How to Pretend You Went to Harvard

I would like to offer you what I think is even better than an actual Harvard degree: the ability to pass what I call the Harvard Voight-Kampff.

Annenberg HallPhotograph by Bestbudbrian/Wikicommons

Ah, Harvard. That brick island awash in a sea of Starbucks, which seem to multiply every time you blink. 

Ah, Commencement. Beginning. But the beginning of what? For alums, I would argue it is the beginning of being asked, “What House?” whenever you run into a fellow alum.

The “What House?” question has always bewildered me. It seems like the sort of thing Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby would ask you in front of Daisy to make the point that you were not who you pretended to be. “Oh, you went to Harvard? What HOUSE?” 

I assume that if you are reading this, you are a Harvard alum, but just in case you are not, I would like to offer you what I think is even better than an actual Harvard degree: the ability to pass what I call the Harvard Voight-Kampff. It is a series of seemingly random questions that are posed to you by Harvard affiliates when you encounter them in the wild. At first I thought that actually going to Harvard was necessary to answer these questions, but given how much of an impostor I feel like whenever they are posed to me, I think it might be fine to just crib them from the sheet that follows. You might do a better job than I do. 

Once, desperate to convince someone that I did know a person who was there at the same time I was, whom I had really not known very well but had seen perform improv a few times, I responded, “Of course! Whenever I saw him, I would shout non-geographic locations at him! He did a great Mr. Peanut impression!” “Oh,” the someone said, “I’ll have to ask him about that!” “No!” I said, realizing that I sounded like I had coined the world’s most oddly specific lie, “he will definitely not remember my non-geographic location suggestions or ever doing a Mr. Peanut impression, although I can vouch that he did it and it was great, but do not ask him about it, because it lasted about eight seconds, and probably did not make the impression on him that it did on me.” “Okay,” the someone said, and we have not been in touch since.

Anyway, on the off chance that you are not really a Harvard alum reading this, but only pretending to be one in some sort of Gatsby-esque scheme to win the approval of a society woman who once danced with you before you went to war, here is a guide for every conversation you will ever have with fellow alums. Godspeed.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: Harvard.

Q: Oh, what House?

A: [Pick, at random, the name of an eighteenth-century Massachusetts man once affiliated with witch trials.]

Q: Oh! I was in [Other Old Massachusetts Name Or A Fancy Word For Rabbit].

A: Ha, ha, yup, I had many meals in your dining hall!

(It is a dining hall, not a cafeteria, just as it is a concentration, not a major. The fight song is “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” but you do not need to know any more words of it than that, and the tune has never been distinctly established. The statue is not really John Harvard, never touch the foot, and you did, if asked, run Primal Scream.) 

Q: It sure looked like Hogwarts.

A: It sure did.

Q: How about those waffles?

A: The crest, in the center, was a convenient receptacle for syrup.

Q: Did you like your House?

A: You know what I did not like? Those half-rocker desk chairs that tilted abruptly back in a terrifying manner! The House master was great. I did not get a single until senior year.

Q: What did you study?

A: You can say anything here. It will not matter.

But especially cruel interlocutors will want to know about your extracurricular involvements. Most of these have, in retrospect, ridiculous names. If the person says, “You know, I was pretty involved with the Owl,” you should say, “Mm,” and not, “I prefer diurnal birds, myself, but ornithology has always been a passion!”

Q: Oh, were you involved with [Acronym That Starts With H/Color/Name Of Some Sort Of Dessert/A Bird/An Insect/A Pun From 1920/City Step/A Wild Animal/What Sounds Like A Lawyer/A Pointy Thing]?

A: No, but I did a lot of stuff with HoCo.

No one can ever disprove that you were involved with your House committee, and it will prevent any follow-up inquiries.

But then sometimes they start to ask you about people. In this case, since I have about as much poker face as an emoji, I always find it best to base your answer in as much truth as possible until you can ascertain how the other person feels about the person in question. 

Q: Oh, did you know [Name Of What Sounds Like A Person]?

A: The name rings a bell! I love seeing all their social media updates! 

This is inevitably true, although if someone really Famous was in your year, you had better be a bit more prepared.

Darren Aronofsky: Oh, yes! I mean, what can I say? You saw Noah, right? I mean—that’s just Darren in a nutshell.

Yo-Yo Ma: Oh, sure! He was definitely the best cello player in our class. I’ll always remember how good he was at playing the cello.

Ted Kaczynski: He wanted to correspond after we graduated but I said no.

Al Gore: He was in Dunster! Did you know he and Tommy Lee Jones were roommates?

Tommy Lee Jones: He was in Dunster! Did you know he and Al Gore were roommates?

Mark Zuckerberg: We’re Facebook friends.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I thought I was a science buff until I met Neil! I see he has a mustache now. 

Jared Kushner: Pretty sure he went to Penn. 

Ted Cruz: TRICK QUESTION! He went to the Law School. 

If they are not already satisfied at this point, they will never be satisfied. 

Then the conversation will move on to television shows that you have or have not watched (“I’m adding that to my list! I’ve heard great things!”) and you are on your own. Enjoy your new Harvard alum life! The only thing that will set you apart is that you will NOT receive repeated phone calls from a persistent undergraduate asking if you have given to the annual fund. Anyway, welcome to the fold!

Alexandra Petri ’10, a humor columnist for The Washington Post, was the Ivy Orator at Class Day 2010. 

Read more articles by Alexandra Petri

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