In this episode Sadie Polen, M.Ed Harvard and Accepted consultant, explores authenticity and community in graduate admissions and explains how to get a Harvard graduate degree. [Show Summary]
Have you dreamed of attending Harvard for grad school? Would you like to pursue a career in education with the premier brand in education on your resume? Let’s find out how Sadie Polen did it, and how she can help you get into an elite graduate program.
An interview with Sadie Polen, Accepted admissions consultant and graduate of University of California – Davis and Harvard Graduate School of Education. [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 518th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, Accepted’s podcast. Before we dive into today’s interview, I want to mention a free resource at Accepted that can benefit you if you are applying to graduate school. The challenge at the heart of admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, https://reports.accepted.com/guide/how-to-fit-in-stand-out-during-the-admissions-process, will show you how to do both. Master this paradox, and you are well on your way to acceptance.
I want to welcome today our guest, Sadie Polen. Sadie was raised in Alaska, attended UC Davis where she majored in community and regional development, and then earned her master’s in education from Harvard in 2017, concentrating on education and community. She also worked at Harvard’s Center for European Students where she was an interim grants and internship coordinator and assistant to the directors. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government from 2013 to 2022, she became, first, the program coordinator and then the program director. In that capacity, she directed the largest domestic internship program at Harvard, oversaw grant-making for 200-plus internships worldwide. She also frequently and informally assisted her interns when it came time for them to apply to grad school. As an applicant, Harvard administrator, and advisor, she has learned what elite graduate programs in the social sciences especially in government, education and law are looking for. It gives me great pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk for the first time Sadie Polen.
Sadie, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:23]
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your attraction to community work, which seems to be a theme in your educational and professional path to date? [2:26]
Yes, it definitely is. I grew up in a small town in Alaska. Most towns in Alaska are small by standards outside of Alaska. It’s this little town called Homer. It’s beautiful. Alaska in general is beautiful. If anyone gets a chance to visit, I highly recommend it.
If you like winter, winter is great. It’s definitely winter. If snow is not your thing, wait till later, for sure. Small town, it was 250 miles away from a Costco, an hour-and-a-half away from a Fred Meyer, which is the northwest equivalent of a Target. I remember when the first Gap opened up in the whole state, small, small and rural in a way that not a lot of places are, but also a super wonderful place to grow up. The community was very tight-knit, or maybe chunky-knit. Even when it wasn’t tightly-knit, there were always connections because, you never knew, my music teacher was also the father of students that I went to school with. There were just all of these connections in a small town. I think also, because I grew up in such a small town, when I went to college, one of the things that I was most excited about was going to a big school.
I was thinking UC Berkeley is enormous. [3:53]
Yeah, I went to Davis, but they’re about as big as Davis.
They’re both big. They’re both big, and that was one of the motivating factors for me was I was like, “Oh, I want fewer people to know me when I go to the grocery store.” However, when I got to Davis, they did. Fewer people knew me at the grocery store, and I also found myself seeking community, and it was more of I sought it out intentionally. It was an intentional community. I was on the rowing team in college, and that group of people really became my community. I am still friends with them now decades, almost decades later.
I studied abroad a couple of times in high school and in college and, again, really noticing how community impacts my own life and the scene and unseen forces that impact all of our lives, and it was something that I explored as an undergraduate. That was my undergraduate degree. It was something that I continued in my graduate studies because I love it. I love seeing how people come together in ways that are intentional, and that sometimes are in ways that are intentional that they don’t know what a good public space can create for the people who are in it without them realizing it.
For example? [5:09]
I’ve definitely noticed it in town squares or even something smaller than a town square, which we see a lot now, a little parklet. Between my house right now, there’s one between a grocery store and a coffee shop, instead of it being a street, it’s a little parklet. There are always people there. There are always people gathering. Sometimes I see the same people. You say hi. If it was a street, that wouldn’t happen, and so just the ways that space plays into community and how it’s created. I’m fortunate enough now to live on a street that is very community-oriented. It’s only one-block long. I think that helps. Yeah. I love being part of all different kinds of communities, and I also brought it into my graduate work and my professional work. Working in politics and public service, community is definitely a huge part of that work.
I have an elderly mother who’s in a retirement community. There’s a lobby there. It’s for independent living, and so everybody has to be mobile. They can walk with a walker or a cane, but they have to have mobility, and just the importance of a lobby. [6:02]
Yeah, it is. If there wasn’t even a little gathering space, where would people do that? Where would you socialize? Where would you say hi and stop for a five-minute chat?
