ringier home icon

Through The Crimson Gates: How To Get Admitted To Harvard Or Any Other Ivy League

[Ed. note: This is a new series on Getting Admissions to Top Schools internationally. We go around the Web and around Nigeria to bring you stories from the frontline about getting a foot in the door. Edited by Ayodeji Adewunmi. Send tips to deji@jobberman.com]

What is it that makes Harvard University so special? Is it the fact that she has existed for over 371 years, even older than the United States itself? Or is it the fact that she has produced more Nobel Laureates than any other University in the world? Could it be because the school produces graduates that are courted aggressively by the most selective and prestigious of employers?

Whatever makes Harvard special, all I’ve ever known since I finished secondary school was the fact that I wanted to get a piece of the Crimson (Harvard’s nickname after the colour of its coat of arms). I couldn’t really do it after secondary school, SAT 1 and SAT 2 seemed so foreboding and the cost of tuition…well that was another kettle of fish entirely. The time just was not right. So I kept my head down (well maybe not too much because I was into so many things back in medical school) and decided that the right time would be after the odyssey of medical school, trying to get a Master’s in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Well, after a lot of preparation, desperation and constipation, it finally happened on a cool Saturday afternoon at my parent’s house where I was relaxing from a particularly hectic week at my job. Months had passed since I submitted my application and I was on the verge of despair about my admission when a rather innocuous looking email arrived in my inbox. With heart pumping at 500 beats a minute, sweat breaking over my forehead and hand shaking tremulously I moved the mouse, clicked on the email from the Harvard Admissions office and moments later gave a shrieking scream of joy that interrupted my parents siesta and scared the living day lights out of my dog. I HAD MADE IT INTO HARVARD!

A friend of mine at Jobberman suggested that I write about my experience and try and point out how someone like you can get into Harvard too. I don’t claim to be an expert in Harvard admissions and I can only speak about one graduate school, the Harvard School of Public Health, but I do believe very strongly that the basic principles for getting admitted to a really good school are the same. So here goes!

1. Position Yourself For Admission – Getting into a top ranked school doesn’t just begin when you are preparing your application, it starts way before then. A lot of top notch schools are interested in your achievements both academically and in relevant extracurricular activities. If you reckon you want to get into a good public health school, join a public health focused club like an HIV/AIDS club or do some public health focused stuff like organizing a blood donation drive in a larger club like AIESEC. If you’re interested in getting into Harvard Business School, start a small business or join business or management focused clubs and try and get as much leadership experience as possible. It goes without saying that grades are really important, but at the end of the day far more people than can be admitted have stellar grades and what sets them apart is how much of and how well they did in extracurricular activities. It shows your dedication to the field and the fact that you can take initiative. Admissions committees love to see that in prospective students.

If you’re out of school and you didn’t join any clubs, no matter how small (what on earth were you doing?), don’t despair. You can form your own mini project around your future career e.g. a small business or your own small neighbourhood HIV/AIDS campaign. It’s not so much the size of the project, its more about the fact that you’ve shown initiative and leadership to start stuff like that.

2. Do Your Research – Yes, I said the R- word we love to hate…Research. You need to get a clear understanding of the school’s philosophy, what she looks for in prospective students, the admissions criteria, etc, basically things that help you understand the school and her admissions process better. It’s important you do this, so you can find out if you’re eligible for admission (e.g. some business schools don’t admit people without at least 3 years of work experience so if you’re a fresh graduate looking to get admitted, you’ve got to be a mega-superduper-too-hot-to-handle star or else you just dashed the school the admissions fee. Also, research helps you know what to write about in your Statement of Purpose or Essays that will mesh with the philosophy of the school. For example, if a school seems to have a very strong practical field experience bias, you might be doing yourself a disservice by talking about how much you love to spend the rest of your life doing research in a laboratory.

Thanks to the internet, research isn’t too difficult. A good start is the school’s website, obviously. You can also get tons of information from blogs, career sites (like Jobberman) and even newssites. You can also use the internet to find current students of the school and email them on tips on how to get in. Most people are willing to lend a hand. This is a good idea because they could also help in going through your Essays and CV (probably the most important parts of your application) and give advice, based on their experience, on how to make it better

3. Prepare For Your Exams Way Ahead…And ACE Them – Since people come from all sorts of very different universities with varying standards, schools need a standard way to compare applicants. That’s where exams like GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc come into the whole deal. Obviously, it goes without saying that you need to get very good scores on these exams. This is important not just for admissions purposes but also because a lot of scholarships go to the high scoring students. The only way to hit those stellar scores however is to prepare really well. I can’t say how long you need to prepare for these exams, the answer varies from person to person depending on how fast you can retain information. I had a friend who spent 3 weeks preparing for the GRE, while simultaneously preparing for a postgraduate medical exam; she scored a 1480 over 1600 in the GRE (a superb score). I must add that she had a brain that could absorb like a sponge. I seriously started preparing about 3 months to the exam and I scored 1370 over 1600! So you need to understand yourself, take as much time to be prepared for the exam as you think you’ll need.

