Harvard vs. UPenn

Hi, I was recently admitted to Harvard and UPenn (and Duke and Dartmouth, but these two are the front-runners), and I’m unsure of what to choose.

I’m looking to party in college–or at least have a pretty “traditional” college social scene–and I think in that aspect I would enjoy UPenn more. In fact, I like a lot about UPenn: Philly, the campus, the opportunity to take classes in/double major at Wharton (I got into CAS).

However, Harvard is, of course, Harvard. I am interested in Classics (which Harvard is top notch in, moreso than Penn (I think)) and political science (honestly not sure). My vague long term goal is law school, but who knows. I think I could get a better academic experience at Harvard, with more opportunities for learning and careers later on. I don’t want to feel I compromised my future in favor of a fun college time, so turning down Harvard would be an extraordinarily hard decision and one I’m afraid I’ll regret if I made it.

So, that brings me to my questions.

What’s the social scene at like Harvard? Are there parties, bars, etc.? This is what I’m most intrigued by.
Do you think Penn’s academics would be a step down from Harvard’s?
For classics/political science, what’s better?

I have a friend at UPenn who says it’s a great school, but I imagine the same is true of people at Harvard.

Finally, I’m aware this is the Harvard forum, so I’ve braced accordingly.


You sound like a Penn student to me. I don’t think Harvard would be as good of a fit from what you’ve described about your priorities, although they are both going to get you to law school if that’s what you want. Choosing Harvard would be far from a bad decision, of course, but you sound like you’d be happier at Penn socially, which at this level of institution is arguably more important than the minor considerations of name brands and prestige and rankings. I’d say Penn if the cost is identical.

@howtobe I ll agree with the poster above. You sound like a better fit for Penn than Harvard. Penn has a better social life than Harvard. Harvard is of course more prestigious than Penn. But both schools are top notch. It won’t make a practical difference in your career or academic opportunities either way. Of course i understand that is hard for many people to reject the Harvard name, which carries so much prestige.

Some pluses about Penn vs Harvard: better social life, all classes are taught by professors (not TAs), ability to take business classes or do a dual degree with Wharton since you are interested in business.

Some pluses of Harvard vs Penn: greater prestige, name recognition, stronger department in classics and poli-sci.

At the end of the day both schools will give you comparable opportunities.
Fit is also very important not just because you will be happier at a place you fit in well, but also because you are bound to perform better and take better advantage of the opportunities at a place that is a better fit.

From the experience of those I know. Harvard’s social life is just fine. I really don’t understand why anyone thinks otherwise. The house system builds community. Dorms have been or are or will be renovated and there is an emphasis on creating common areas for socializing, not only in the dorms but on campus (Holyoke Plaza right in the square is being redone)

There are reasons to choose either school. Have you visited? I would visit the schools and the departments you are interested in, hang around and get the vibe.

But don’t choose based on vague or outdated rumors :slight_smile:

^^ With all due respect @compmom, many current Harvard students think the school’s social life and lack of social spaces STILL requires improvement. Yes, the college has come a long way from when my daughter was a freshman 7 years ago, but it’s STILL an issue that is relevant today. Maybe you missed this January 26, 2017 Opinion article in the Crimson related to the issue: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2017/1/26/osl-inclusive-party-fund/ or this article from the Crimson in 2016: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/5/24/social-life-undergrad-2016/

Yes. But even I will admit that Penn’s are better. However, I am not sure that picking an Ivy League university based upon the better party scene is the way to go.

Not by any stretch of the imagination.

TA’s at Harvard lead discussion sessions, not the main lectures - same as at Penn.

Gibby, no I didn’t miss any of this but it does not seem particularly relevant to some of the more satisfying aspects of social life at Harvard. The article relates to the administration’s efforts to “engineer” and “program” social life for undergrads, in a way that is legally benign for Harvard, inclusive for all groups, and basically in line with a more politically correct (less fragmented) environment. Single gender clubs are certainly being impacted by this.