You wrote to me when we were corresponding about this podcast and getting ready. You wrote to me, and I’m quoting, “I’ve also often felt like I have a clear idea of what I want, and it doesn’t fit into any particular box, so choosing a grad school was an exercise in finding a box that did fit.” Can you describe that exercise and how you came to choose Harvard’s master’s in education? It doesn’t sound like it was just “Harvard”, right? [6:39]
Nope. No, it wasn’t. For a while, I thought about other graduate schools. I ended up at a graduate school of education, which I love, and I loved being there, but I thought through a lot of different graduate schools. I thought about law school and realized I had no desire to practice law, so I don’t need a law degree. I thought about a school of government because of all of my work in public service, and I was like, “That’s not exactly it either for me,” and I found that in education, not necessarily as a classroom teacher, although I’ve done that way in my past, but more as both education is in most people’s lives in some way at some point. Whether it’s their own education or their kids’ education, wherever it is, it plays a part in people’s lives, and I think, because of how pervasive it is, it can be a real source of community and a place to have a lot of impact because everyone comes through some kind of education system, so how are we building it, strengthening it, using it?
That’s where I ended up. To me, I was like, “Oh, this is what. I love community. I love this exploration. This is what I want to do,” but figuring out how to put that into a graduate program wasn’t. Well, I know I want to be a doctor, and so here’s the path. I have friends. I worked at Harvard for a long time. I worked in Boston, which has a whole lot of science like biotech science, so I knew a lot of people in the sciences, and they’re like, “Well, what words do you search when you’re interested in something? I search proteomics or mitochondria,” and I was like, “Oh, I don’t have those search terms,” because sometimes, when you’re looking at jobs or graduate schools, people use words differently versus in the sciences or in law where it’s more clear, like a legal brief is a legal brief.
What finally convinced you that Harvard was the right program? [8:58]
Harvard recently restructured its master’s in education program. When I attended the program that I was part of, there’s the whole graduate school of education, and then there were a bunch of different programs: higher education, school leadership, lots of things like that. The program that I did was specialized studies, and so part of my application was saying, “Here’s what that means. Here’s what I want to do, and here’s why this is the right place for me.” I really looked into what courses are they offering, what research is happening here, and thought one –. this might be something we’ll talk about later, but I’ll jump in – one of the things that I ended up loving about specialized studies in particular was how varied the people in my program were.
There was someone who came from mid-Atlantic Coast and worked in Appalachia, and he worked in artistic education, and there was someone who came from Northern California and worked with middle-school-age children, but it was all plant-based, farm-based learning and developing really different curricula. There were people who owned their own businesses, but they were education-focused. It was just the breadth of the people that I was in not even a classroom with sometimes. . Part of specialized studies which I really liked was we developed our own curriculum of like, “Here’s the program of classes that I want to fulfill what I intend to study,” but we would have cohort meetings, and there was such a diversity of perspective and experiences in the room. It was incredibly beneficial to me, and I loved that part of it, which I didn’t really suspect going in.
You obviously didn’t just look at rankings and you didn’t just look at the curriculum, you looked at a lot of things. [10:50]
What did you like most about your experience? Well, I guess you said it was the people, or am I putting words in your mouth? [10:59]
It was the people. No. It was the people. Also, I found myself a couple of times over my time at the graduate school of education really surprised by how much I would learn in a particular class and how I could apply it outside of where I was thinking. One example, for anyone who I knew of who went to the grad school of ed after me, I was like, “Oh, you have to take this class.” It was a negotiations class, and the professors were from the law school. They came from the program on negotiation, and I was like, “This sounds interesting, and I’m not really sure exactly how this fits, but I think it will.” I took it and I was like, “I can use this everywhere and in everything.”
To really think about, for me, in terms of community and the programs that I was building, the people I was working with, whether that was external organizations, internal organizations at Harvard, students, really getting a good feel of the interaction of all of that and how negotiation is a part of our lives all the time, whether it’s like, “Where do you want to go to dinner?” “I don’t know. Where do you want to go to dinner?” or like, “I know where I want to go to dinner. Let me jump first to all the actual professional work that I did.” I ended up using it everywhere, and that surprised me at the time, but I still look back on it. I mean, that was a great class. There were other surprises like that, too. I loved that, in my graduate work, I was surprised in a really positive way.
