This is not a manual on how to get into Harvard; I do not have any secrets to reveal that will guarantee your acceptance. This is my story of how I personally approached the college application process. Maybe in talking about how I personally got into Harvard, I can help spark some ideas in what you could do or could improve upon. But I am not providing a formula for success, a surefire way of getting into an Ivy League. I will be the first to admit that some of what I did was not novel or unique in any way, but my activities and adventures through high school each resonated with me personally – they were things that I believed in and pursued for a reason, some of which I was fortunate enough to be naturally good at, but some of which I worked years to become good at. While the thought of my resume and college application process was always on my mind, and was part of the motivation in some of my high school pursuits, it was never the sole motivation.
I do not even remember which class the test was from, but I do remember the image of the slightly wrinkled paper with a neat and unassuming number written in the top corner, circled in red. Unfortunately for me, the number was a 63. A failing grade in fourth grade meant I had to get the test signed by a parent. My grades had reached a new low in the downward trend, but I had already stopped caring. Returning home, I quickly tossed the paper on the kitchen table, slightly nervous, but not too concerned. I braced myself for the usual scene: some yelling from my mom, my defense, and then my righteous retreat into my room, perhaps with an indignant door slam.
As you can tell, I did not start down my path in the traditional manner. I was a mischievous child who hated to study and loved to curl up all day with a fantasy novel and a giant bag of chips. Some of that still lingers with me even now – when I have a bad day, my respite is to grab a book and a snack and hide in my room for a couple of hours. But when I was young, this all-consuming habit was a significant concern for my poor parents, who had been spoiled by my older sister’s relatively smooth academic life and acceptance into Harvard. My relatives and family friends shook their heads at me, stating that I would never amount to much. However, I was lucky. My parents never gave up on trying to instill a more competitive, achieving edge in me, and I had my sister as the ideal role model. And the combination of hearing my parents’ earnest lectures and seeing the awe and respect my sister received seemed to spark something in me, a desire to do well and prove to everyone that I could also achieve everything my sister had.
To this day, I still argue that I never really cared about academics until I started high school because I knew they simply did not matter then. To some degree, I am right – colleges will not be looking at your middle or elementary school transcripts, applications do not ask about your accomplishments from before high school. However, I realize that I am also wrong – my childhood played a significant foundation in instilling the values that I have today, the desire to excel academically and to pursue the activities that I am truly passionate about.
When I entered high school, I was able to take Calculus BC immediately due to the strong math foundation that my parents had built for me. Admittedly, the course was difficult for me, maybe too difficult. When I enrolled, everyone urged me to try an easier math class, especially since I was also entering high school and dealing with that transition. My parents, my sister, my guidance counselor – no one thought I could really succeed and actively discouraged me from taking the course. But when they told me “no,” that just gave me more incentive to take the class – I knew that I could do it, why did no one else believe in me? It had been done before, though not often, so why couldn’t I do it?
If my story were ideal, I would say that I took the class, flew through it with ease, and proved my stance. However, in reality, the class was excruciating; I had reached a level where I simply could not comprehend the concepts being discussed, resulting in many tears and near-failing test grades. I cannot remember how many near-breakdowns I had, screaming that I would fail calculus, and my chances of going to Harvard would be ruined in my first year of high school due to my own stubbornness. In a state of panic, I grabbed as many calculus textbooks as I could, did seemingly-infinitely many practice problems, put everything else on hold to learn calculus, and even unbent my pride enough to find a tutor. Somehow, to my, and everyone else’s, surprise, everything paid off – I ended up with an A in the class and a full score on the AP exam.
Harvard Early Action
This became my pattern throughout high school. I would demand to take on heavy courses, starting with five AP classes my sophomore year and progressing to eight my senior year, to my family’s and counselor’s shock and dismay, and wrestle through them day by day. I admit that I am fortunate – most of my classes came easily to me. There were some classes, calculus and world history chiefly among them, which I thought would surely break me, but I screamed and fought, and never allowed them to. When I applied to colleges, I applied to Harvard early action, despite my parents’ pleas to apply to another school, one that they believed I would have a higher chance of being accepted into, early. In retrospect, I must have had some unknown core of self-confidence, persistence and recklessness that allowed me to go against everyone’s advice, according to what I believed. I am not saying that this is the way to go for all students – my family’s and counselors’ advice was invaluable, and I definitely considered it – but I was often driven by a desire to prove myself and I knew that I had reserves of sheer persistence beyond what anyone else knew, and I went for it. In the end, the decision was my own, and I am glad of the choices I made.
Did my academics help significantly in my application to Harvard? I would imagine so. I know you will be curious so I will lay out my standardized test statistics bluntly: I got a 2320 on the SAT, 800s on my SAT subject exams, took 18 AP exams, with 5’s on 17 of them, and had a 4.0 GPA. But this list of numbers is unique to me – they are above average, but they only served to help round out my application because I excelled at nothing else. If you can be an international math champion or a professional concert pianist, then no college will penalize you harshly for having slightly lower numbers. You need a certain baseline, but beyond that being a little above or below average will not make or break you.
School was my personal back up, the one thing I knew I could be good at. My extracurricular activities were my passions, the things that I did not excel at, but that I loved enough to become good at and still continue now. Piano and taekwondo were my stress relievers, taking my mind off school as I played those crashing Beethoven chords and engaged in rapid, intense sparring matches. Now, I am in a chamber music group and the taekwondo club. In high school, I started a tutoring program for my community, motivated initialized by the stereotypical desire for “leadership,” but then later on by my enjoyment at working with the kids and seeing them smile when they solve a math problem or read a particularly difficult passage. I discovered a love of teaching, of working with people until they reach the “aha!” moment, and still often teach and tutor in college. I would spend my high school summers working in a microbiology lab, intrigued by the knowledge that I could manipulate DNA and produce proteins, and delighting in my beautiful glowing bacteria. I ended up writing my college essay on my conversations with my bacteria, and have continued lab work even now. Do you see the trend? I love everything I did, because while school was an obligation, my extracurricular activities were ones that I chose and wanted to dedicate time to.
How did I get into Harvard? If you ask me, I still have no idea. Admissions evidently thought that my application warranted an acceptance, and I am thankful that they did. I love my school, and the people and opportunities it provides. But is Harvard the best fit for everyone? Not necessarily. Were there many students rejected from Harvard that could easily have taken my place? Most definitely. I had the essential material to get in, but so did thousands of other applicants. Perhaps admissions can give you a formula, because I certainly cannot. But what I can say is that my journey through high school gave me experiences and tools that I have found to be invaluable today, so make the most of every single opportunity you receive in high school.