Harvard is one of those places that people often talk about with admiration but rarely as an aspiration. “Could I ever get into Harvard?” is usually a question asked with a great deal of doubt and trepidation. However, thousands have graduated from Harvard over its lengthy and illustrious history, and those people are real people. They simply had two traits that made them eligible candidates, and the rest was up to chance! Those traits were: (a) an impressive portfolio (including high grades and varied and committed experiences, including leadership roles, etc.) and (b) confidence that they could indeed be accepted. This latter element is perhaps the defining feature of students accepted to Harvard—the belief that they could ever get in!
Harvard (or other Ivy schools) aren’t for everyone all the time
Let’s be clear: we are not all, always, ready to go to Harvard, just because we believe in ourselves. I applied to Harvard in high school and was rejected—and the truth is, though I was a committed and intellectually curious student, and though I feel I would have thrived at Harvard, I know I didn’t have the portfolio they needed. My grades were good, but not stellar; my extracurriculars and summer experiences existed, but were not extensive or impressive; and, my confidence led me to seek very little advice or writing consulting for my personal statement, so that I did not submit my best possible work.
Thinking you can’t get in at one point in your life might be true, but it does not mean you are not “Harvard/Ivy League material” ever. After completing college at a marvelous liberal arts university (an experience I would choose again any day!), I knew my portfolio had changed. I had very good grades and had fostered deep and lasting connections with professors; I had been a research assistant, a student newspaper writer and editor, and a writing tutor; I had learned a tremendous amount and felt confident that I could submit a writing sample I was proud of.
This time, in addition to the necessary confidence and portfolio, I sought a writing tutor to help make sure my statement of purpose could be the best one possible, and off my application went! Lo and behold, I got into my dream school for an MA: the University of Chicago, or the “Harvard of the Midwest.” Not only that, but I unexpectedly was awarded a fully-funded fellowship, including full tuition coverage AND a stipend! You never know what can happen!
The importance of strong essays
During the last year of my MA, I again felt ready to submit applications to competitive schools; I’d kept up my grades and activities, I’d worked hard on a polished writing sample, and I made sure to consult with others about the quality of my statement of purpose; my years as a college writing tutor had taught me that we all need editors, from the least to most experienced writers. All of that, plus a big dose of luck, won me a place in a fully-funded PhD program at Harvard, where I am currently working on my dissertation (when I’m not advising Accepted’s clients). So remember: confidence, a great portfolio, and assistance with one’s writing—these are the three things in your power; the rest is up to the big H!
I want to add one last thought: When applying to MA and PhD programs (as opposed to undergraduate programs), there is an additional key to a positive portfolio: demonstrating interest in the work of particular scholars with whom you’d like to work. This means two things:
- Tailoring your statement of purpose to each school and its specific faculty members,
- Reaching out directly to these scholars in order to express interest in their work. Ask to schedule a phone call and/or an in-person meeting. There’s no better way to make yourself stand out than to make yourself known in person.
Remember: if you don’t do this, you are an anonymous paper application swimming in a sea of similarly anonymous applications. If you were on the admissions end, wouldn’t you feel much better accepting a student you’ve had extensive contact with, have possibly even met, who made a good impression?
Your Ivy League checklist for admissions success
So, to sum up, here is your checklist for preparing to apply to Ivy League school PhD programs, including Harvard:
- Honestly assess your own transcript: Are you seeing that the vast majority of your grades are A and A-? Is your GPA at the end of college a 3.7 or above? If you’ve answered YES to both of these questions, you might be a good candidate.
- Consider your overall profile: What does it look like? (I’ll address how one constructs a great CV in another post.) Have you been involved in a sustained way (i.e., for a year or more) in multiple activities? Have you assumed leadership roles in some of these? Have you demonstrated commitments to these pursuits? If so, you might be a good candidate!
- Think long and hard about your recommenders: Have you built sustained relationships with your previous teachers/professors? If you apply for a graduate degree, make sure your recommenders are known figures in your field, who know you well and can write from personal experience teaching or supervising you. Their credibility will build confidence in your application.
- Have confidence! If you don’t believe you can get accepted, you very well might not. Confidence (to be clear, I do not mean arrogance!) shines through a good application.
I’ll write more in an upcoming blogpost about how specifically to approach potential advisors and other faculty members during the admissions process. But for now, good luck!
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