What could have been improved? [12:45]
I think that they have actually done this, but it’s a fast program. It’s a one-year program. I don’t know if this would be an improvement or if it’s just a selfish request. I’m like, “Oh, it could be longer.”
Sometimes, one year is really nice because if you’re taking a break from work, then you only have to take a leave of absence for a year. It’s a year versus two years or three years, which can be harder, depending on where you are in your career. It’s really nice in that way, but also I’m like, “Oh, I want to keep taking classes!”
Let’s move forward a little bit in your career. You also worked for quite a bit of time at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Did you detect any common thread or characteristic among the students? It doesn’t have to be one. It can be more than one. [13:23]
The way that I always described when people ask me what I did, I would say that I get to work with really smart young people who know that they want to do good in the world and are figuring out what that looks like for them. It was all students who were interested in politics and public service, so they have some kind of thread that they’re tugging on and figuring out exactly where that leads, what does it actually look like to work in policy or to work in political journalism or to work abroad at an NGO. If you’re into computer science, that’s great. That’s also available in government. It’s available in the private sector. There’s civic tech. There’s all these different ways that that interest can be applied.
Working with students as they worked it out for themselves, I was like, “Oh, I really like this part of it, but I didn’t like this and I like that,” but the through line for everyone was I know what I want to do. I know I want to do some kind of good, and I’m figuring out what that looks like for myself, and getting to be a part of that was a real privilege.
Like social ROI. [14:49]
For Harvard Kennedy School, I guess, not that they don’t have leadership and impact, I’m sure they have that, too, but it’s this drive for social good. [15:31]
Yeah, and in terms of leadership and impact, where do you want to have that leadership and impact, right? It’s a specific sector. It’s in the public sector in some way. Part of my role at Harvard with the students I worked with, it wasn’t always expanding, but it was being inclusive of the entire ecosystem of what makes up politics and public service because it is certainly federal, state, local, international government, and it’s also all of the organizations that work in and around government, like I mentioned, political journalism and advocacy organizations.
Also, it’s business. [16:17]
Yeah. Yeah, completely.
It’s business. It’s government. It’s not-for-profits. It’s for-profits. [16:21]
Yeah, and it’s how you approach it and with what goal. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but, with all the students that I worked with, that was a driving force.
Now, you managed highly selective political and public service summer programs and internships. What was the key for applicants gaining acceptance to these programs? I mean, there might be more than one key, frankly. It might be different buckets or different keys for certain buckets, but is it possible to generalize? [16:35]
In broad strokes, yes, definitely. I would say two things, authenticity and also demonstration of knowledge. What I mean by that is one of the programs that I ran, students could have… There were a hundred different organizations that we worked with, and students could apply to work with two. They would create unique applications for each of them and submit them. They’d be considered separately, but they could only apply to two.
I was on the backend and looking at a thousand applications every year. It would be really obvious who picked an organization because they had heard of the name and who picked an organization because they recognized that they wanted to do that work, and so sometimes that might be like I recognize the organization’s name, and it might be an environmental firm, but the particular opportunity was in the communications department. That’s a specific department within an organization and, if you’re just telling me your environmental background, that’s great. I also want to hear why communications? Why is environmental communications important, because scientific communications are incredibly important, but I need to know that you understand what this is.
That’s the knowledge piece, and then authenticity, just bringing your full self and not trying, not over-inflating, not downplaying, just being… I actually think that the first piece, the information, leads to authenticity. If you really understand what you’re applying to, you understand why, and then you get to be fully authentic, fully yourself, and it comes through in the application. If you don’t really know what you’re applying to and it’s really just because of a name, it shows. You can read it in an application. It’s just like the excitement’s not there in the same way.
As you were talking, I was thinking, if you have that knowledge, you’ll also have the authenticity because you won’t have to fake it. [18:58]
I’ll never forget the time I was talking with a prospective client, and he wanted to apply to London. He wanted to apply to, I think, INSEAD or HEC, and I was asking him why, and I just wasn’t getting any kind of substantive answer, and finally he said, “Well, my girlfriend is there,” and I said, “Well, that’s an authentic answer.” That’s okay as an addition to the programmatic answers and reasons – the professional reasons, the educational reasons. He said, “My girlfriend lives there.” That’s fine, but those other reasons have to be there also. His interest didn’t align. [19:14]
Yeah, you can tell. Right?