If the OP wants parties organized by the administration, great, but I think the better social events happen more privately, often in the houses. The article mentions more emphasis on house parties. And Harvard Square, the various other squares and Boston proper offer an awful lot to do.

I have also lived in Philly, west Philly to be exact.

First off, I’m just gonna address @skieurope. While, yes, I am considering (quite a bit) the social scenes at both colleges, that’s becaue I feel that they are similar enough academically (though obviously with some differences) that I am prioritizing fit, and the social scene is a big part of it for me. Believe me, I’ve done my due diligence in researching the other aspects of the colleges, and I think the social scene is one of the big deciders for me.

Beyond that, thank you all for the help in elaborating on what it’s like to attend Harvard. It’s great to hear some more information on the university.

I must concur with @compmom in that I’m not super interested in school-organized events (contrary to many OPs I see on here looking for advice on colleges, I would actually like to drink in colleges), but it’s good to see that Harvard is making an effort to improve their social scene. On the other hand, final clubs and the like don’t really appeal to me–too elitist and snobby for my taste–so I’m not super enthused that the best events might run through them.

I’ll PM you.

If you are a party person, you will find plenty of people to party with at Harvard. I wouldn’t worry about that.

If you are a party person, the majority of people you meet at Penn will also be people who like to party. That will not necessarily be true at Harvard. I think for most people at Harvard, social life does not revolve around drinking and hooking up with random people – believe it or not, you can have a great social life without drinking and hooking up with random people – even though plenty of that goes on at Harvard. At Penn, no one makes you drink or hook up, but that is more or less the campus norm.

College isn’t like high school, however. There are multiple ways to be cool, and people can be friends across social categories like party/nonparty. And people often find out their preference is different from what they thought it would be, or that they change between freshman and senior year.

@JHS That is really inaccurate and middle insulting. Drinking and hooking up is not the campus norm at Penn, where did u get that from? Unless of course you are referring to the much derided and inaccurate article published about Penn 4 years ago. There are people who prefer socializing by going to restaurants downtown, film screenings, concerts, opera, hiking, mild houseparties/gatherings and many other things. Portraying the entire Penn student body as promiscuous heavy drinkers is not ok and in fact it is far from the truth. Sure probably Penn kids are a bit wilder/more fun-loving than Harvard kids as a whole but reducing the entire social life of Penn to hooking up and drinking is beyond inaccurate.

People like to party at every college. Stop playing games and just go to Harvard.

-Penn student

I hardly think “more or less the norm” is the same as “reducing the entire social life of Penn to hooking up and drinking.” But, to be clear – and I think I was – I agree 100% with @Penn95 that “[t]here are people who prefer socializing by going to restaurants downtown, film screenings, concerts, opera, hiking, mild houseparties/gatherings and many other things.” What’s more, I would add that plenty of people who on occasion like to drink and/or hook up also like, and do, all of those other things as well, and that many people who “prefer” those things once in a while also enjoy a drink and/or you-know-what. And that liking to party does not mean you are a “promiscuous heavy drinker.”

(I might say, though, that I enjoy opera a lot, and go to much of it that’s available in Philadelphia. If a lot of Penn students are attending those performances, they are very well disguised as much older people. But there are fantastic deals for students in the Philadelphia music world – unbelievable student rush tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra, tons of free or cheap performances at Curtis, lots of low-cost jazz venues, and the cheapest, most all-ages rock scene I know of anywhere.)

Jeesh! It’s not a binary world, at Penn or at Harvard. I don’t know anyone remotely familiar with both colleges who doesn’t think that Penn is a much more conventionally social place than Harvard, and I am not talking about going to restaurants, taking hikes, or “mild houseparties,” whatever that is. (Except there are few if any houseparties, mild or otherwise, at Harvard, because hardly anyone can afford to live off campus anywhere near Harvard.) But it’s completely a difference of degree, not kind.

