High School Student Says ‘Turning Down Harvard Was Extremely Liberating’

Kevin Cao gave up a chance at the Ivy Leagues because “people weren’t as warm and inviting.”

Photo via Shutterstock.com

Photo via Shutterstock.com

Most students would jump at the chance to attend Harvard University if they were accepted. But that wasn’t the case for Virginia high school student Kevin Cao, who passed up an opportunity to spend four years at the elite college so that he could have a more relaxed experience and not deal with the “cutthroat competition” that would leave him feeling “overworked” and “stressed” at an Ivy League school.

In a letter penned to friends and family by Cao, after he made his school choice, explaining why he picked the University of Virginia instead, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology senior simply stated that when he visited UVA, he felt happy—something he didn’t experience when he spent time in the Boston area.

“I chose to attend UVA because it offers the best undergraduate experience, unparalleled opportunities (during my time at UVA, for grad school, and career-wise) and the best quality of life (in terms of community, balance of academic and social scene, and personal development),” Cao wrote in the public letter posted on Facebook and Google Docs, which later went viral after his hometown newspaper reported on it. “Remember that there is much more to a school than the name. Consider where you could really spend the next four years of your life and be happy doing so.”

Boston magazine reached out to Cao for comment about his letter, however, he said in an email that he was “looking to take a step back from all the publicity at the moment,” and declined an interview.

In his open letter, Cao described his experience and visit to Harvard as a sour one, even though since he was a kid, he had dreamed of attending the school.

“Ever since I could remember, Harvard had been my dream school,” Cao wrote. But when the high school senior took time to visit, after narrowing his school choice down to Harvard, Princeton, or UVA, Cao decided the winters and snooty attitudes of the students and alumni were not for him. “At the Harvard Admitted Students event for the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan area, the first thing that struck me was how affluent and—for lack of a better word—somewhat pretentious the students and alumni were,” he wrote. “Most of my fellow prefrosh [sic] hailed from preparatory schools so expensive that their parents are potentially saving money when they switch over to paying the Harvard tuition next year.”

Then, when he came to the actual campus, following accepted student orientation, that’s when Cao really decided against attending the school. “People weren’t as warm and inviting as at other schools; it gave off the typical urban vibe. I’ll have the rest of my life to live in cities like Boston … but for the next four years I want a real college experience in a true college town. I think that is something you can never truly recreate and something I am not willing to sacrifice. Not to mention the brutal winters in Boston.”

He added that the school lacked a sense of community, in his opinion, and friends had warned him that it would get lonely at times. “While it’s nice to tell family friends and strangers you meet in public that you go to Harvard, all that ‘prestige” fades as soon as you step foot on campus,’ said Cao, adding that he felt liberated in his decision.

Cao’s choice to skip out on Harvard is likely a rare one, as the school had the lowest acceptance rate in years for the incoming 2017 class, which he would have been a part of. According to reports, from 35,023 applicants, Harvard picked only 2,029 of them—roughly 5.8 percent—making it their lowest admit rate ever.

  • Waldemar1

    It’s nice that young Mr. Cao was able to make this decision despite the pressures that were likely pushing him in the other direction. Of course, he’s chosen a fine institution to attend in any case.

    The fact that his decision made the news reflects the iron-clad nature of the hierarchy of colleges. It is especially apparent to those with careers in academia– as the “100 reasons NOT to go grad school” blog depressingly points out: http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2010/09/3-your-pedigree-counts.htm

    Thankfully, outside of academia the hierarchy has somewhat less of a hold on people’s imaginations. Good luck to Mr. Cao. His confidence and decisiveness will serve him well.

  • http://twitter.com/stellapham25 Stella Pham

    I like his viewpoints on life. It’s true that he’ll have the rest of life to deal with all the stress, pressure and people’s pretentiousness etc. He’s still young so what matters should be who he’ll grow up to be. Virginia would be fine enough for him to do that. Good luck to you! I am totally a supporter of doing what suits you best.

  • 7worldtraveler

    That’s fine. Kevin Cao will have plenty of time to interact with Harvard in the future– like with his bosses.

  • ohio man

    Kids should go wherever they like, but I don’t think Harvard students are as different from UVA students as he makes them out to be. Harvard students are like students at all top schools, perhaps just a bit more driven, although it certainly has less of a Southern vibe than UVA. Harvard is particularly attractive to kids on financial aid who get grants instead of loans, so it’s definitely not the case that it’s all kids from elite prep schools, and he went to an elite science magnet school in the D.C. suburbs, so it’s not as if he’s from the middle of nowhere.

    Cambridge is also a great college town, and it’s not really all that urban. I think a tougher choice would be between Harvard and a top small college with more focus on undergraduates and classroom teaching. But, if you really hate winter, Cambridge or Boston are not the place for you!