You can just tell. Exactly. When you were at Kennedy, now, you mentioned this drive for social good, did you also see the alignment and logical reasoning among the students there? [20:02]
For graduate students, yes. I think that that is part of why they were at the Kennedy School of Government. They had thought through that process. For the undergraduates that I worked with, they were on that path. They were gathering information for themselves so that they could make that authentic choice of like, “I explored this. I thought I would like it. It turns out I don’t.” That’s great.
That’s fine. [20:42]
I’m all for making that decision.
Yeah, because once you start saying, “I know I don’t like this,” that’s great. There is decision fatigue in terms of what you want to do with graduate school, with your life. In terms of your career decision, fatigue is readily available, so if you can eliminate things, that is also great news because any folks may want something else.
If you can eliminate it fairly early on, if you can eliminate it, it’s fantastic. [21:07]
Yeah. Yeah, and then when you do get to the thing, “This is what I want to do,” it’s an authentic… You can say it with confidence and with authenticity.
Right. It’s a really eureka moment. [21:20]
Right. What advice would you have for someone interested in pursuing graduate education either in education or in public service or government or some of the areas that you have worked in? Again, the answer doesn’t have to be the same for all of them because they’re different fields.
Yeah. I mean, my first response is like, “Great. Tell me why,” for any of them. Great. Tell me why, and I’m not asking you to convince me. I just want to hear. Actually, in this case, it’s not even that I want to hear. I could hear your tone without the words and get a feel for your answer of like, “Are you excited? Are you just excited like ‘I know I want to do this?’ or is this like ‘I guess I have to go to grad school because it’s the next thing that I do?'” Right?
Because I’m on the treadmill. [22:14]
Right. Exactly, so figuring out why for you, and it doesn’t have to be the same for each person. If what excites you is, “Everybody in my family is an attorney, and I’ve seen people work in law, and I love it. They love it. I’m excited,” I’m like, “Great. Great. If that is genuinely exciting to you, great,” or if it’s like, “Nobody in my family has ever gone to law school, and I think I could do real good,” the content of the answer matters less than the authenticity of it, and so for anyone who’s thinking about graduate school, ask yourself why. It’s okay if it’s just a feeling at first, but take some time and really figure out why and why now.
For me, I mean, I took a long time off between undergraduate and graduate school, and I’m so glad that I did. It gave me the opportunity to have confidence that this was the right choice for me to be further in my career so that I applied the information and the knowledge that I gained in a way that was different than I would’ve fresh out of undergraduate. That’s not always the case, right? I needed that time for myself. If someone had asked me Why grad school now when I was 25, I would’ve been like, “I don’t know, because I don’t have anything else. I don’t have a better answer of what to do, so I guess I’ll do this,” whereas when I actually went back to grad school, I was like, “I am excited to take this learning and apply it in my professional life. I’m excited to be back in the classroom. I’m excited to be exchanging ideas with my peers and with professors and with teaching fellows. I am excited to go back into that environment.”
For me, that wouldn’t have been true earlier, so taking that time was important, so why and also why now?
A lot of applicants I know, and their parents, maybe even more than the applicants, are very concerned that, if they stop going to school, they won’t go back. That’s not a good reason to go to school, by the way. [24:05]
It’s not great.
It’s a bad reason to continue in school, but that is a very common concern. Did you have that concern when you were taking the break or yeah? [24:20]
Yes. Yes, I did, and I was also like, “Oh, gosh, if I don’t go soon, I have to take a standardized test,” and I haven’t taken a standardized test or any test in a very long time. The most intimidating part for me was the standardized test, I think. It was also for me the part that I felt like I had the least control over. I knew what I wanted to study. I knew why. I knew why this school. I had answers to those and-
The statement of purpose- [25:04]
… the GRE.
Yeah. I was like, “Oh, I know this. I know who I want to work with. I know what I’m excited about.” In the GRE, I was like, “It’s been over 10 years since I took a standardized test.” I don’t even… I know I have to fill it… Did Scantrons even look the same? They don’t. They didn’t. By the way, it was now on a computer, and I had to go to a building. It was all different, and that to me was very intimidating, so, yes, I can understand that fear and, also, I went back. The thing that was the most scary was fine. It was fine. I got over it. I took the test. I got in. My verbal score was definitely better than my math score, but I knew that was going to be the case going in.