One major difference between the schools is housing. At Harvard, housing is guaranteed for all 4 years, while at UPenn: http://cms.business-services.upenn.edu/residential-services/housing-options/housing-options.html

As such, the majority of undergraduates in their junior and senior years live off campus at UPenn. That could be a plus factor for some students, while a negative for others. IMHO, it’s a negative, as Harvard’s residential housing system is far superior to any of your choices at UPenn.

Correlation does not imply causation. Many juniors and seniors at Penn choose to live off-campus by choice. It’s unlikely, IMO, that an upperclassman who wants to reside on campus will be unable to do so. Whether or not a Harvard student thinks the houses are crackerjack is immaterial since, really, who can afford to live off campus in Cambridge?

True, but let’s do the math. Freshman and sophomores at UPenn MUST live on campus – so that represents 50% of the undergraduate student body. According to the Penn’s website 58% of undergraduates live on campus, therefore only 8% of juniors and seniors live on-campus. As such, the majority of upperclass students live off campus. And they do so because UPenn does not have the space to house all upperclass students on their campus and actively encourages juniors and seniors to move out.

Assumes facts not in evidence. I’m not arguing the math; I’m arguing the rationale. Penn is also ~30% Greek, plus who really wants to live in the high rises when there are valid cost-effective options close to campus? :slight_smile: But we can agree to disagree.

@gibby No, Penn upper-classmen choose to live off campus, they are not forced. There is not significant demand for on-campus housing amongst upper-calssmen. The majority of students really want to go off campus from their sophomore year onwards. That is the culture at Penn. But there is a lot of good off-campus housing essentially right on/near campus and it is quite organized and frankly not hard to get at all.

@YonceKnowles Not helpful advice at all. We all know Harvard is more prestigious than Penn, of course it is. But if someone feels much more at home at Penn and really thinks like he will fit in better there, is the difference in quality/opportunities etc that substantial (or even meaningfully there) that Harvard is the only and clear choice? I would get it if it was Harvard vs a 2nd-ter school, but not vs Penn.

@JHS yeah I feel I misunderstood what you were saying. but i agree with you. Penn is definitely more conventionally social than Harvard. But what I was trying to say is that for a very big chunck of the people at Penn, their idea of fun is not crazy frat parties or really sceney nightclubs downtown where you get drunk and go crazy. I think we agree haha.
Regarding the opera/classical music it is surprisingly quite popular especially amongst Asian kids at Penn haha.

@skieurope : The highrises at Penn are surprisingly popular. Believe it or not, three of my kid’s friends actually chose to live together in one of the highrises for three years, and two of them stayed there a fourth year. Do I respect them for it? No.

@gibby and others: There is abundant, relatively cheap, and high quality off campus housing within a few blocks of the Penn campus, some of it closer to the center of the campus than many of the Penn dorms. There are a number of buildings that were developed in the past decade by private developers specifically as student housing, except with all mod cons. Penn students are not commuters, and living “off campus” does not impair their participation in on campus life.

I went to a college like Harvard, where almost everyone lived on campus for four years. (Everyone, that is, except my wife, who hated the on campus housing and moved off campus as a sophomore.) I loved that. I thought that was the best way for a college to be. My kids went to a college where, as at Penn, about 50% of undergraduates live off campus but within a mile or so of the main campus. They moved off campus as sophomores, and were happy as clams. They had much more, nicer, and more private, space, at lower cost, and they had a lot more control over their environment. Their lives remained completely centered on the campus. They couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live in a student dorm for four years; they hear about Harvard’s house system and think “That sounds awful.”

I am not arguing that Penn’s housing system is better than Harvard’s. I think Harvard’s is pretty sweet. But the actual students who go to Penn do not likely envy Harvard students’ housing arrangements.

Every single student here at Penn who lives off campus is doing so by choice. Penn does not actively or indirectly encourage or force students to live off campus. In FACT, Penn is trying to get them to move ONTO campus, as evidenced by New College House.

That being said, I much prefer a 4-year residential college system. It’s much more egalitarian than seeing my friends who live in Domus and the Radian.