The Incredible Rationalizing Freshman

Housing day highlights our fear of self-assessment

This Thursday morning, the contents of a single envelope will drastically shape the following three years for Harvard freshmen. Leading up to housing day, most have an idea about which house or houses they want to get into. Some will be mindful of location, others about a house’s particular spirit, and others simply about the quality of the rooms. Housing Day morning can be either an extremely joyous or disheartening event, but in the hours that follow, a strange pattern unfolds. By the end of the day, or at least when freshmen return from spring break, the housing lottery’s random computer has succeeded, and most students are generally satisfied with their placement.

What happened?

It seems like the rowers who wanted to be close to Weld Boathouse are now pleased with Cabot, and the boys from Mower who really wanted to live in Mather are now ecstatic about moving into Quincy. Each blocking group in its own way comes to terms with its placement regardless of whether the assignment was its first choice, but often the rationalization process goes even further.

Clearly, it is a good skill to see the positive in a situation when you are given no alternative, and it is natural to emphasize the perks of your new house. But the more interesting case of reasoning is students “realizing” that their initial preferences for residence were skewed all along.

As reflective seniors, students often say that they cannot imagine having lived in any other house, and given the chance to do things over they would not switch to the house they had thought they wanted. However, this line of thinking can be worrisome. At the core of this reappraisal of one’s earlier thoughts lies the fear of going through a phase of life that is not ideal. For many Harvard students, life has largely gone according to plan, and every desired grade, trophy, and scholarship has been attained. Not getting into the house of your dreams complicates this plan, and so rather than dealing with that divergence, making that house the top choice realigns students with their identity as goal-seekers and goal-achievers.


The danger of avoiding sub-optimal situations does not just force self-contradiction, but it fundamentally prevents an accurate assessment of current situations. This problem does not just come to bear itself at Harvard, or during college in general, but can easily pervade the rest of adult life. When in the job hunt, we may be unable to recognize that sometimes we have not been admitted to our top choice, and accept that setback with an understanding that can help us act in the future.

Every house at Harvard is a fantastic place to spend three years, but clearly there are pros and cons of each one. Enjoyment of the residential experience necessitates highlighting the pros you have been sorted to enjoy, but avoiding any consideration that another house might have actually been better is intentional and unhealthy ignorance. Our lives will provide us with many exciting experiences, but we should not fear an accurate and objective reflection on how our given path compares to others we might have taken.

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.