The chances of a Harvard student completing a pset (local nickname for
problem set) during his/her undergraduate career are equal to the
chances of said student running into a tourist in Harvard Yard.
The statistics get more complicated within the context of optional
psets. Yes, these little optional gremlins do exist with the apparent
purpose of guilting us. In my experience, optional psets at the
beginning of the semester exist to remind you of how forgetful and
rusty you are, whereas the (typically) nongraded optional psets
sprinkled in the midst of the hectic semester exist as exam
style/format hints. But what about the optional psets during the
I hope I didn’t scare anyone with the thought of “summer assignments.”
In my high school, a handful of classes required students intending to
enroll in the specific class to complete reading, writing, etc.
assignments during the summer which was the leading cause of
all-nighters before the first day of class. Thankfully, Harvard
College holds a Shopping Week – the first week of each semester where
students can drop by and even walk out of classes as they see fit.
Since our schedules aren’t finalized until Shopping Week is over and
our Study Cards (the list of normally 4 classes we’ve chosen to take
for the semester) are submitted to the registrar, it’s difficult to
assign “summer assignments.” (Note that there is also a grace period
of a few weeks after Study Card submission when you can add/drop
classes!) However, some outlier courses may require something along
the lines of a letter of intention – this is something I’ll have to
submit by August 21 for a Spanish class I’m SUPER interested in taking
this upcoming fall semester. Class policies vary widely but Harvard’s
been pretty good to me about providing me with the freedom to
personally design my own summer…independent of the presence of
I’m participating in a program called DRCLAS SIP (David Rockefeller
Center for Latin American Studies, Summer Internship Program). For 8
weeks, I’ll be living with a homestay family in Peru while I shadow at
a private clinic. Ever since I converted into a premed student
freshman spring semester, a trillion and a half decisions came before
me i.e. when to take certain prerequisites like physics and organic
chemistry, or if I want to pursue one or perhaps more gap years.
Shadowing and eventually becoming good friends with these doctors
during my summer internship has given me not only valuable, but also
realistic insight to what the journey to becoming a doctor is like. I
already feel more confident in my personal timeline of when and how to
approach my medical goals, although I’m still nervous about expressing
this openly in fear that if I change my mind, everyone will hate me.
But I find comfort in the fact that everyone hates optional psets more.
There definitely wasn’t an optional pset scheduled on the DRCLAS SIP
calendar. But the 13 participants rallied together and added a pset
session…at least this is what it felt like even though we were
meeting in a mall. We needed a secure public area to meet with free
wifi to plan a trip to Machu Picchu!
And in the shopping center’s cafeteria we sat with laptops out, shared
“Machu Picchu” titled Google Doc open, listening to each other
intently but also not afraid to cut each other off, compromising,
budgeting, and typing fleeting questions on our desktop’s Post-It app.
Passionate opinions were expressed and heated debates transpired, but
no personal feelings were affected. Planning an economically feasible
weekend trip to one of the few wonders of the modern world was exactly
like a pset – we were all there to do business and come out as a
better person in the end. Almost 3 hours later, we felt on top of the
world…or at least Machu Picchu!
Scurrying home, we were all ready to book buses, trains, planes and
hostels. Despite the unfortunate realization that the domestic trip
would cost much, much more than we all thought it would, it didn’t
make sense to live in Peru for 2 months without venturing to these
famous ruins. A trip to Machu Picchu with the entire group would be
the first non-DRCLAS-organized trip we would all take together.
The whole process of Machu Picchu – from organization to execution -
was what made the glue holding us together become cement. Needless to
say, spending time together on a mini-vacation within summer vacation
doing once-in-a-lifetime activities is the secret element to
friendship. But I’d also like to attribute the pset session atmosphere
for our group bonding because this potentially intense, highly
productive environment truly fosters respect for your pset-mates.
You have to hold a person in high respect in order to collaborate on a
pset because it shows that you have trust in their intellectual
capacity – when was the last time you wanted to be lab partners with
someone you didn’t think highly of? You’ll also have to tolerate, if
not enjoy, their company since it’s at the very least a once a week
commitment. A lot of my close friends come from my pset groups
actually! Regardless of whether we were friends first or became
friends via psetting, it’s almost inevitable that pset groups grow
close as the night before a deadline gets later and later. To clear all the rumors about students being nerdy and antisocial, psets foster friendship.