Try and find out from people who’ve written the exam the best books. For the GRE, I can swear by Barron’s any day. The wordlist is simply phenomenal. It looks like hardwork but if you can just remember like 65-70% of the words there, you’ll see a massive improvement in your verbal scores. For other exams, ask around and check online for other people’s experiences. Usually there’s one or max two books that have the most impact. Stick to them. You don’t need 50 or even 5 books to pass these exams, a maximum of 2 well read ones is more than enough. It’s a question of quality (how well you read and practice) over quantity (how many books you have gathering dust on your shelf).

Also, never forget the old primary school maxim…practice makes perfect. Practice as many questions as you can. Make sure you time yourself so you can get used to the time constraints and the whole exam atmosphere. No matter how much you study, you won’t improve dramatically unless you practice. Practicing tests in itself is useless if you don’t monitor your progress and improve. Look for your weak spots and try and improve on them.

If after all your hard work you end up with a poor score, don’t despair. You can still apply to the school of your choice. Just make sure your essays are as good as they can be. I have another friend who gained admission to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (which is actually ranked first above Harvard’s second position in Public Health) with a GRE score of 1060 over 1600 (a rather average score)! So you might just have a chance. Afterall, you’ve got nothing to loose.

4. Start Processing Your Transcripts As Soon As Possible – Most top schools will request for your transcripts, some might even ask you to get it evaluated by an evaluation service like WES (World Education Services, www.wes.org). Try and get these documents as soon as possible and long before the admissions deadlines. Bureaucracy can make getting transcripts a lengthy and frustrating process. Plus evaluation agencies can take up to 1 month to complete the evaluations. Also, when processing your transcript, try and get the phone number of the person processing it, so you can give them a call from time to time to ‘remember’ you. Don’t let bureaucracy get in the way of your progress!

5. Inform Your Referees Far In Advance And Pick Ones That’ll Write Wonderful Things About You – Most people who serve as referees are busy people and writing your reference is probably not the topmost thing on their priority list, so you need to let them know about it far in advance and keep reminding them from time to time. Also, make sure you get references from people who know you quite well in a good light. You need strong, well written references stating how they have thoroughly enjoyed working with you or how much of a bright student you’ve been and how they feel that you will do very well in your prospective school and course. Do not let them write a standard, packaged, lukewarm reference for you. It could be the downfall of your application!

6. Write, Reread, Rewrite, Rereread And Rerewrite Your Essays And Resume – Essays and your resume (Curriculum Vitae) are the parts of your application that carry the most weight, so they have to be superb. Go online and have a look at well written admissions essays and resumes, understand the structure and use your knowledge of what the school looks for in prospective candidates to write your own story about how you’re so passionate about the school and the course and how you’re the kind of student they’ve wanted ever since Isaac Newton discovered gravity. Your first draft is bound to be fair at best so you need to ask your friends (those who can write well, of course, preferably better than you) to go through, provide some constructive criticize on how to make it better and pinpoint the spelling errors. Trust me when I say that other people are far better at seeing spelling errors in your essays than you are.

It also helps if you lay your essay aside for about a day or two before going back to it for a fresh look. When you do this you will usually notice things you should add or remove or other ways to generally make it better.

7. Submit Your Application Before The Deadline – By this time you’re probably ready to submit your application. Make sure you’ve gotten the right fees ready and that you submit preferably before the deadline. Most admissions applications are submitted online and it would be so unfortunate if you waited until the last day to submit your application only to discover that all your access to the internet is down. It could happen and it does happen, submit a few days before so it doesn’t happen to you.

8. Take A Break, Relax, Pray Hard And Think Positive – Well, you’ve done your best and all you can do now is wait. Don’t spend hours agonizing over your application or your test scores. It’s sent and it’s gone, forget about it and live your life. Hang out with your friends, go to a party, go for a revival or crusade (the extra spiritual help should come in useful), just generally try and be normal and forget about the application. You’ve given it all you can and Que Sera Sera (what will be, will be). Check your email regularly though because you should see a reply in a few months. I hope when you open your own inbox you’ll also wake up the neighbours and frighten your dog!

9. Send Me An Honorarium When You Get Admitted – You know now!!! I’m going to school soon myself so every little helps.


Femi Kuti completed medical school at Obafemi Awolowo University in 2008, interned at the University College Hospital, Ibadan in 2009 and is to commence studying for an MPH in Healthcare Management and Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health in 2011 after completing his national service. He loves writing, watching movies, listening to music, electronics and gadgets and can be reached at oakuti@gmail.com

Nathan Jeffery
Notification Bell