College admissions tips from a Harvard graduate [Show summary]
Julie Kim shares her journey from growing up as an immigrant daughter to obtaining a Master’s of Education from Harvard to now operating her own college consulting company. She shares her tips for getting into Harvard despite low test scores.
How following a passion for education led Julie from HGSE to admissions consulting [Show notes]
Welcome to the 428th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, Accepted’s podcast. Thanks for tuning in. 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 programs and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, will show you how to do both. Master this paradox and you are well on your way to acceptance. You can download the free guide here.
It gives me great pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk for the first time, Julie Kim. The daughter of immigrants, Julie admittedly didn’t excel in high school. However, using a passion project, she was able to secure acceptance first to USC as an undergrad, and then attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Education where she earned her Master’s in Education in 2015. She founded Julie Kim Consulting, an undergraduate admission consultancy in 2015 and has grown it ever since. Julie, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk.
One question that I had right off the bat was, your undergrad degree was in Business Administration and Marketing. Why the pivot to Education for the Master’s? Or was that your plan all along? [1:25]
That was my plan all along. As you know, there’s not a lot of undergraduate majors that students could take advantage of. At USC in particular, they didn’t offer an education major but said they allowed a minor. I thought, well, I want to get into business one day and I feel like this is such an applicable skill set in all industries so that’s where I started. Even though I was majoring in business, I continued to participate in education related internships and volunteer work and research.
How did you know that you wanted to do education all along? [2:22]
I always loved teaching. I remember when I was in third grade, I sat my little brother down and I was like, “I’m going to teach you math.” And he was like, “Okay”, because we’re only two years apart. So I always loved teaching, and even with my parents, I would always be explaining to them what’s going on in the education world and what is the difference between SAT and ACT. I think I was kind of born with this love for education.
You attended USC and majored in Business and Marketing, and then you chose to go to Harvard. Did you take some time off in between, or did you go straight? [3:37]
I took a year off to prepare for the graduate admissions process. So a year later.
How did you prepare for Harvard? [3:57]
Studying for the GRE exams, they’re so hard. I was actually at the same time taking another master’s program through USC teacher education. I was taking classes at USC and then also studying for GREs and participating in a few research opportunities at USC. Oh, and I was also tutoring on the side to make side income. So just doing a lot of teaching, learning a lot about education during that time.
To what do you attribute your acceptance to Harvard? [4:33]
I really think my passion is what got me into Harvard. Not just saying that I’m passionate about education, but sharing my vulnerable story. I wasn’t trying to show Harvard that I knew everything and that I am this perfect person. Instead I really conveyed where I come from as an immigrant daughter and how I didn’t have some resources, but I still made it work. And that vulnerability and authenticity, I think that really made the difference because to be honest, my GRE score was nowhere where it should have been for Harvard acceptance. Also my recommendation letter. I kept a really close relationship with one of the professors at USC. He is a professor of Education, and he wrote me a really, really amazing recommendation letter. He actually let me read it after I got accepted. He said something like, “This student is someone that I’ve never seen before.” I think that rec letter made truly an outstanding difference to my acceptance to Harvard.
Did you cultivate your relationship with this professor throughout your undergrad years? How did it develop? [5:44]
A little bit through undergrad years. I just looked him up and visited his office during his office hours. During those personal encounters, and then of course, when I was doing a Master’s in Education at USC, the Teacher Education program, he was also one of my professors. It kind of naturally turned into a strong professor-to-student relationship.
When you started your program at Harvard, what did you intend to do with the degree? Did you intend to start an admissions consultancy? [6:16]
No. So at Harvard Ed school there are 12 different programs, and I was a part of the Language and Literacy program which is not what I’m doing right now at all. That’s what I intended to do, but obviously I started thinking a lot about career and passion and mindset and that kind of gradually led me to college consulting. So totally not what I had planned at all.
