When I was in fifth grade, I loved to play football and baseball and watch the Boston Bruins. I had just switched from Bowen School to Countryside School in Newton, Massachusetts, so I was busy making new friends and taking interesting classes. During the summer, I went to Camp Manitou, an overnight camp in Maine. There, I learned volleyball, archery, riflery, swimming, and waterskiing as I also enjoyed the traditions of Color League and College Wars. I was on the maroon team, and my college was Oberlin. I still remember the Oberlin fight song we used to sing at dinner. College wars…how ironic! Who would've known that 50 years later I would be involved in a new kind of college war, the kind in which super high achieving students fight for seats at the top colleges in America and around the world.
Many fifth-graders these days are taking coding classes, are attending math camps, and are learning robotics rather than playing baseball, or swimming, or running around the playground. Many parents of fifth-graders are busy planning their child's future—a future that, for many, includes four years at a top 20 college, followed by 2 to 4 years at graduate school. For me, I take calls and WeChat messages all the time from parents of fifth, sixth, and seventh graders asking what they can do to get their children into an Ivy League college. I handle these questions with mixed emotions and a variety of answers. On the one hand, I admire the work ethic of both parents and students intent on successfully navigating the serpentine waters of Ivy League admission. On the other hand, I think to myself how wonderful those years were: playing, meeting new people, and just having fun.
Leaving aside the question of whether it is better to allow a kid to be a kid or to prepare for a successful college admission campaign, the question of how you can help a fifth-grader get into Harvard is actually far less complex. To be clear, I am only using Harvard in a metaphoric way to represent all ultra elite colleges. With that in mind, the more years we have to build up an Ivy League profile, the more successful we will be when it becomes time to submit applications. Frankly, nothing that a fifth-grader does will ever make it to the college application, but it will set the stage for other things that will. For example, a fifth grader enrolled in a robotics camp may be on a robotic or mechanical engineering trajectory. A fifth grade student taking a coding class is on a trajectory for a computer science college degree. Each subsequent year builds on the year before, enabling intrepid students to succeed in higher-level courses in high school, which may lead to higher test scores, GPAs, recommendations, internships, and extracurricular activities.
Do I regret not taking these kinds of courses back all those years ago knowing what I know now? Absolutely not. However, neither do I discourage families from signing up their fifth-graders for these kinds of programs. Every family is different, and every student is different. If students enjoy learning, then learning is an excellent use of spare time. On the other hand, if students love playing sports and interacting with other students in a more social environment, then nonacademic activities may be the way to go.
Now, let me answer the question posed in the title of this article: Can you help my fifth-grader get into Harvard? I am not ashamed to say that the answer is yes but that the price may be high. I'm not referring to the price in dollars, but rather the price in lost opportunities. There is something precious about being a child and in allowing the child to be a child. Some innocence and social skill may be lost if your primary goal is admission to elite colleges. On the other hand, how good will it feel when you get the acceptance letter from Harvard? As you can probably tell, I am trying to walk on both sides of the fence. There is value in being a child and there is value in gaining admission to Harvard. This is your decision, not mine. If you have already made your decision, then I am happy to help. If you are on the fence, I am happy to advise. And yes, you can have it both ways. A child can be a child and still get into Harvard. Simply help your child find and pursue his or her passion. If that passion aligns with Harvard's wish list of student qualifications, then you might find yourself burnishing John Harvard's brass toe as you walk with your child, the newly accepted Harvard freshman, through Harvard Yard during admitted students weekend.