Hi everyone! I’m Stefani, and I was an intern at SupertutorTV last summer! I’m a rising sophomore at Harvard University with an intended concentration (Harvard-speak for major) in computer science.
A little bit of background: I’ve had an off and on infatuation with Harvard since 2004 when I first watched the movie Legally Blonde, but after years of people drilling just how hard it was to get in, I didn’t think I had a chance and didn’t think I wanted to go to any Ivy League school anyway. Because I was too cool for that. Or at least that’s what everyone around me told themselves, so I started telling myself that too. After being rejected by my dream school, Stanford, early decision (the wound hasn’t healed yet) I panicked and applied to over twenty schools. I was accepted to most of them: Harvard, of course, but also Yale, Princeton, Columbia, UPenn, Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, UCBerkley, UCLA, Swarthmore College, Williams College, Bowdoin College, Claremont McKenna, Rice University, etc. So… thanks Stanford?
How I Got Into Harvard: Grades
I took a strong course load and had good grades in high school, but unlike some of my friends and peers, I wasn’t the kind of person who took 8 APs in one year. I took 9 AP classes over three years: AP World History and AP Biology sophomore year, AP US History, AP Physics I, and AP Calculus AB junior year, and AP Government, AP Calculus BC, AP Computer Science, and AP English Literature senior year.
One thing that absolutely destroyed me was that my school didn’t have honors English for juniors, only AP or regular, so I ended up taking regular English. At the time, it felt like my transcript would never recover. It was heartbreaking to think about the unadorned “English III” on my future applications. But lo and behold, I ended up serendipitously meeting two of the most inspiring and influential teachers I’ve ever had. More about that later.
Because I balanced my schedule, not taking more than I could handle but still challenging myself, I got straight A+s except for 2 regular As. My GPA was 4.0 unweighted and something ridiculous (I think 5.0?) weighted because of the weird ways schools calculate GPAs. However, the point is: PACE YOURSELF. Don’t take classes just to impress people. Take classes that you think you can enjoy. The more you care, the better you’ll do, and that will show through to admissions officers.
How I Got Into Harvard: Test Scores
I took the SAT® twice. I took it the first time June of my junior year and I got a 2190 (CR710, M760, WR720) with a 10 on the essay. But I didn’t like those scores, so I took it again October of my senior year and got a 2330 (CR800, M770, W760) with a 9 on the essay. I wasn’t tutored and I didn’t take any courses, but after seeing my first score, I decided to read recreationally as much as I could over the summer. Even reading books like the Pretty Little Liars series (which many would argue are not intellectually stimulating) helped me improve my reading and writing skills. I also had a couple books of practice tests that I went through a couple times, but nothing too rigorous.
I took 10 AP tests (the 9 classes listed above and AP Spanish Language because I’m a native speaker) and scored 5 on all of them except for AP Physics 1, on which I received a 4.
I knew I had to take subject tests, but for the most part I only took what matched the classes I was taking. I got 740 on Biology, 800 on World History, and 800 on US History. Like my SAT® experience, I took Math twice, and only studied for the second attempt. I scored 750 on the first try and 790 on the second! So, studying definitely helps, and I highly recommend devoting some time to study, practice, and preparation if you want to improve your scores.
How I Got Into Harvard: Activities
You often hear about people who get into Ivy Leagues because they do something extraordinary, like starting a nonprofit to help some marginalized group, or performing research and finding a cure to a rare disease. Even someone I know from high school was a renowned musician who composed award winning work, conducted symphonies, won a national singing competition in China (in Chinese, no less), and was finished with multivariable calculus before senior year!
I was not that person.
I was all over the place, and nothing was particularly noteworthy. These were a few of my activities:
- Golf team. I was by default on varsity, because there were so few of us to begin with
- Drama classes, and competed in drama festivals
- School plays
- National Honors Society.
- Math Team. I participated in competitions and placed high on the school level, but my school was very small and I never competed with other schools.
- I TA’d for my math teacher my senior year.
I dabbled in many clubs like Envirothon, Youth & Government, and Junior Statesmen of America, but I never held leadership positions and I don’t think those things even made it on my application.
Outside of school, I went to church every Sunday and seminary every morning before school, and served minor leadership roles there.
What did stand out, however, was that I helped found my school’s chapter of Girls Who Code. It was only two other girls and myself who really cared and tried to get the club going, so although I was nominally president, it was definitely a team effort.