When you were applying to Harvard, other than the GRE, what was the application process like for you? [6:57]
Working on my GPA during undergraduate years and GRE was actually the biggest part of the admission process for graduate school. They put so much emphasis around it, and they said, this is a bracket that we’re looking for. I also visited Harvard twice. I talked to the admission officers there, and I attended small group chats that they hosted. I was very active during the admissions process. So I think they kind of knew my name. I lived in California, so I would actually just fly out to visit. Back then when I was a student, I didn’t even have money. So whatever I had from my checking account I put toward going to Harvard and really learning more about why I’m a good fit and connecting with them. I demonstrated interest for sure. Writing the essay of course, and just continuing to be active in the field of education. Like I said, I was learning a lot about education through the teacher program and also volunteering at a local low-income high school in East Los Angeles. I did that, and I was also an ambassador for Teach for China, and so I did that. Also tutoring again. I really immersed myself in every way I possibly can in the field of education to get a wider perspective and more hands-on experience.
And what was Teach for China? Did you go to China for that? [8:36]
No, you don’t go to China for that. Basically I’m an ambassador for the Teach for China program. It’s kind of like Teach for America, but basically teachers would go into rural China to give students an education. What I did at USC as an ambassador was I would kind of market the program and let the undergraduate students at USC know that this program exists. We would also recruit those undergraduates to be a part of that program. So a lot of marketing publicity and then recruitment. Those are some of the things that we did.
So you were combining your business undergrad with your passion for education really in those activities? [9:15]
Yeah, absolutely. That’s when I knew that I made the right decision pursuing business, because I feel like this skillset is so applicable in many parts of the industry. So I was already starting to do that.
What did you like most about your Harvard experience? [9:34]
The people. The people that I got to meet were from all over the world and the professors and the researchers and the labs. I learned more about education from other classmates and professors than by just reading a book or reading a research paper, because those are things that we can all do, even if we don’t go to Harvard, but everyone there had a very strong mission.
There was one student who wanted to improve education back in Peru. We had another student who came from Korea, and he wanted to change the SAT and ACT policy there. There were so many different types of people merging into one place. And our mission was all the same at its core, which was to improve education. That was really the best part. It’s really encouraging to see people dream big next to you. And just being on campus itself was very motivating. That was another personal memory that I really treasure.
You obviously pivoted from Language and Literacy. Did you ever change your focus while you were there? Or did you just maintain that track and then do what you want to do after you’ve graduated? [11:02]
To be completely transparent, when I left the program there were not a lot of jobs for Language and Literacy. A lot of my classmates went on to be teachers, which I didn’t really want to do because I like mentoring and more close interaction. The remainder of the students went into research, which is also something that I didn’t want to do. So I actually started working for a really large college consulting company in California, and that’s how I started getting into college consulting. Even before that, I would tutor students and help students with the college admission process, more like on a personal level. I already had that kind of prior experience. When I started working at that college consulting company, I had a few realizations about this industry. A lot of students would seek college consulting programs and if they didn’t have good grades or good SAT and ACT scores, the focus was not on improving that, but it was more of, “Okay, this is the college that you can go to, and this is where you’re going to go for the rest of your life.” It felt very fixed, that distinction between fixed mindset and growth mindset. I would try and talk to students about mindset and realized we couldn’t have open discussions about why you got a B without it becoming about them. It’s more of the way that you’re looking at this process, maybe it’s a time management skill. I started to see that there were a lot of opportunities for college admissions and college consulting. Hence the reason why I started my own company and our emphasis is really on mindset, more than anything in this process.
Going back to your Harvard experience, was there anything while you were there that you thought could have been improved? [13:15]
I think it could be a longer program. One year felt a little too short for me, and it was just three semesters including the winter break. The curriculum could be more focused because you have so much freedom and flexibility in the program. I ended up just taking a lot of different classes, which obviously didn’t deepen my expertise in one area. I think that’s something that could be improved. I wish I could’ve just stayed there a little longer.
What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in education? [13:54]
I would definitely get your hands dirty and get some real life experiences like teaching in a classroom or teaching a small group or doing maybe one-on-one consulting or mentoring and seeing what you like best. Also maybe interning for a research office too, just because everyone’s skill sets and strengths are so different. From there kind of figuring out like, okay, this is probably the path that I would like to go to because my values and strength aligned with this kind of educational setting. I would definitely test out different experiences for sure.
