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How They Got Into Harvard
By The Staff of the Harvard Crimson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 The Harvard Crimson
All rights reserved.
Strategy 1: Flaunt Your Talent and Get Recruited
This chapter is all about playing to your strengths. From athletics to the arts, it is crucial that those who excel in one particular field show how that success has carried over to various other aspects of their lives. The key here is balance. In this chapter, we see students who have developed drive and discipline through their various activities and have channeled that energy from the field and the stage into the classroom as well as into the community. These students got Harvard's attention by making headlines and making solid connections with their future coaches and teammates.
There are various approaches for using your skill or athletic ability to your advantage. A lot of these students showed that they could balance various activities and excel at all of them. For instance, Mary Serdakowski and Gareth James Doran both discussed their abilities to balance sports and academics in their application, and how the discipline they developed through their sport transferred into everything else they did. Another strategy is to include supplementary materials in your application. For instance, Julia Scott Carey included recordings in her application, while Bong Ihn Koh attached a résumé that solely featured his musical achievements to his regular résumé and application. Finally, get recruited! Zak Farkes and Aliaa Remtilla got themselves on the Harvard coaches' radar screens early so that they could meet future teammates and prepare their applications appropriately.
This strategy is not for everyone. It is important that you have a realistic notion of how talented you are in a given field before you choose to make that the focus of your application process. As you'll see here, even national champions made sure they were well balanced in all areas. If you are a state or national champion in your chosen activity, you are a very good candidate for this strategy.
Make sure you speak to your college counselor and other mentors to get an accurate assessment, however, of how much you should focus on your talent. If you choose to pursue this route, you should do the following:
Include supplementary materials (practice or performance videos, CDs, portfolios, newspaper clippings).
Contact the coach/team/activity advisor early on and in person, if possible.
Network with others in your field to get contacts at the college and elsewhere who can help you out.
Find a mentor to help you through the application process.
BALANCE! Choose one medium (essay, interview, etc.), to showcase another side of yourself.
Harvard loves students who are extremely talented and will achieve further greatness on campus, so flaunt your talent, but make sure that you show that you can contribute to the college in a variety of other ways as well.
When Racquel Bracken won her first national debate championship in 2000, she could not help but think that the title would be a nice addition to her college application. But the then-teenager from Irving, Texas, knew that getting into Harvard required more than fame. Recognizing that other prospective applicants would have distinguished themselves in a variety of pursuits, Racquel was worried that she had had to give up too much for debate. Her challenge, she thought, was to convince the admissions office that her excellence in debate, however limited, was evidence of her ability to commit wholeheartedly to a single pursuit.
From first grade onward, Racquel attended the Greenhill School in Dallas, a private school with 105 students in the senior class. A serious scholar, Racquel finished high school fifth among her classmates with a 3.8 grade-point average. The president of the National Honor Society, she was also a varsity swimmer and runner, and wrote for her school newspaper. These activities, however, were secondary to the one extracurricular that earned her headlines of her own: debate.
Racquel and her partner were two-time national champions in the cross-examination division. A four-year member of the team, Racquel also served as its captain. Among the topics she debated were U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, particularly the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the borders of non-NATO states. In her senior year, she argued in favor of ways to prevent identity theft on the Internet. A more than twenty-hour-a-week commitment, debate required Racquel to do extensive research on a variety of topics and to work closely with her partner to practice speedspeaking and argumentation skills. She says the experience of intense competition and the opportunity to travel widely were invaluable. "Within my main activity, debate," she recalls, "I learned about leadership, communication, and teamwork while having an amazing time."
The Application and Essay
While debate provided her with a wealth of experience to draw upon in writing her essay, Racquel also sought to convey to the admissions office her commitment to her family. She wrote her supplementary essay about the goals she had achieved through debate; however, she chose to write her primary essay about her father. She first wrote the piece in rhetoric class her senior year and edited it with the help of her English teacher and debate coach. In only a few pages, she described how, once embarrassed by her dad, she soon began to imitate and emulate him. A recurring theme throughout the essay was the silly jokes he told the employees of a local drive-through restaurant. "By the end of the piece," Racquel recalls, "I was the one sitting in the driver's seat imitating him."
