I'm at Harvard, so I'm admittedly biased. This is a decision a lot of people make, and after talking to many of those people (and being someone who chose between H and Y myself) it's pretty clear that you most likely will be happy whichever you choose. Yes, I absolutely love Harvard, but I'm sure I would love Yale too. So don't stress!
That being said, I chose Harvard because I felt more "at home" walking around; it's one of those intangible qualities that is unique for every person, and it's a feeling you either get or don't get at a college. Both are amazing academically, very similar in the house systems, have similar types of students, and will do wonders for your future goals, so go wherever you can really see yourself living. I happen to like our house system better than Yale's; you get sorted the end of freshman year as opposed to before you even get to campus, so you meet tons of people in your freshman dorm and then multiply that number by two when you move into your house, whereas at Yale you're with the same people from your house all four years. I also happened to find Yale's gray gothic architecture a little dreary, but that's just my opinion. I love our atmosphere on campus, I love how diverse we are compared to the rest of the ivy league, and our area around the school (Cambridge, Harvard Square, and you can venture into Boston very easily) beats Yale's, hands down. Wander around both campuses this weekend outside of the planned tours and whatnot, talk to random people, and really think about if you could see yourself living there for four years...although of course, you'll probably be happy no matter which you choose!
I did get into both of them, which is why I'm in the best place to be stuck, but it's a bad feeling nonetheless. People keep telling that I can't go wrong with my decision, but I really hope that I can make the right decision.
D2 has that choice right now and it was no choice for her, because we put our (and the grandparents') college savings in an account under her name. If you have any assets of your own, Yale claims 25% of them per year; Harvard only 5%. Other than that, there are probably more similarities between them than differences.
I would look into the departments that you are interested in, at each school. For Harvard, you can pick up a course catalog for $5 at the Coop, which is the Harvard book store. You can get one for Yale at Admissions, I think. Then, when you visit each, make sure to go to the department offices and get materials, get a feel for the department (often there is someone to talk with, and many are hosting open houses), and, most important, visit classes. Hang out for a while in the lobby and observe and listen. While the two schools are comparable, I believe there must be some variations in the individual departments, if not in quality, perhaps in the focus you want, or the atmosphere.
There are other academic differences: Yale has more distribution requirements, for instance. You might like this well-roundedness, or not. Also check out things like Freshman seminars and tutorials, opportunity for one-on-one learning with professors, independent work and so on. Harvard's catalog lists pages and pages of Freshman Seminars, which are very enticing. Yale may have the same.
If there are extracurricular activities that interest you, attend the events for those. Harvard has an extracurricular fair this weekend, for instance. If you are interested in theater, go to a show, if you play an instrument, go to a concert, if you like to write, pick up a school paper, etc.
This forum has students and parents who will also advise you about specific departments or activities with which they are familiar, so ask specifically.
It is probably difficult to talk with many people about your choice, since many people will say things like "poor you, that's rough." But honor the difficulty of the decision yourself, by putting strategic effort into investigating all of the above this weekend. At least, that's what I would suggest...
You probably want more student input, but I'm another H parent with two cents to add. My D visited both schools, felt she would be happy at both, but knew right away that H was her preference. Her comfort at H was immediate; at Y it took a day or two to get there, but she did. She also noted that some Y students conveyed an inferiority complex towards H.
Most likely your visit will cement your decision. Good luck!
Bay - lol: The Students' Guide to Colleges asks students at each school to describe their school in exactly five words. The Yale student interviewed responded "So much better than Harvard." But I don't think I've ever heard a Harvard student compare his or her experience to that of Yale students.
By and large, I don't think students should decide between Harvard and Yale on the basis of academics. These are two of the very best schools in the US and the world; and even if some departments may be a bit stronger at one than the other, it won't really affect undergraduates.
It really comes down to the overall experience. I recently walked by Harvard Square and was struck anew at the opportunities Harvard offers to students who like being part of a bustling scene and don't mind not having a well-defined campus separated from the rest of the town. On their doorsteps are several great bookstores; dozens of restaurants ranging from the very cheap to the very expensive; clothing and shoe stores; several banks; a cinema; the subway station and several bus stops. If that sort of scene appeals to you, Harvard is the better option. If you prefer a more defined campus, you might want to attend Yale.
Wandering by here, with a (somewhat) contrary view, based on having made the choice years ago, and recent visits to both / talks with students I know there.
Everyone is right: you can't lose. Whichever choice you make will be the right one. What's more, you will be soooooo happy that you made the choice you did, and you will wonder how you could ever have found it difficult. Flipping a coin would be a perfectly good way to make the choice -- the outcome will be the same either way.
If you insist on analyzing it, however . . . . (I'd like to see someone who got into both colleges NOT insist on analyzing the choice, but Hell will probably freeze over first.)