Do you have any advice specifically for someone interested in attending Harvard for a graduate degree in education? [15:14]
For Harvard, I would say, have a pretty good idea of the 12 tracks that they offer and assess for yourself why you need to be in that school and program in particular. If you can’t sell yourself on why you need to be in that program, then it’s obviously not going to be a compelling case for the admission officers at Harvard either. For example, for me going into the Language and Literacy program, I made a very compelling, specific point as to why I need to study there specifically. Also know the professors who run these programs, that’s also very important. For example, at Harvard, there’s Dr. Catherine Snow and she leads the Language and Literacy program. For me, learning from her and taking her classes was very important back then. Having a very specific reason why you’d like to attend is going to be a selling point, for sure. But at the same time, I saw other classmates at Harvard and they actually told me that they didn’t really know what they wanted to pursue specifically. They just kind of wanted to test out whether it would be a good fit for them. So in that case, I think it’s important to consider, “Why is this important to you? Why is learning that important to you?” And bringing up your backstory could be another strategy because not everyone knows specifically why I need to get into this program. Those are kind of the two tracks and two strategies that I would love to share.
Can you talk about how you came to found Julie Kim Consulting and what is distinctive about it? [17:25]
I founded this company because, like I said, I wanted to focus on mindset with the students during the college admission process. There’s a big stigma around mental health. Even for me, when I tell my parents, “Yeah, I feel a little down, I think I need help.” They’ll often respond with, “No, you don’t need help. You’re fine.” Especially within Asian culture, I feel like when you show a sign of weakness or you say you need to talk to someone, parents kind of tend to say, “No, you don’t need help, you’re fine, it’s just a phase.” I wanted to shed light on the topic of mindset and mental health in a positive way. We all go through fear, we all go through anxiety, but there’s such a powerful way to reframe that feeling to vulnerability, strength and passion.
So that’s really the reason why I started this company, but at the same time, I know that high school students are going through the college admission process and so I wanted to merge both worlds together. It kind of works as a domino effect. Students come into our program saying, “Oh, I don’t think I’m good enough. I compare myself to my friends all the time. “ And when we change that, reframe that and work around that, their GPA goes up, their SAT and ACT scores go up. They’re more passionate about their high school journey and they have a more powerful goal that they could work towards. That’s sort of the reason why we started it, hence we help our students create passion projects. That’s our big distinctive factor compared to other college consulting programs out there. I just want to emphasize that a passion project is not something that you create just to stand out. It’s a project that you create that will help you learn more about yourself to think about, “Yeah, what is it that I like? What is my strength?” It’s more internal work but it also helps with students’ college admission process as well.
Can you also tell us about your podcast, Demystifying College Admissions? [19:48]
Yes, I have a podcast called Demystifying College Admissions, and we cover many topics. We also have a series where I coach my students and students in our programs, and we actually share that coaching recording with our podcast listeners. Maybe not everyone can afford college consulting, so for those students, we actually share the coaching call with our entire audience. Maybe you can pick up pieces from our coaching call and apply it to your college admissions process as well. That’s another thing that we do. We also interview guests here and there, but honestly the best part about our podcast is just bringing our students on and coaching them and sharing the behind the scenes of our company.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [20:51]
What would I like to see more of in the college admissions space?
I actually experienced, when I was a teenager, that pressure that I needed to get into the school or else I’m going to be a failure, or I need to get into Harvard because that’s a brand name. I need to get into USC because my parents could brag about me to their friends. I don’t know what these external reasons are but once I achieved that, I thought that my life was going to change forever – that I would be happy every single day, no one could bring me down, but no, I feel all the things. I still feel anxious. I still feel worried. I still feel everything.
I would like to see less emphasis on this thinking that if I get into that school because of that brand name, then I will be happier. I would like to see less of that, but more thinking like ,”I want to get into USC because that program offers what I want.” Now, for high school students to think that way, they need to reflect a lot, because if you don’t know what you want, then you can’t come to that conclusion. I wish there was more exploration during high school years. Understanding what I value. What is important to me? What is my strength? More of internal work and that work guiding this process is what I would like to see more of.
Where can listeners find you online? [23:12]
I highly recommend that you start with our free training that we offer. You can take advantage of that training at www.juliekimconsulting.com/masterclass. And we also have a podcast Demystifying College Admissions that you can check out.
- Julie Kim Consulting
- Harvard Graduate School of Education [HGSE]
- Demystifying College Admissions Podcast
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