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Schools Can I do well at Harvard if I wasn't a physics nerd in HS?

  1. Aug 12, 2017 #1
    Hello everyone! I am an incoming freshman at Harvard. Most of the impressive things I have done in high school revolve around English and literary competitions. I was never bad at math - 770 math SAT, 800 math SAT subject test, AP Calc BC 5 - but it always seemed I was more apt to study literature so I never engaged in physics at a high level. This past year I have become infatuated with physics after purchasing and using extensively an equatorial mounted telescope, and I've also studied lots of basic astrophysics on my own. I did take AP Physics C in high school. I understand most of you don't consider it to be a particularly rigorous course, and I would have to agree, but for what it is worth I got 5s on both and didn't find the calc introduction to Mech and E&M too challenging.

    I'm hesitant to go with this concentration at Harvard because I feel like most of the would be physics majors lived and breathed this subject in high school, so they might be far more prepared than I am. Right now, I know Mechanics and E&M to the level of AP Physics C (we used the Knight 3ed book), basic thermo and optics, and basic astro and modern physics.

    We will have to choose our courses for the first year in the next three weeks, and they should be tailored to your prospective major. My advisor through email told me she wouldn't object me choosing a physics path and believes I would be okay, but I'm concerned I haven't built a rigorous enough foundation for Harvard level physics. If I want to be a physics major, I'm recommended to start with their Physics 16 mechanics course and Physics 15b E&M.

    Apart from physics, my main interests have always been literature and maybe psychology, but now I can't imagine doing those and not engaging in this fantastic subject. Maybe my telescope is blinding my vision? I'm not sure. What would you all advise?

    Thank you very much!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 12, 2017 #2
    I think you'll find that your ability to succeed is dependent 99.99% on what you do from here on out, and 0.01% on how well you did in high school.
  4. Aug 12, 2017 #3


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    Don't be intimidated by the name of the school. It sounds like you've had about the level of background preparation that's expected of a first year student - perhaps even more. Sure, there will be some students who did more in high school. You'll probably have some students in your classes that will seem as if they could teach the material. But there will also be some who've done less. There might even be some students who have yet to discover a love of physics and won't until they get into their first year classes.

    You've got an opportunity to study something you love at a great school. Seize that and make the best of it.
  5. Aug 13, 2017 #4


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    First off, congratulations on being admitted to Harvard!

    I would concur with what both @Dishsoap and @Choppy has stated thus far. It matters far less what you had learned/accomplished in high school and more how much effort you will put in while you are at Harvard. Make the most of your time there.
  6. Aug 13, 2017 #5


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    That surely puts you in a better position than a large majority of high school physics students in the US. I agree with the others, don't let yourself be intimidated by the fact that you're at Harvard.
  7. Aug 13, 2017 #6
    Thank you, I'll keep this sage advice in mind.

    You're right guys, I guess I just let myself be too intimidated by the name of the school. I've got to put my ego aside and accept there will be lots of people in a better position than me, and the only solution to remedy that is the work I put in.

    That first mechanics course (Physics 16) uses Morin's book, I believe, and through my research on this site it seems it's a pretty tough book. How much of a step up is it from AP Physics C? I just hope it won't be unbearable.
  8. Aug 14, 2017 #7
    Have this printed and framed and keep it with you. Read it every morning.
  9. Aug 19, 2017 #8


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    As long as you are diligent and hard working you should be fine. There will definitely be some people like you described. However, while they may have an advantage in the beginning, the other talented students who may not have had that head start will eventually catch up. You shouldn't let these people intimidate you. They often appear to know a lot more than they actually do because of how they present themselves. Another thing I would warn you about is a lot of students at places like Harvard, MIT, etc. will skip foundational courses to take graduate classes like general relativity for example. This may look impressive to other students in the short term, but in the long term these students may end up with a lot of gaps in their knowledge they didn't even know about. So to summarize, physics a marathon not a race, people develop at different rates.

    I was in a similar situation when I entered college at another Ivy League school. I hadn't considered being a physics major until he summer before college (I wanted to do chemistry or biochemistry). People are often surprised now when I tell them that I kind of "stumbled" into physics. I just followed my interests and that's where I ended up. Some of the most successful physics students I know also followed a similar path.
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