Hi all, I'm a highschool senior trying to make some college-related decisions, and I'd like to ask for some advice.

My current situation is:

  • I want to work on technical alignment. For exogenous reasons, not going to college (e.g., taking a year off, just being an autodidact/independent researcher) is not an available option, so I'll have to leverage my undergraduate experience as much as possible to upskill on technical alignment.
    • I'll probably double major somewhere along CS/Math and maybe CompBio.
  • Accepted to Harvard (non-binding REA). Was planning to apply to Stanford, MIT, Harvey Mudd for RD, but ... 
  • ... I truly despise the application writing process, every single second of it, and it has taken a significant toll on my mental health. I'd prefer not to go through that again, although I can if necessary.

My considerations are:

  • Flexibility - Is it possible to take advanced (under)graduate courses while skipping prerequisites? I've been (and currently am) self-studying a bunch of (under)graduate subjects that I think would be helpful (mainly from the Study Guide) and it'd really suck to have to take them all again just for meeting prereqs for advanced classes.
    • I don't really care much about getting class credits as long as (1) I don't get kicked out of school for low credit and (2) the low credits or lack of prereqs won't prevent me from taking advanced subjects later on.
  • Are there any alignment research community/group/event nearby?
  • No need for financial aid right now.

The impression I got about Harvard (probably not so well-justified, just from anecdotes across reddit/etc) is that they're much less flexible in terms of class choices or prereqs compared to more traditionally "engineering" colleges like eg MIT. I also think the alignment community is mostly centered around the Bay area and that it hasn't really developed much around Harvard yet (I know about HAIST, though!)

Would Harvard be a good option to just go with, or is there enough additional value from Stanford/MIT/Harvey Mudd that it would be worth applying to any one of those colleges? Thanks!

(Apologies in advance if I broke any posting norms.)


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Dec 16, 2022


The information about Harvard you received is very not true in the fields I am familiar with, and I suspect generally. The Harvard Math and CS departments never(!) enforce pre-requisites (which is not true for MIT CS). Compared to MIT, the "global" required courses will be fewer in number (even restricting to non-technical requirements) and easier/less demanding of your time. For instance, the single humanities division class you will be required to take can be satisfied by a logic course taught by a math professor, and the single social science course by a graduate-level course on game theory.

My impression is that this is also broadly true of economics at Harvard compared to economics at MIT. The Harvard econ department seems much more open to undergrads taking grad-level classes, and I have the sense that many prerequisites are not enforced. Harvard, in general, seems to do a better job of recognizing that some of its undergraduates are prepared to pursue very advanced coursework very early on in college than those of its peer schools with which I’m most familiar (which, admittedly, are not among the schools you listed). I think there are a lo... (read more)

Thomas Larsen

Dec 16, 2022


Are there any alignment research community/group/event nearby?

HAIST is probably the best AI safety group in the country, they have office space quite near campus and several full time organizers. 


Yup, I'd say that from the perspective of someone who wants a good AI safety (/EA/X-risk) student community, Harvard is the best place to be right now (I say this as an organizer, so grain of salt). Not many professional researchers in the area though which is sad :(

As for the actual college side of Harvard, here's my experience (as a sophomore planning to do alignment):

  • Harvard doesn't seem to have up-to-date CS classes for ML. If you want to learn modern ML, you're on your own
    • (or with your friends! many HAIST people have self-studied ML together or taken
... (read more)

Minor nitpick but I don't think any of the organizers were running it full-time. I know of three who were close to that level, but the full-time ops people do ops for multiple orgs and the full-time alignment people spend some time doing alignment research, not just running HAIST.

But you are right that HAIST has lots of organizers and tons of programs, and I'd go as far as to say it's probably the best place in the world to be a first-year college student interested in learning about alignment right now. The only downside is that there aren't a lot of professional alignment researchers, but that problem exists everywhere. Perhaps Berkeley (specifically CHAI) is better in that regard.

Gabriel Wu

Dec 17, 2022


(I am writing this before reading other responses to avoid anchoring)

My experience (current joint CS/Math concentrator) has been that Harvard is much more flexible with requirements than say, MIT (I don't know about the other colleges you named). There are only a handful of "core" courses (called "Geneds" that are typically very easy), a language requirement, and then 3 distributional classes (one must be Science, one must be Social Science, one must be Humanities), and then other than that... basically nothing besides your major's requirement. I have felt very free to take what I want, and it is no problem to skip ahead to grad-level courses if you feel ready.

Compare this to MIT, where (going off of what my friends there say) there are a bunch of cores STEM requirements (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.) in addition to even more humanities requirements than Harvard (apparently you have to take one a semester).

Overall, I have felt very academically unconstrained at Harvard, both in terms of not having to sit through boring requirements, and having great advanced classes available.

In my experience, Harvard has a considerably more active AI safety community than MIT's MAIA.


Dec 16, 2022


Many of my friends went to Harvard/Yale/Princeton/MIT/Stanford.* I also went to one of those schools. Occasionally, for fun, we compare our college experiences. Our conclusion is that there are differences between them that are meaningful but not deal-breaking. 

Given your academics interests, I would recommend Yale least. Other than that, any of those schools will give you fine preparation for a math/physics/CS degree. A fact you can weight weakly is that Princeton's (non-theory) CS program is relatively weak but its math program is extremely strong. The MIT graduates I know tend to be weaker at understanding foreign policy/economics/the arts, perhaps because no undergraduates study those subjects at MIT. I expect you will be able to take graduate classes and feel academically challenged at any of these schools. 

The thing that I've heard the most variance on is how happy people were in college, and how many smart, fun and insightful friends they met while there. The main reason I'd advise applying to more colleges is so that you can visit each of them in April and pick the one that you feel like you enjoy the most, because the social experience can be very variable (MIT tends to hyper-sort people into groups of very similar people, Princeton has eating clubs, Stanford used to have lots of interesting living groups but might be growing more boring, Harvard aiui randomizes living groups and they feel a little undifferentiated as a result).

*I don't know anything about Harvey Mudd, unfortunately. There are other schools that might be a better fit for you which you should obviously also apply to, but these are the ones that I would consider to be meaningful competitors to Harvard.