I disagree a bit with marite about academics. Long ago, my main reason for choosing Yale was that it was far superior to Harvard at the time in the area that interested me most -- English and Comp Lit. Yale was the center of the world, Harvard wasn't. It made a huge difference to me. I had tons of contact, and real relationships, with the people everyone everywhere else talked about. I got to surf the cutting edge. Every interesting scholar in the world came through on a regular basis. (My kids are impressed that I got to meet and talk with Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Edward Said -- who was at Harvard, then, actually -- Stanley Fish, among others.) For me, that was a great reason to make the choice. (If I were in the same position now, I would almost certainly choose Harvard for the same reason. I wouldn't be able to resist the 1-2-3 punch of Stephen Greenblatt, Helen Vendler, and Henry Louis Gates.)
My other big reason was that Yale was the only college my best friend and I both got into. That was a decent reason, too, but may not be relevant to you. Also, it WASN'T where everyone in my family had gone, which is a decent reason for choosing one, too, but could be flipped into a decent reason for choosing the other.
I agree with most of the posters here that Harvard beats Yale hands down in the campus department. I thought so 35 years ago, too. Harvard is just about the most exciting physical campus in the world -- the jumble of different architectural styles, the interleaving of academic buildings with Cambridge, the upscale bustle of Cambridge, the effect of the Charles and the magnificent River Houses, the walk across the river to the athletic fields, the availability of the T . . . For me, there's just about nothing wrong with it. Yale's campus? The gothic pastiche is overbearing, but you can learn to love it in a few weeks. New Haven is nicer than it was. And the human landscape is more important than the physical one.
I thought, and think, that Yale's residential college system works better than the house system. Assigning people randomly to colleges before they show up both guarantees diversity in each college and makes the move from freshman housing to the college much less stressful. And I loved having a large group of people who were not my closest friends, but whom I had known for years, saw all the time, and felt completely comfortable with. Lots of them were people I might never have spoken to if we had met only at the beginning of our second years, when our college identities were already basically set -- but since we had "always" known each other, it was the most natural thing in the world to grab the open seat at their lunch table and check in. Also, it was much easier to meet and to befriend a wide variety of upperclassmen as a freshman, not just the ones with whom I shared interests/activities. We ate weekend meals in the college, and got soused with them at "Master's Teas" (where they probably no longer serve whiskey sours in lieu of tea). We could join the intramural sports and drinking teams, the college drama society and singing groups. The sophomores and juniors knew that we were going to be around for a while. We were already in the club.
(Also, since Old Campus housing usually had students from more than one college sharing a dorm, and the dorms were very close together, one met lots of freshmen from other colleges, too.)
Yale is somewhat more undergraduate-focused than Harvard. Its professional schools are much, much smaller, and I think it has somewhat fewer graduate students. At least in the past, most Yale professors spent more time on campus than Harvard professors seemed to. Relationships between undergraduates and graduate students were good (a really valuable part of my experience, and of my wife's too -- I never hear that much from Harvard people).
In my experience -- which probably relates more to the law school than the college -- Harvard faculty have a tendency to take themselves waaaaaay too seriously. Because they are priests of the most important temple of Western Culture -- and that's what Harvard is -- everything that happens in their offices and classrooms has Cosmic Implications, and can become a battle of Good vs. Evil. Faculty at Yale are enough more humble to make a meaningful difference, and tend to get along better.
My experience with this isn't so current, but in the past I thought that effect washed over onto undergraduates as well. Harvard students tended to be a little more anxious, a little more nakedly ambitious. Being at the center of the world weighed on them. It was like the NYC of education: "If I can make it there, I'll make it a-ny-where!" Most of my (many) friends at Harvard were always trying to claw out their niche to prove they belonged; few students at Yale back then thought that way (and they don't seem to now).
The flip side of Cambridge is that Yale is about 90% of the energy in New Haven, so the community doesn't suck the life out of campus (see, e.g., Columbia). Yale is definitely an urban school, but everyone is engaged in what's happening on the campus, which isn't always true at Harvard. Unless they are going into New York, which is easy to do, but not every weekend.
I think Yale is meaningfully artier than Harvard, too. I have never seen anywhere with so much self-generated student art, music, drama. Apart from the big institutions (the orchestra, the glee club, the Dramat and Rep), there were literally dozens of singing groups, chamber music groups, rock bands, jazz bands, people producing plays, people writing plays, people painting . . . .
Yale has much better songs, notwithstanding that its alma mater, "Bright College Years" is a monument to kitsch, while "Fair Harvard" is gorgeous and brings tears to my eyes.
Anyway, I can't imagine a better undergraduate experience than I had at Yale. And when I talk to current students, it is stunning how similar their experiences seem to be. (A few years ago, taking the Yale tour with my daughter, our tour guide was a 19-year-old Pakistani engineering student in Silliman College -- i.e., someone who could not possibly be more different from me or my wife. At the end of the tour, my daughter asked, "Did you guys write his script or something? There were entire sentences that were word-for-word what you say.")
My D2 (somewhat to my frustration, because it scrapped a lot of otherwise good options) immediately ruled out any campus that struck her as a "bubble." She wanted exactly the type of ambience that Marite describes. Yale was OK, but if H hadn't come through, she'd have chosen Georgetown over Yale because it has more of the Harvard Square type of environment. She found Penn "too urban" - more of the negatives of the city and less of the charm, she said. It's all a matter of personal preference.