1. “The first person.”
At the Harvard Alumni Association Class Report Office, we request that all essays be written in the first person. This is not to say that creative license shouldn’t factor into your essay! What we don’t want are dry write-ups of the third-person variety, which are generally more suited for a book jacket or a job interview. Of course, there are things about your life that you might prefer not to share, but focusing on the things you do want to share and getting to the heart of the “I” is always the goal. These books represent a unique opportunity for self-reflection, and the best essays, no matter how brief, find a way to explore the inner life of the author. In short: remember that your fellow alumni really do want to know how you feel as much as they want to know what you do.
2. A little adventurousness goes a long way.
Don’t be shy! If you feel that a certain format suits your voice better than a string of conventional paragraphs, please feel free to explore other options! Some of the best essays we read grab our attention right away with their formatting. We’ve published dialogues, all types of creative lists, original haiku, and song lyrics, among other creative works. Think of the narrative space as a blank canvas for you to use. Think outside the justified paragraph block.
3. History: the intersection of personal and cultural.
Although it’s said to be impolite to speak about politics at cocktail parties or on first dates, we hope that, if you are so inclined, you might break that rule for the Red Book. Many of our best alumni authors take time to comment thoughtfully on their moment in history. What are the cultural and historical moments that you view as defining or transformational for your generation over the past five years? How have those moments intersected with your personal life? Go ahead and voice your concerns and your hopes; we’re looking forward to hearing you speak about your times.
4. A strong sense of place.
Maybe you live in a town or city that’s completely different than the place where you grew up. Maybe you feel stuck in the shadow of the place where you grew up. Maybe you love to travel and feel that “roots” are overrated. Maybe you’re living abroad for work and feeling homesick. Whatever your current scenario, tell us about it in as much detail as you can. No matter where our essays arrive from— and they arrive, literally, from all over the world—many of our best essays find the heart of things in describing the places, the streets, the trees that surround them. Or those of the places their authors daydream about instead.
5. Change, change, change.
Consider how many things change in just one year or even five to fifty. Some things change for the better and some things change for the worse, to be sure, but really: could you ever have imagined some of the things happening to you now? Five, ten, twenty years ago, did you envision yourself where you are? Our best alumni authors have a way of exploring the theme of change in a unique, personal way— some with humor, some with poignancy, and always with focus and an innate sense that the forces of change binds us all.
If you could relive one day—and only one day—of your four years at Harvard, which would it be?
Who believes they have traveled the most unconventional post-Harvard career or life path to date?
Who thinks they have traveled to the most foreign countries since graduation? What was the most obscure place you've traveled to since graduation?
Who thinks they currently live in the most rural or remote area of anyone in the Class? Describe it in as much detail as you can.
Who thinks they should be crowned the Class's most Liberal member? Most Conservative?
If your life were a current reality TV show, which one would it be and why?
If you were able to choose one superpower, which one would it be and why?
Forget about the past five years. Think tabloid rumors and excessive daydreams instead. What are your wildest predictions for the course of your life over the next five years? What are your wildest predictions for what will happen to your favorite sports teams? Celebrities? The US? The rest of the world?
What would you say was the most important thing that no one ever taught you at Harvard?
Pick ten classmates—preferably classmates you haven't spoken to in quite some time—and address each one of them in your narrative with one line each.
Put your iPod on shuffle. No cheating: write down the first four songs that come up. This is your soundtrack. The first song is the opening credits; the second song is the rising action; the third song is the end theme; and the fourth song is the epilogue. Share the titles and the artists in your narrative, filling in the rest with events from the “movie” of your life over the past five years.
Would you consider yourself more optimistic or more pessimistic than you were five years ago? Tell us about why.
Name three objects from your day-to-day existence that you'd take to a desert island with you. Why do you love them so much? What do you think they say about you?
Give us your five year update in three versions: (1) as a Facebook status update; (2) as a Twitter update; (3) in one full, well-written paragraph.
What is your most current obsession? Is there a person, place, thing, idea, etc., that you just can't live without? Tell us about it.
What is your Achilles' Heel? Is it the same as when you left Harvard five years ago? Have you made peace with it? Do you want to?
Write an open letter to someone, alive or dead, whom you really want to talk to, reconnect with, make amends with, give a piece of your mind, etc.
If you had the chance to go back to the beginning and do your four undergrad years at Harvard all over again, would you? Why or why not?