Brits in America: extracurriculars should not overtake academics, even at Harvard

Spending too much time on extracurricular activities can leave academics on the back-burner, argues student blogger Raphaëlle Soffe

August 20 2019
Brits in America: extracurriculars at Harvard University

One of the first economic terms introduced by Gregory Mankiw in his introductory microeconomic class “Ec10a” was “comparative advantage.” Ever since, I have pondered the question; what is Harvard’s comparative advantage? In other words, what makes Harvard comparatively unique and how should I best spend my four years at the institution?

Harvard University offers many outstanding opportunities and extracurricular options; it is hard to know specifically where its comparative advantage lies. Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP), frequently features in my Times Higher Education blogs and it offers students extensive political networks. Students can meet with prominent economists, officials, and politicians.

While this is a great opportunity, I have found that taking part in too many extracurriculars saps time. It requires extensive commitment in order to unlock further privileges, and entices students away from academics with the promise of a step up in their career. 


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Throughout Harvard, and not just at the IOP, there are policy work programmes, public speaking and debating training, and leadership options. Harvard students may land their dream job, either at the White House and Goldman Sachs, but Harvard has become the stepping stone as opposed to a foundation stone to their career. Academic pursuit has been confined to the classroom and graded assessments, and additional intellectual curiosity has been sidelined.

Brandon Terry, assistant professor of African and African American studies and social studies, ended his final lecture in the social studies introductory class with a similar line of argument. Although he recognised the importance of obtaining a well-rounded university experience, Terry also expressed concern that the balance of academics and extracurricular within the Harvard student population had skewed towards extracurricular activities. 

Because I was initially interested in continuing my high school start-up Neutral News, Harvard immediately connected me to the I-Lab where I was introduced to investors and paired with multiple mentors. Harvard definitely has a reputation for fostering entrepreneurial spirit.

Mark Zuckerberg’s activities as a freshman at the university would eventually culminate in the multibillion-dollar organisation, Facebook. Initially it would appear that the entrepreneurial aspect of Harvard may be its comparative advantage. Money, expertise, and potential business partners are plentiful, and Harvard’s connections stretch across industries, throughout politics, and around the world.

I remain unconvinced that I should use my time at Harvard to continue Neutral News, despite there being potential in the current climate of fake news and media polarisation.

I frequently ask myself; does Mark Zuckerberg regret dropping out of Harvard having only spent a year at the institution? Did he learn all he could from Harvard? Had he truly considered Harvard’s comparative advantage? Zuckerberg may now have all the money he could desire, influence and power far exceeding that of many US politicians, and a public profile rivalling that of Hollywood film stars. But Harvard offers something money, power, and fame can’t necessarily buy: academic supremacy.

Harvard definitely excels in its extracurricular options. I would encourage students to experience the diversity of clubs, sports, and organisations. I would also advise students that the extracurricular at Harvard must not too heavily replace that what Harvard ultimately does best: academia.

Undergraduates at Harvard have four years to train their brain, constantly challenge academic limits, and absorb as much as possible from some of the smartest men and women in the world. You can play soccer or basketball, volunteer for a political campaign or consultancy, and sing songs at pretty much any time in your life. It’s a little harder to find such a high calibre of academic teaching in your neighbourhood, with an open door and a welcoming smile, once you’ve graduated and launched your career.

Read more: Catch up on all of Raphaëlle’s Harvard blogs here 

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