Hacking Harvard – Review

Robin Wasserman. Hacking Harvard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007. Print.

Hacking Harvard is a humorous and suspenseful teen caper novel. A group of geeks bets another group that they can get a notorious slacker into Harvard by computer chicanery. They live in the Boston area, and the story focuses on the three teens who are trying get Clay Parker in. Schwarz is a sixteen-year-old math genius and Harvard freshman who has a crush on an unattainable slut in his dorm. Max and Eric are best friends who drive each other crazy. Max rebels against his stereotypical “tiger parent” upbringing. Eric is more interested in MIT.

The narrative took a little getting used to. Part of the story is told in straight third person. Part is told in the first person by Alexandra (“Lex”), a girl who gets involved in the plot and is herself dying to get into Harvard.

The story is plot-driven. There are enough plot twists and humorous scenes to keep people going. It has potential for a decent caper film. Such a film would be an improvement over The Perfect Score, the caper film about a group of kids who hack the SAT.

What strikes the reader is the way that some of the characters agonize over getting into Harvard. When I was a senior in high school, most kids who applied to colleges applied to perhaps 3 schools that they thought would make a good match. I only know of one high school classmate who applied to 5 schools; he also was worried about Harvard because of a family legacy of going there. He did not get in, but he still has had a successfull career as an M.D.

Like the characters in Hacking Harvard, I attended high school in the Boston area, so Harvard was the place to go. Back then, Harvard Square was still cool–Hacking Harvard complains that it has been taken over by store chains, even the Harvard Coop, the school bookstore, is run by Barnes and Noble. I was told that I could probably get into Harvard if I wanted to go there. Mad magazine had a traffic sign parody that expressed my misgivings: Directions to Washington DC–Go to Harvard and turn left. But when I visited the school, I was sold on it. It would not have been the end of the world if I had not gotten in. I think I would have been happy at any of the 3 schools I applied to.

Ironically, the Harvard degree as name to drop has done little for my career. I went into the service out of college, but the only secondary school the military cares about is a military academy. Though I believe I have had a decent career as a teacher, I still sometimes feel I am pigeonholed. Even though I lived in a working class neighborhood most of my childhood, I am assumed to be some kind of liberal elitist. The only time the name helped was getting into a grad school–the bureaucratic admissions officer at the state teachers college suddenly perked up when I told her were I got my undergraduate degree.

Now I am no way complaining about my Harvard experience. Putting up with student radicals I think helped me develop character to find a solid foundation for my beliefs. I majored in English at Harvard and now teach high school English. I know what colleges expect from high school grads. Many former students have said I have prepared them. That is my job. The Harvard name had nothing to do with that. The Harvard education did.

Back to the book. Each chapter begins with an epigram giving college admissions advice. Besides the entertaining plot, the story does have a somewhat balanced view of college admissions. Don’t freak out. Look for a good match. For that, I would recommend the story to anyone sweating about college admissions.

Note: It this were a film, it would probably be rated PG-13 for language.

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