I also did research in a mechanical engineering lab at UCLA one summer, and the next summer put together a scrappy, DIY study abroad in Vienna myself.
For my community service requirement I found something I cared about and had personal meaning to me, instead of just signing up for something convenient.
My biggest outside of school commitment was helping at home. Growing up in a single parent household (no child support, no extended family… when I say ‘single’, I mean actually single), my mom would host international students in our home for income. There are ways to present it such that is sounds super cool and fun, and there are ways to present it where it sounds like a really horrible job; the truth is it falls sort of in between, sometimes awesome, sometimes awful.
I also included a couple things I liked to do, just for the heck of it. I included ballroom dance and yoga, two hobbies of mine, not because I’d won any awards or anything, but that was what I liked to do with my time. It showed the universities who I am as a person, which is equally as important as what you do in school.
Key Takeaway : Try to include something that is personal or special to you, even if you don’t think it really “counts” as an extracurricular.
How I Got Into Harvard: Essays
My common application essay was about my experience hosting international students. It was a story, not a list of accomplishments or even an outright demonstration of passion, but it was relatively unique, and I think that’s what matters.
As for supplemental essays, Harvard is literally the best because they don’t really require extra essays, and they mean it. I know plenty of people who got in who didn’t write the extra essay. That being said, WRITE SOMETHING. I swear that the only difference between my Stanford application and my other applications was that my Stanford essays were awful while my Harvard essay was excellent. It wasn’t even personalized towards Harvard.
It’s pretty common advice to write essays that show what you know about the school and why you want to be there and why you belong. I personally hate that advice because I don’t like marketing myself, but I swallowed my pride for some schools, and it worked. Looking back, it’s a trade off. If you really are passionate about something enough that you can write about it and give evidence to back it up and explain why you belong there, go for it. But if you’re like me and lack quantifiable accomplishments or a specific passion, write about something that’s unique or special about you. Every school wants to have that kid.
For Harvard though, I recycled an essay that I had originally written for Dartmouth that I thought surprisingly had depth. It was about my name and my ethnicity and my thoughts on stereotypes and cultural norms. I’m not a sociology or Latinx studies concentrator, but it was something I’ve always mulled about in the back of my heard and never had the guts to really talk about.
To be honest, my Harvard application was sort of a joke. It was one of the first I submitted, probably full of typos, and I didn’t think too hard about it because I didn’t think I would get in.
I think that’s what made the difference, though. As students get more and more qualified, authenticity stands out.
How I Got Into Harvard: Recommendation Letters
I don’t think I’d have been accepted if I didn’t have teachers who actually knew me vouch for me. My english teacher from non-honors english believed in me, and he pushed me to be a better writer and better person. My math teacher from high school was head of the department, a role model to me, and I was very lucky to spend two years with her. My school was small enough that my teachers knew me personally and even cared about me. I realize that that’s not the case for everyone, especially public schools, but try to develop relationships with your teachers. I also had the professor whose lab I worked in write me a recommendation. He’s a close family friend and one of the leaders at the church I go to, so he could vouch for me professionally and character-wise.
Get recommendations from people who know your character. They will help sell you like nobody else could.
How I Got Into Harvard: Wrap Up
I transferred high schools after sophomore year to go from a beloved, but large and underfunded, public school to a small private school. It was one of the riskiest things I had done. It’s drilled into your head that colleges like to see long term commitment, and I had no valid excuse for switching other than the fact that the private school was smaller and had more resources. I know that coming in as a junior, I wouldn’t have “paid my dues” in clubs and be eligible for leadership roles in clubs or sports or drama productions. But I knew that I wanted a closer relationship with my teachers and college counselors, so I made the jump. I’m not saying this so that you switch schools right now, but if you do, if you drop a couple clubs before you have anything to show for it, it’s not the end of the world.
I firmly believe that the reason I got into schools, and especially Harvard, is because I highlighted what was unique about me and what perspective I would bring. I dressed up my application as much as I could, but I still don’t really have any flashy accolades or tangible accomplishments. I wasn’t even allowed to be valedictorian my senior year because I had transferred schools. I had the demographics (hispanic, female in STEM, etc.), but even then there are still too many of us for that to be enough to get in.
A carefully crafted approach to your high school career, especially at this age, when our interests and “passions” are so liable to change, is one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself on a college application. Do well, study hard, plan ahead, and you too can be a Harvard student like me!