’s technically part of Boston. This area has long had a Harvard presence—it’s the location of the Harvard Business School campus, as well as Harvard’s stadium and other athletic facilities.
More recently, the Allston campus has become the site of a great deal of expansion and development on Harvard’s part. Ongoing projects and those in the planning stages will move many of the university’s engineering and computer science resources to Allston under the auspices of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. These are popular and expanding fields, so you may well spend time on that side of the river as a student.
The Allston campus is still a work in progress, but if you’d like to explore it, it’s easy to get to from Harvard Square. Multiple bridges make the area accessible on foot, by bus, or by car. Students, faculty, and staff also enjoy the use of a free shuttle that runs at regular intervals throughout the day.
Graduate school campuses
As you may know, Harvard University is made up of twelve distinct degree-granting schools, most of which are graduate or professional programs. Each of these schools, from the Law School to the Divinity School to the School of Public Health, has spaces of its own on campus, whether large or small. Some are restricted to students from those programs, but some are open to the entire Harvard community.
You most likely won’t take courses at the graduate or professional schools while you’re an undergraduate at Harvard, but you may find yourself heading there for an event or navigating that section of campus on the way to somewhere else. These less central areas of campus can also be great places to find new study spots, explore different dining options, or see some impressive architecture and landscaping.
Harvard Museum of Natural History
Tucked away on the third floor of one of Harvard’s academic buildings, this small museum is nonetheless a gem—and not just because it’s home to a wide variety of mineral samples. You’ll also find treasures like massive whale skeletons, meteorites you can touch, an interactive simulation of the process of natural selection, and a world-renown collection of incredibly delicate glass models of plant specimens.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History is open to the public, and students and other Harvard affiliates enjoy free admission. Your ticket also gives you access to Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which houses an exceptional collection of historic artifacts from around the world.
Things to see off campus
Though Harvard is primarily located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the city of Boston itself is just across the river, easily accessible by bus or subway. (Driving is also possible, but traffic in the area is often heavy.) Cambridge has many of its own amenities, but the proximity of the larger city opens up additional possibilities, both for you as a student in the future and for you as a visitor right now.
It would be nearly impossible to visit Harvard without walking through Harvard Square, which refers to the neighborhood around the Harvard Square subway and bus station. Located right in the center of campus, the square is an entertainment hub as well as a place where the Harvard community takes care of everyday errands, so if you end up attending Harvard, you’ll spend a lot of time here.
There’s always something new and exciting going on in Harvard Square, but you’ll also find fixtures like charming cafes, eclectic shops, and restaurants across the spectrum from cheap bites to exceptional cuisine. In the center of everything, don’t miss Out of Town News, an iconic news kiosk carrying a huge variety of periodicals.
Of course, being so close to such an intellectual powerhouse, Harvard Square’s amenities tend toward the intellectual side of life. The Harvard Coop, the official bookstore, is right down the street from The Harvard Book Store, which is not affiliated with Harvard. Both, however, are interesting places to browse, buy souvenirs, and get a better sense of Harvard Square’s atmosphere.
The Charles River
As we’ve mentioned, the Charles River acts as a boundary line between the cities of Cambridge and Boston. Besides being an unavoidable geographical feature of the Boston area, the river and its adjacent green spaces are popular for recreation, with paths for pedestrians and cyclists as well as boating, sightseeing, and picnicking opportunities.
Festivals and other public events also take place along the Charles, the best-known of which may be the annual Head of the Charles Regatta. This major annual rowing competition attracts huge crowds and competitors from around the world each October. Even if you’re not particularly interested in rowing, it’s an exciting and traditional part of life in Cambridge.
The Freedom Trail
One of the Boston area’s greatest claims to fame is its long history, particularly its importance during the American Revolutionary War. Many visitors to the area are eager to see what relics remain in existence from those foundational times. The Freedom Trail, a designated path through the city that passes by 16 important historical sites, is a convenient way to get a cohesive look at Boston’s past.
The Freedom Trail, which is marked along its length with a red-painted line on the ground, is a 2.5-mile-long walking trail that winds from Boston Common on one end to the Bunker Hill Monument and the U.S.S. Constitution on the other end. You can take an official walking tour with a costumed tour guide or explore the trail on your own. Either way, you’ll have a unique opportunity to see the real-life sites of the events you’ve learned about in your American history classes.
This lovely public park in the center of Boston is a popular destination, both for casual relaxation and for large-scale community events like festivals, rallies, parades, and performances. Across the street, there’s even more green space: the Boston Public Gardens, another public park that’s more formally landscaped than the Common. It’s easily accessible by public transit and close to many other attractions in downtown Boston.
On the Common, you’ll find a number of different features, including public art, memorials and monuments, and a playground. In the winter, it’s home to an outdoor ice-skating rink and the city’s annual Christmas tree. It’s also a great place to view the Massachusetts State House, a beautiful historical building topped with an impressive golden dome.
If you’re in the mood for some retail therapy in a classically Bostonian setting, Newbury Street is the place to be. This street in the Back Bay area of downtown Boston is packed with shops, cafes, restaurants, and other destinations, many of them in charming brick and stone row houses built in the late 1800s and later converted into retail space.
Newbury Street is well-known to be home to some of Boston’s chicest—and most expensive—shopping destinations, but there are options along this block of shops for every budget. Even if you’re just window-shopping, it’s an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon enjoying the sights and sounds of Boston.
While we can’t possibly list everything there is to see when you visit Harvard, we hope this post can get you started on planning a trip that really helps you get to know the college and the surrounding community. We encourage you to do your research, seek out more destinations that reflect your interests, and have a great time!
If you’re currently embroiled in the process of preparing for and applying to college, you know full well that it can be complex and stressful—especially if you’re applying to prestigious, highly competitive schools with low acceptance rates and high standards.
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