Contacts and Connections
Racquel did not know any faculty or administrators when applying to Harvard, but she was placed on a debate watch list by a friend's father. While she says she is not sure whether that had any effect, she also turned to a friend from debate who was already at Harvard for help. "I visited her at school, attended some classes, slept in her dorm room, and spoke to her about what she liked about going to Harvard," she says. "She not only helped me get a feel for the school but also opened a new avenue of activities for me to join when I came freshman year." Racquel also had two interviews, one on campus and one in Dallas. She says that they were both easygoing conversations. While she did not write her interviewers thank-you notes immediately afterward, she says she did stay in touch and thanked them months later.
Despite her intense commitment to debate in high school, when Racquel arrived at Harvard she decided to shift her focus. While she still helps coach and judge debate tournaments, she no longer competes and uses the time for a variety of different pursuits. Racquel has run a community service program on campus and swims and plays squash recreationally. She also has found a new passion in laboratory science, and spends dozens of hours a week researching stem cells, a topic she once judged on in a debate tournament.
The Bottom Line
Racquel advises prospective applicants not to be afraid of focusing on one talent in their applications. "I think the most important part of my application was not that I pursued many activities in high school, but rather that I narrowed down what I enjoyed, I had to make choices about what activities were important to me, and then I excelled as best I could in the activities that I loved," she says. Racquel believes that colleges often look for maturity and that the best way to demonstrate it is to show one's ability to make sacrifices for something they love.
— Jessica E. Vascellaro
Julia's success in getting accepted to Harvard most likely stems from her incredible musical talents and dedication to this interest. "The most basic thing about me is that I'm a musician and music has always been the most important thing in my life outside of schoolwork," says Julia Scott Carey. As a precocious five-year-old, Julia developed her own system of writing down the notes that made up her pieces; now she is a composer who has had many of her pieces performed by orchestras or ensembles and also plays the piano, harpsichord, and flute, and sings. In high school most of Julia's commitments lay outside of school, but she says she believes that that made her more independent. She credits her early composition opportunities in part to a great community orchestra in her hometown, with an orchestra director who encouraged her.
Julia grew up with her parents and one younger sister in Wellesley, Massachusetts, likes going to Martha's Vineyard and reading Wodehouse novels, and used to ride horses. She enjoys traveling and has been to St. Petersburg, Russia, four times for music competitions and performance. In high school, Julia also had an interest in visual arts and enjoyed painting.
In high school, Julia served as President of the French club, but focused on her involvement with musical groups: the school chorus and orchestra and chamber music groups. Passionate about her music, Julia spent every Saturday from the age of ten at the New England Conservatory Preparatory Division, taking lessons, performing chamber music, and attending composition seminars and improvisation classes. Her hard work and dedication led to performances both at the NEC Preparatory Division and elsewhere. A highlight of her early musical career was the performance of one of her compositions by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops when she was twelve. In the realm of service, Julia also used her music to bring happiness to others, working to teach music to children's youth groups and performing in retirement homes several times per year.
The Application and Essay
In shaping her application, Julia centered her approach on her interests in music. She stressed her musical interests as much as she possibly could in the application. In order to enhance her application, she included supplementary materials in the form of a CD of her work and musical scores of her compositions.
During high school, Julia volunteered with the Conservatory Lab Charter School, which is affiliated with the New England Conservatory of Music. The school is geared toward giving underprivileged children in kindergarten through fifth grade the opportunity to be exposed to music. For three years, Julia spent time helping out in children's music classes, talking to them about music and composing two pieces that the whole school performed. She collaborated with a poet and set the words to music; then the children played violins, recorders, and sang.
In her essay, Julia chose to write about this experience. "I wrote about what I had learned through the experience, how great it was to see the excitement of these children, how it made me realize how fortunate I was to have had exposure to music and to have had lessons my whole life. I wrote about how happy the children were when they all came and made music together, how this made me realize how important music is in children's environments." Julia's college counselors at her high school and her parents read the essay and offered suggestions. Julia also chose to submit a supplementary essay on her other musical endeavors.
