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ILUMIN Blog

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Why I Said NO to Harvard

Elton Lin

How do you know if a famous university is the right school for you? Just because it’s ranked highly or because it has a long and storied history doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be happy spending four years of your life there. Today, we have the privilege of hearing from someone who was faced with this dilemma. Read on to find out why Elizabeth (not her real name) decided not to attend Harvard University and her advice for finding a good-fit school.

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In the spring of my senior year of high school, I received two college acceptance packages in the mail.  One contained an acceptance letter that looked almost like a diploma.  It was printed on frameable cardstock paper and declared that I had the right to study at the most prestigious university in America, Harvard University.  The other was written on regular paper and invited me to study at a very selective liberal arts college that most people have never heard of, Swarthmore College. 

I said no to Harvard.

The process of saying no was not easy, and my decision was not made flippantly.  Of course, initially, I was thrilled to be accepted at both schools.  In some ways, it seemed like madness to even consider turning down an acceptance to Harvard. This school was the “holy grail” of studious, hard-working students like me.  However, I was uneasy about the kind of pressure that a name like Harvard would have on my education.  I wanted to learn for the sake of learning and to serve my future community.  I was afraid that at a place like Harvard, I would live under the pressure of achieving academically so that I could prove that I was worthy of my acceptance.

I had the privilege of visiting both campuses before making my final decision.  During my visit to Harvard, I was impressed by the classic architecture and the feeling of intellectualism mixed with a youthful energy that pervaded the campus.  I slept over with some students in the dorms, ate in the dining hall, attended an ice hockey game (Harvard won over Dartmouth) and visited a class.  However, the main thing that sticks out to me is a conversation I had with one student.  When I told him my dilemma over which school to choose, he said, “How could you even think about going to another school?”  In a way, that comment confirmed the misgivings I had.  My personality is more “march to the beat of a different drummer” than “go with the flow.”  That student’s comment grated against my desire to be different, to make my own path in life and not just do something because it’s what I’m expected to do.

On the other hand, when I did my Swarthmore campus visit, students seemed deeply intellectual but also less stressed about themselves.  The campus is beautiful (its grounds are an arboretum), and even the physical surroundings fit better with my personality and preferences.  The students at Swarthmore talked about their small classes and their personal interactions with their professors.  As a group, they seemed more anti-establishment, more relaxed, more fun.  I could fit with this crowd.

As the time neared for me to send my confirmation letter, I was convinced that I would get an excellent education at both schools, but Swarthmore seemed to be the place where I would thrive more.  Many years later, I do not regret my decision.  The education, experiences, and memories that I gained in my time at Swarthmore is an invaluable part of my life, and I wish the same for you as you go through the process of choosing a university.