It was okay also because I had my purpose. I knew why I wanted to go back and, therefore, yes, the standardized test was the most intimidating part, and that was fine. It was what it was. I studied for it. I took some practice tests. I went to coffee shops and tried to focus in a different way in a new environment to prepare for a new test environment, and then it was a couple-hour test, and it was over.
Now, you also have a diversity, equity and inclusion certificate from Cornell University. It’s one of the questions I see more frequently, and I’m sure many people have. If applicants are asked a DEI question, how can they approach it if they are not from an underrepresented group? [26:29]
Yeah. For me, diversity, equity and inclusion, it should not only be work that is done by people in underrepresented groups. That’s not diversity, equity and inclusion. Diversity, equity and inclusion is all of us. It is everyone, and so, if you are from an underrepresented group, what does that mean to you? If you have some kind of privilege, what do you do with it? How do you use that to benefit not just yourself? How do you use your voice or whatever power that you have in a way that is in service of diversity, equity and inclusion?
In other words, it’d be about helping or being more inclusive. [27:34]
Yeah. I mean, first, what does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to the applicant? Much like community, there’s not like, “Here’s what this means,” so think about what it exactly means.
I was thinking of asking you how would you define community, but I decided I wouldn’t. [27:54]
Appreciate that. I’ll draw you a picture of it.
What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you as an individual, as the applicant, and then what does that mean in this context, what are you bringing to this environment because schools think about their classes holistically? It’s individuals, but it’s also what does this picture… Like those pinpoint paintings, yes, it’s that, but then it’s also-
Yes, thank you, an impressionist painting. You’ve got this one little area that you can’t tell what it is, but then when you look at the whole thing, they’re looking at both, and so what does it mean for you as an individual and then how does that play with the entire group of people? People are going to answer that differently, and I think that if it is from an authentic place and really is about diversity, equity and inclusion, those are three different words, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and you’re writing from that standpoint, that’s what you want to be doing. If you’re from a group that is not underrepresented, think about those two questions. What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you, and how does that look in this environment in terms of your graduate school?
What would you have liked me to ask you? What would you like listeners to know? [29:24]
One of the favorite questions I ever got in an interview, and I’m going to say this to you, and then I just thought to myself, “I don’t have a great answer for this right now,” but I’m going to say it to you anyway because it was authentically what came to mind. I was in an interview and the last question they asked was, “What are you reading right now?” It was during the pandemic, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, what am I reading right now?” It was like probably fall 2020. It was early. I had been reading about a 20-book mystery series, and I was like, “Okay, here’s my answer,” and I told them. I was like, “I love to read, and also, right now, at this point in my life, I’m reading a lot of escapist literature to really just take myself out of where I am now.”
The pandemic. [30:21]
Exactly, the pandemic, but I’ve always thought that that was just a great question. I was nervous giving it in a professional context. Also, I was like, “Well, this is actually what I’m reading,” and if I’m going to bring my whole self to this question-and-answer, that’s actually what I’m reading, what I’m doing, and that’s okay and, to tie this back, it actually sparked a great conversation with the person who I was in the event with. They were like, oh, my gosh, I’ve been blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I think that it goes back to if you understand yourself and where you’re coming from, it comes through. If I had been nervous and been like, “Oh, gosh, I really don’t want to tell you,” or if I had just been like, “Well, shoot, here we go. This is my answer.”
What are you reading now? [31:48]
I just started a book last night. It’s called Night Train to Lisbon. I’m about five pages in, so I’m not super sure what it’s about, but I’m going on a trip to Portugal in a couple of months. It’s fiction, but I really enjoy exploring places through location, and so if someone said it was a good book about Portugal, and I was like, “Okay.”
It’s pretty dense so far. I think the person who wrote it was also a philosopher, so we’ll see how that plays out. What are you reading right now?
Well, right now, I’m in the middle of a few things. In terms of right now, I’m reading a book called The Coddling of the American Mind, which I’m actually enjoying. I’m finding it a very interesting book. I am, however, in the middle of a series of historical novels. I like history and historical novels in particular, and the series is called After Dunkirk.
Sadie, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for joining me today. [32:23]
- Fitting In and Standing Out: The paradox at the heart of admissions – free guide
- Watch the full episode on YouTube
- Sadie Polen
- Sadie Polen Contact Me page
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