What are the biggest cultural differences between Yale and Harvard?

– Xochielt Sanchez

Answer by Dave Cheng:

I've been sitting in front of my computer pondering this question for the last 15-20 minutes, and the best I've been able to come up with is: not much.

I went to Harvard undergrad 2001-2005, my wife went to Yale for an MA and a PhD 2006-2013, and many of my closest friends and former colleagues went to HLS, YLS, or HBS*.  I also grew up outside of Boston (20 minutes drive from Cambridge/Harvard Square) and spent most of my weekends during law school (in Manhattan) taking the train up to New Haven to see my girlfriend (now wife).  Like most answers to these types of questions, my experiences are mostly anecdotal, and I'm sure many people will have had different experiences and some may strongly disagree with my observations:

By "not much" I mean both universities have talented (and lucky**), ambitious, and diverse students and faculty with well-funded facilities.  Both universities enjoy top brands***.  Both are very well endowed****.

Here are a few random and, as already mentioned, anecdotal observations (i.e., subjective generalizations) on how they differ:

  • New Haven has much, much better pizza.  Let's just get that out of the way.
  • Cambridge has better bars and better looking locals (e.g., the ones going to other schools).  Both have amazing restaurants though (I'd say it's a tie in terms of food).
  • Yale's campus is prettier–and older–but both campuses have their charm.
  • In terms of reputation/prestige, Harvard college students are slightly more envied (rightly or wrongly) by their peers while Yale law students are much more envied (rightly) by their peers.  Yale law school, which rejected me by the way, is the hardest law school to get into by a wide margin while HLS pumps out nearly as many biglaw corporate lawyers as other conveyor belts for biglaw sweatshops: Columbia, NYU, and Stanford law schools.
  • More douchebag lawyers and bankers working in PE, hedge funds, investment banks, law firms, and consulting shops came out of Harvard than Yale–though both have their fair share.  More activists, politicians, judges, and artists came from Yale–though both have their fair share.  More entrepreneurs came out of Stanford than both combined.  Again, this is purely anecdotal, and I only speak for my generation (born in the early 80s or late 70s) and the social and profession circles I've passed through personally.
  • Cambridge and greater Boston overall are much safer than New Haven, which has rougher, lower-income neighborhoods and much more crime [1].  My wife used to get New Haven crime bulletin alerts while she was living off campus.  Muggings, carjackings, and similar crimes were reported almost weekly.
  • Cambridge is younger (i.e., surrounded by colleges, populated by their undergraduate and graduate students, as well as local high schools and the dropouts of those high schools ("townies")) and more cosmopolitan (i.e., more ethnic and cultural diversity among the locals) than New Haven.
  • Despite the above and despite being so close to Boston, Harvard undergrads are slightly less likely to venture off campus than Yale students.  Yalies get into Manhattan (slightly over an hour via metro north railroad from New Haven to Grand Central station) more often than Harvard kids go into Boston.  Purely anecdotal again, but I got the sense that Harvard kids are less likely to study abroad as well.

Most of the above boils down to geography. 

All sophomoric jokes during Harvard-Yale games aside [2], most of the students at both universities deep down inside understand that the two schools share more similarities than differences.  I disagree with Christopher's answer about Yalies being more likely to have a chip on their shoulders.  I've met plenty of kids at both schools with huge, boulder-sized chips on their shoulders–minorities on financial aid who show up on campus and immediately think "I'm not like the spoiled, trust fund fraternity/finals clubs/skull+bones WASPs I see all around me who are just coasting and more concerned about partying than studying." [3]. 

Plenty of those types of underdog overachievers at both schools.  I wasn't one of them.  I was an anti-social slacker for most of college.  In law school, I overcompensated and spent far more time trying to make friends and participating in student groups (and partying) than studying. 

Plenty of all types of students and cultures at both schools–which of course is a big part of what make both great.  We shouldn't over-generalize.

*didn't realize until now that I don't know very many Yale MBAs off the top of my head

**Like it or not, luck has a lot to do with where one ends up going to college as well as how "successful" or happy many of us end up in life.  Very little separates a Harvard student from a BU student:
Dave Cheng's answer to What do Ivy Leaguers think of non-Ivy Leaguers?

***In the U.S. and even more importantly abroad, brand very much matters when it comes to higher education: Dave Cheng's answer to Why do so many students in China want to study abroad, especially in America? Is the education in China really so disappointing compared to that in developed countries?

****I briefly interned for HMC, which manages and invests Harvard's endowment in 2004–back when it was the second largest non-private fund (after the Vatican).  I just realized I rather enjoy bragging about how well-endowed my alma mater was/is.  I'm going to do it more often. 

Pssst, my alma mater has a bigger endowment than yours.
 
[1] Only safer than 3% of other U.S. cities…
New Haven CT crime rates and statistics
New Haven Police Plan To Revitalize Neighborhood Watch Groups

[2] harvard-yale shirts jokes – Google �j�M
Each year, the best minds at both institutions (i.e., the editors at the Lampoon and Record) brainstorm long and hard to come up with highly witty, highly original slogans for The Game–comedic aphorisms summing up the faults and insecurities of the competing school.  Particularly memorable ones include "yuck fale" and "harfart." 

[3] "Now for some of you, it doesn't matter.  You were born rich and you're going to stay rich, but here's my advice to the rest of you…"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5RbdReBMLEThis would be a great speech for students at either university.

What are the biggest cultural differences between Yale and Harvard?

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