What’s the Dating Culture Like at Harvard?

Students walk through the Harvard University campus in 2006.

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Answer by Yehong Zhu, class of 2018:

There’s a stereotype that people here are either single or married (i.e., in very serious long-term relationships), but nobody really dates.

One-fifth of graduating Harvard seniors have never been in a relationship during college. The median number of relationships that Harvard seniors reported? Just one. With the exception of the lucky few who are currently in relationships, the majority of the student body is single at any given time—meaning that there’s no shortage of legitimate dating woes on campus.

Of course, culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are reasons why Harvard students aren’t dating, a number of which I list below.

Unfairly Gendered Perceptions

Dating is hard enough. Throwing Harvard into the equation just makes everything worse. Gender roles have come a long way, but anachronistic perceptions about inequality of the sexes still exist, especially when it comes to sexual attraction within coed circles of superaccomplished 18- to 22-year-olds.

A study showed that, given two identical pictures of the same girl—one with “Harvard” written on her shirt, one without—men will rate the plain-shirted girl as more attractive online. When the demographics are reversed, however, women will rate the guy wearing a Harvard-emblazoned shirt as more attractive than the one without.

According to another study, men prefer smart women in theory, but not in real life. A team of researchers asked male undergraduate students to take an intelligence test before meeting up with female participants who either performed better or worse than they did on the test. When meeting up with them in person, the men sat farther away from the women who performed better than they did on the hypothetical exam and also rated them as less attractive, even if they initially said that they found female intelligence to be an attractive quality in dating partners.

If I were to postulate a reason for this, it’s that society’s standards of masculinity and power is one in which the male is dominant—not just in physicality, but also in intelligence, ambition, and earning potential. Men might prefer less accomplished women for the same reason that many women prefer taller men. Deeply ingrained gender perceptions can be harmful all around.

Anecdotally, Harvard women are also less impressed by Harvard men. That failsafe “I go to Harvard” pickup line no longer works on that cute girl in section, because—surprise!—she goes to Harvard, too. When women are educated and accomplished, they tend to hold higher standards for their dating partners. One common complaint among friends of mine: “Where are all the dateable guys?”

But, perhaps both sides are being too critical. The dateable guys might be right in front of us, hiding in plain sight. And those smart girls wearing Harvard T-shirts might not be that bad after all.

Hookup Culture

Part of the reason why people aren’t dating is because people aren’t dating.

Instead, the proliferation of hookup culture on college campuses is displacing a would-be culture of dating. Swiping right on a lighted screen is significantly easier than putting in the work for a relationship, and the value of sex—facilitated by the use of apps such as Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, and Hinge—has been lowered considerably.

Consider this from a historical perspective. Attitudes about hooking up have evolved from a strict cultural taboo on premarital sex, to a monthlong courtship before a first kiss, to drunken hookups facilitated by sweaty dorm parties and desperation, to its most evolved form to date: those oh-so-eloquent “Netflix and chill?” texts at 3 a.m.

Even so, how many students are really hooking up? According to the Harvard Crimson’s 2015 senior class survey, nearly one-fourth of graduating seniors are virgins. And although there are no official statistics on how often the rest are hooking up, long nights spent doing problem sets in libraries seem to be far more common than long nights spent doing each other.

No Time

Maybe it’s because people just don’t have enough time.

Between studying for classes; applying for internships; running to and from clubs; attending social events; and fitting in calories, exercise, and some semblance of sleep, meaningful relationships have become deprioritized in favor of other things.

According to Ali Binazir, a Harvard alum and the author of the Tao of Dating, “The writing of [my dating self-help books] was precipitated by the endemic dating woes on the Harvard campus as I observed them as an advisor and, earlier, indulged in them as a student.” As Binazir observes, “dating [at Harvard] is at best another extracurricular, #6 or #7 down the list, somewhere between Model UN and intramural badminton.”

A banging CV is great, but it often comes at the expense of a love life. And that’s sad, because accomplishments are not an adequate substitute for genuine human connection. A résumé cannot keep you warm at night in the middle of a blizzard, and I can personally attest that winters in Cambridge are really, really cold.

Just Not Good at It

Here’s the main culprit: Harvard kids tend to do things they’re good at and drop things they’re bad at. After all, things like failure and rejection are hard to deal with—especially when you’ve been successful for more or less your entire life.

There’s also a general stereotype that Ivy League students have more academic skills than they do social graces. In the words of the author of “The Dbag Dating Guide to Ivy League Guys,” “Keep in mind, these guys spent their high school years studying, instead of developing personalities. After this, they spent all of college surrounded by chicks who had spent their own high school years studying, instead of developing personalities.”

While the stereotype’s not completely unfounded, I tend to think that “lack of personality” is less of an issue that the inability to convey that personality to attractive prospects. It’s much easier to minimize risk by waiting fruitlessly for something to happen—or by doing so little that it’s unclear if you’re more than just friends. These days, it’s a sin to appear too interested, to double text if the other person doesn’t text back first, to be too honest, or to not consult a small army of friends before making the “next move.”

In order for sparks to fly, there has to be a connection first. Dating only improves with practice, and practice only comes when you put yourself out there. Unfortunately, Harvard kids are a lot more risk-averse than your average Joe, which doesn’t translate super well into successful first dates.

You don’t have to be a math concentrator to figure out that Harvard’s a great place to be young and lonely. But, for the more mathematically inclined out there, we find ourselves with a handy equation: Lots of judgment plus (subpar) hookup culture plus shortage of free time plus fear of rejection plus inexperience plus overinflated egos equals nonexistent dating scene.

What’s the solution to this problem, you ask?

I recognize the inherent irony in telling possibly the most Type-A people in the entire world to lighten up a bit. But it wouldn’t hurt. Most students got into Harvard by taking themselves very, very seriously. But at the same time, an inflated sense of self is exactly what prevents us from opening our lives up to another person.

In my opinion, the best approach here is to stay open-minded and optimistic. After all, the fact that few people are dating means that there’s a surplus of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes on campus. If enough people said “screw it” and gave it a shot, maybe—just maybe—everything will change.

Upon reflection, asking your section crush out to coffee might not be so bad after all.

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