Harvard: The Land Where Nothing Is On Time

Students can be seven minutes late, and still “on time”—only at Harvard.

Photograph by iStock

I ’ve learned many things at Harvard, but punctuality was not among them.

In Harvardspeak, “on Harvard time” means seven minutes after the scheduled hour—the traditional starting time for all classes, giving students a few extra minutes to shuttle between classrooms. This is a sensible arrangement, given that a student may have back-to-back classes at opposite ends of the campus.

But as someone who grew up in Asia, where stern elementary-school teachers would make a late student stand outside the classroom for an hour, I was not used to this new liberty. Now, when the starting time for a class in Cambridge is approaching, I often find myself frantically running to the classroom, glancing at my watch every few seconds. When I finally arrive, panting, I realize that the professor is nowhere to be seen, and the lecture hall is sprinkled with students chattering and checking Facebook. Five minutes later, the professor saunters in, and often doesn’t start teaching until 10 minutes after my arrival.

What is sensible when applied to classes is less sensibly applied also to club meetings, exams, events, talks, performances, shows, meals, and private dates—pretty much anything and everything that takes place at the University. I often hear fellow students justify their lateness by saying, “Oh, they never start on time anyway.” To which I say to myself: they never start on time because people like you never show up on time. The result is that nothing at Harvard ever starts on time—sometimes not even on Harvard time.

It is generally taken for granted that if a friend and I agree to meet for dinner at 6:00, she will show up at 6:07—if I’m lucky.

As a Quad dweller, I need to make an extra effort to be on time, especially on weekends, when the shuttle bus runs only every half hour. Sometimes I find myself running for a shuttle that would take me to my destination 20 minutes early—only because I don’t want to be 10 minutes late—and then realizing that my River House friend, who lives just a block away, will probably be 15 minutes late.

Of course, I can read The New York Times on my phone, listen to music, or gawk at my friend’s pictures on social media. But when waiting, I’m always plagued by a sense of frustration that I’m wasting my life, which kills any pleasure I can derive from these pastimes. I work myself up over other people’s impoliteness, and I can’t help it.

Sometimes I tell myself to calm down and stand in their shoes. Harvard is the kind of place where every single person is busy—from deans to dining-hall workers. Some people think this provides justification for lateness, but I argue that if we are all equally busy, why is my time less valuable than yours?

Then there is rescheduling. In freshman year, I once scheduled an 8:00 breakfast with my peer adviser, a junior. We agreed on this ridiculously early time (at least for college students) because both of us were busy during the day. For me, this would mean an hour less sleep, but I was willing to make this sacrifice because we had not seen each other for a long time. When my alarm clock woke me up at 7:30 the next day, I grudgingly crawled out of bed, cursing my yesterday’s self for agreeing to this ungodly hour. As I was brushing my teeth at 7:40, I received a text message: “So sorry!!! But can we reschedule??!! I have a paper to finish!!! :(((” At that moment, all the “Sorrys” and excessive punctuations and compounded sad faces in the world could not dampen my anger. You are sorry? Then you should have told me last night! I gave my adviser an imaginary severe dressing-down in my mind, but it couldn’t change the fact that I was up an hour too early for my usual breakfast time. I tried falling back asleep, but couldn’t. I could only reply, “Okay.”

Last-minute rescheduling—I mean literally “at the last minute”—is epidemic among Harvard students. As an avid planner, I take this as the utmost expression of disrespect. I put everything in my e-calendar, including doing laundry and taking medicine. Sometimes I like looking at my e-calendar and appreciating how organized, compact, and full it is. That’s why it kills me when people tell me on Saturday morning that they can’t make lunch, “because blah blah blah, can I do Sunday instead?” Moving an appointment from its original place to another is like ruining a piece of carefully arranged artwork. Such unexpectedness threatens my sense of being in control of my calendar, my time, and my life.


That personal pique aside, the prevalence of unapologetic lateness and rescheduling speaks to a larger problem than punctuality: a sense of entitlement. The term “Harvard time” itself reeks of the argument, “I go to Harvard, therefore I am entitled to seven minutes of lateness—for a lifetime.” Once we graduate from Harvard and step into the cold, real world, will employers be tolerant of our arriving seven minutes late for a job interview? Will clients still want to do business with us if we show up for meetings seven minutes late, citing “a college tradition”?

Last Saturday, I arrived at South Station two minutes after the scheduled departure time for my bus to New York, thinking that “buses never leave on time anyway.” Indeed, the bus was still parked at its berth, but all the passengers had boarded and the driver had already closed the door, preparing to leave. I knocked on the door, waving my ticket. He looked at me, shrugged, and drove away. It was a ruder reminder of the real world, if any were needed, than the ringing of that early-morning alarm clock.

Zara Zhang ’17 is the Daniel Steiner Undergraduate Editorial Fellow at Harvard Magazine this summer. Her colleagues attest to her remarkable punctuality and strict adherence to deadlines.

Read more articles by: Zara Zhang
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