Contacts and Connections
Before coming to Harvard, Julia knew a number of students because quite a few people from her high school had attended Harvard and others whom she knew through her musical activities had also matriculated. Her high school composition teacher was affiliated with Harvard, and she had also met other people in the music department and says, "I think it helped me — knowing musicians who were already at Harvard. And it made me know what it was like to be a musician at Harvard, gave me some guidance."
Julia is now concentrating in music and is pursuing a joint-degree program with Harvard and the New England Conservatory of Music. Her activities include the Radcliffe Choral Society, the Wind Ensemble, the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra, the Harvard-Radcliffe Contemporary Music Ensemble, and the Piano Society. She is also involed with the Dunster and Lowell House Opera societies, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players, and the Mather House Chamber Music Program.
The Bottom Line
Julia advises that students show how they are different from every other student who's applying. She also advises students to focus on doing things that they love instead of focusing all of their energy on getting in. "In my experience, students who do all of their activities solely for the sake of getting into college are not the happiest. Those students who do what they love because they love it are ultimately the most successful."
— Megan C. Harney
When Aram Demirjian applied to Harvard, his musical proclivity could hardly have gone unnoticed by the admissions committee. Aram was a fixture on his high school orchestra, playing the cello for all four years of high school. By his junior year he held the principal cello chair, and in his senior year he served as the orchestra's assistant conductor. During those same four years he also played cello for the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra of the New England Conservatory and he was a member of his high school's choir.
Aram came to Harvard from Lexington High School, which usually has several students admitted to Harvard each year. Along with these grades and his musical proficiency, Aram was also a two-year member of Lexington's student newspaper, and, also for two years, served as a sports announcer for a local cable station, broadcasting high school football and basketball games.
The Application and Essay
In selling himself to Harvard, Aram was conscious to craft a particular image of himself: "I tried to really play to my strength, which I felt was music." He says he wanted to make the admissions committee confident that he would make a positive contribution to the Harvard community. "I really tried to show how the unique quality about me was music, and that I could be an asset to the various music groups at school," he notes.
To achieve this goal, Aram did more than write his extracurricular essay about his passion for music. He also sent in an audio recording of himself playing the cello, and submitted, in addition to the traditional academic résumé, a music résumé outlining his musical accomplishments and awards.
His personal essay was not music related; instead, it was a reflection on the influence of the television character Mr. Rogers on his life. Aram came up with the idea to write about the show, which he watched religiously as a youth, during a brainstorming session. Soon afterward he sat down and "free-wrote" his essay, putting onto the page whatever came into his head. And then, over the next few weeks, "I revised and revised," Aram says. Two English teachers, his mother, and his sister all read and helped redact his essay.
Contacts and Connections
Aram's interview went very well, mostly because he was able to shift the conversation to those subjects he had the most to say about — music and history. "I remember the interview being a great experience," Aram says, noting that the interviewer took great interest in his musical talent. Aram also says he was careful not to try to emphasize all of his strong points in the interview, but only to highlight the most important areas: "I didn't try to cover too much. Just the areas where I thought I was strongest," he says. Because so much of the interview was spent discussing music and history, Aram was able to project a much stronger image of himself than if he and the interviewer would have talked about all of Aram's subjects and extracurricular activities for an equal amount of time.
Both Aram's family and his school played strong support roles during the application process. A school guidance counselor tracked the development of his application, though Aram says his mother and sister — both of whom had been through the application process before for his sister, who was a member of the Harvard class of 2003 — provided particularly vital support. Though both his parents are college educated, neither of them attended Harvard and so Aram did not receive legacy status during admissions deliberations, but the fact that his sister had previously attended Harvard surely did not hurt his cause. He also attended a local high school just a few miles from Harvard's campus.
Aram applied early action to Harvard but was deferred; he was later accepted during regular admissions in April. Now Aram plans to joint-concentrate in government and music. He has also extended his musical interests outside the classroom — he is a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra as well as the university choir and the Dunster House Opera.
Excerpted from How They Got Into Harvard by The Staff of the Harvard Crimson. Copyright © 2005 The Harvard Crimson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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