The Harvard Guide to Happiness
By KATE ZERNIKE
Lost in the current obsession to get into The Best U is something
most adults readily admit, at least in hindsight: It doesn't
so much where you go to college, but what you make of the
So how to make the most of it?
In 1986, Derek Bok, then the president of Harvard, summoned a
professor at the Graduate School of Education and asked him to
evaluate how well the university educated its students and ways it
might improve. Why, Dr. Bok wanted to know, did some students have
a great experience while others did not?
The professor, Richard J. Light, a statistician by training,
gathered colleagues and deans from 24 other institutions to
the question and come up with a scientific method to find the
Over 10 years researchers interviewed 1,600 Harvard students,
asking a range of questions about everything from what they did in
their spare time to the quality of teaching and advising. They
looked for patterns - say, what made certain courses effective.
They also correlated students' academic and personal choices with
their grades and how happy and intellectually engaged they said
they were. The goal was to determine which factors were more
to improve learning and overall happiness. A factor always linked
to success would be rated 1; one with a significant relationship
success would be 0.50; and one with no effect would be 0. (Not
every factor got a rating because of inconsistencies in how
questions were asked.)
=46ifteen years later, Harvard has made policy changes based on the
study, like assigning students homework to do in groups and
scheduling some classes later in the day so discussions can
continue over dinner.
"It turns out there are a whole range of concrete ways students
improve their experience," said Professor Light, who teaches at
John F. Kennedy School of Government as well as at the education
school. Professor Light has gathered the best ideas in a book,
"Making the Most of College" (Harvard University Press,
suggestions are often simple. Still, he said, "It's amazing
little thought people give to these decisions."
1. Meet the faculty. Professor Light now tells each of the
he advises the same thing at the beginning of each term: "Your
is to get to know one faculty member reasonably well and get that
faculty member to know you reasonably well. If you do nothing
do that." On the most opportunistic level, this means that at
end of four years - two semesters each - the student has eight
professors to write recommendations for jobs or for graduate
school. But more important, the relationship makes a student feel
more connected to the institution.
The most satisfied students in the Harvard interviews sought
detailed feedback and asked specific questions of professors and
advisers - not "Why didn't I get a better grade?" but
the paragraphs in this essay where my argument faltered."
And don't try to hide academic problems. The researchers working
for Professor Light interviewed a sample of 40 students who
stumbled academically in their first year. The 20 who asked for
help improved their grades, the 20 who did not spiraled downward -
isolated, failing and unhappy.
2. Take a mix of courses. Nearly without exception, the students
the study who were struggling were taking nothing but large
introductory courses that were needed to complete their degree.
Why? To get them out of the way. Advice from well-meaning parents
often goes something like this: First year, take required courses.
Second year, choose a major. Third year, take advanced classes
required for your major. Save fun electives, like dessert, for
The trouble is, introductory courses range across so much
they often fail to offer students anything to sink their
into. So when it comes time to choose a major, students don't know
what really interests them. By senior year, when taking courses
that stimulate them, they are wondering why they didn't take more
courses in Japanese/medieval social history/statistics earlier.
Those who treat the early years like a shopping excursion, taking
not only required classes but also ones that pique their interest,
feel more engaged and happier with their major.
"The less satisfied students were the ones who said, =D4My tack
to get all the requirements out of the way,'" Professor Light
"The successful students do the exact opposite."
The corollary to this recommendation: Take small classes, which
encourages faculty interaction and a feeling of connectedness.
Taking classes with 15 or fewer students had a 0.52 correlation
with overall engagement and a 0.24 correlation with good grades -
both considered significant.
3. Study in groups. Doing homework is important, but what really
matters is doing it in a way that helps you understand the
material. Students who studied on their own and then discussed the
work in groups of four to six, even just once a week, understood
material better and felt more engaged with their classes. This was
especially true with science, which requires so much solitary work
and has complicated concepts.
4. Write, write, write. Choose courses with many short papers
instead of one or two long ones. This means additional work - more
than 12 hours a week versus fewer then 9, or about 40 percent more
time - but it also improves grades. In a class that requires only
one 20-page paper at the end of the term, there is no chance of
recovering from a poor showing. Courses with four five-page papers
offer chances for a midcourse correction.
And the more writing, the better. In all of Professor Light's
research, no factor was more important to engagement and good
grades than the amount of writing a student did. Students in the
study recommended taking courses with a lot of writing in the last
two years, when you have adjusted to the challenges of being in
college and are preparing to write a long senior thesis.
5. Speak another language. Foreign language courses are the
best-kept secret on campus. Many students arrive with enough
to test out of a college's language requirement. But language was
the most commonly mentioned among "favorite classes." Sixty
of students put them in the category of "hard work but pure
pleasure"; 57 percent of those interviewed again after
college recommended not testing out. Why? Classes are small,
instructors insist on participation, students work in groups, and
assignments include lots of written work and frequent quizzes,
allowing for repeated midcourse corrections. In short, foreign
language courses combine all the elements that lead to more
learning and more engagement.
6. Consider time. In the Harvard interviews, there was one
difference between those who did well in their courses and those
who did not: Those who did well mentioned the word "time";
who did not never used the word. Students reported that they did
not succeed when they studied the way they had in high school,
squeezing in 25 minutes in a study hall, 35 minutes after sports
practice and 45 minutes after dinner. Grades and understanding
improved when they set aside an uninterrupted stretch of a few
hours. Professor Light even suggests keeping a time log for a few
weeks and showing it to an adviser, who can help figure out the
best way to allocate time.
7. Hold the drum. Students often flounder in college because they
do not have the same social or family support network they had at
home. Those who get involved in outside activities, even ones not
aimed at padding a r*sum* or a graduate school application, are
happiest. Professor Light tells the story of one young woman
arriving unhappy in her adviser's office. When the adviser
encouraged her to do something beyond her studies, she demurred.
She had no talent; she could not play on a team or sing in the
choir. "How about band?" her adviser prodded. She
replied that she
did not play an instrument. "That's O.K.," he said.
"Ask them if
you can hold the drum." Years later, when asked to describe why
college experience had been so positive, she repeatedly referred
the band, which got her involved at pep rallies and football games
and introduced her to a diverse range of students.
Students who have worked hard to get into college, Professor Light
said, tend to arrive and say, "Academic work is my priority,
doing other things will hurt that." In fact, the Harvard
"What goes on in situations outside of class is just as
and in some situations, it turns out to be a bigger deal than what
happens in class," he said. "Very often an experience
class can have a profound effect on the courses students choose
even what they want to do with their lives."
The study found that students who worked long hours at a job had
the same grades as those who worked a few hours or not at all.
Students who volunteered actually had higher grades and reported
being happier. The only students whose outside activities hurt
their grades were intercollegiate athletes. Still, Professor Light
said, they are the happiest students on campus.