Harvard Application 101: How to submit a successful application to Graduate Schools at Harvard University

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Indah by the Harvard Graduate School of Education sign
Indah by the Harvard Graduate School of Education sign

As a current student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s not about being the best, but about being strategic. This definitely applies when I reflect back on my journey of applying to graduate school. Like many others who aim high, I felt intimidated and confused about the whole process. However, there’s no need for you to feel the same! In this article I share my insights and best practices for applying to Harvard, and provide step-by-step instructions of the application requirements. 

Required materials

  1. Online Application
  2. Statement of Purpose
  3. Resume
  4. 3 Recommendation Letters
  5. GRE 155 – 166 for Verbal and 155 to 170 for Quant (average score, not fixed)
  6. IELTS min 7.5
  7. Transcript
  8. Application fee: $85

Standardized tests (TOEFL/IELTS and GRE)

Make sure to take the mock test before you start preparing for any of the standardized tests. This will help measure your strengths and weaknesses, so you know what you need to improve on and plan effectively. If hiring a tutor or paying for course prep is out of your budget, make sure you invest in books or borrow from the library, like what I did! The test prep book from ETS (the official company who made GRE test) can be a valuable option. For TOEFL iBT the ETS version is highly recommended, but for GRE I personally found Manhattan Prep more helpful because they have a good number of sample questions, especially on the quantitative sections.

Other than books, there are some free mobile apps that can help improve your GRE vocabulary such as Magoosh, Kaplan, or Quizlet. You can play the game or review the words using the flashcards on the app while commuting to your school or office.

For the math section, Indonesian folks—you are lucky! The quant part is made up of mostly high school math concepts and is not even close to SBMPTN level of TPA. Spend as much time on practicing as you can, instead of reviewing course materials!

In front of the John Harvard statue
In front of the John Harvard statue

Personal statement

In my opinion, the Statement of Purpose essay is the most crucial part of your application. Outlining your essay early gives time for you to reflect and get feedback throughout the process. Make sure to detail your previous accomplishments and contributions, using numbers to quantify the outcomes of your efforts. Spend time researching which degree program you are applying to so that understand exactly what Harvard might be looking for. Show your interest in the university by attending Harvard virtual events and virtual tours. Read about their research publications, classes, extracurricular activities, fellowship programs, and career prospects from the alumni report. Here is the sample from my personal statement:

“…. curriculum is not only balanced from international education, microeconomics, policy analysis, but it will help me to broaden my network through its cross-registration system that will allow me to register for courses in MIT and other Harvard schools.”

As you write your Statement of Purpose, be sure to pitch yourself to the admission committee. Convince them that they don’t want to miss out on the next Nadiem Makarim! Emphasize not only what you are hoping to learn, but also what you can bring to the table. 

“……as someone who has teaching experience in a school on an isolated island and has studied in five countries – X, Y, Z, A, B – my knowledge on this topic may be valuable during class discussion.”

Be very clear about your vision for your studies and your career after graduation. Attending Harvard should not be your life goal, but you need to emphasize how it is a gateway that will help you achieve your future. 

“The ultimate goal of all my endeavors is to enhance the effective policy making process in Indonesia. I intend to be the first female Minister of Education by 2030. In order to gain some practical experiences, I intend to work for a YY that will allow me to work in the field. Utilizing the knowledge that I learnt by pursuing post-graduate education in International Education Policy at HGSE will allow me to actively conduct research about education policy making. Through its courses and fieldwork, Harvard University is the suitable place to improve my capacity and to transform my desire to do good in the world into a concrete contribution.”

Lastly, revise, revise, and revise. Ask people to proofread your essay and ask for their feedback. If you are uncomfortable sharing your personal story, at least use an online grammar check like grammarly.com. However, I personally suggest that you ask someone who you trust to proofread and give constructive feedback.

Resume/CV

Drafting your resume or CV for graduate school can be difficult if you do not have a sample to refer to. To help with crafting the perfect resume, I suggest that you check the following link that was provided by Harvard’s Career Office: http://hwpi.harvard.edu/files/ocs/files/masters_resume_cover_letters.pdf 

Make sure to follow the rules if they are provided (1 page or 2 pages maximum). Erasmus schools or Oxford have different preferred styles, although they shouldn’t require a specific standardized format.

My first piece of advice is to highlight all major academic and professional experiences as well as your accomplishments that are relevant to your field of study. Show consistency; don’t include all your achievements just for the sake of filling up your resume, but make sure they are in line with your program. Provide a detailed but brief explanation of each accomplishment. Generally, one to two bullet points per entry should be sufficient. Structure is also important—make sure your resume is clear and easy to follow. You can order it chronologically (most recent to earliest). Lastly, ask someone to proofread your CV. Get feedback not only on content but on grammar. Once you make sure your resume is free of typos, you are good to go!

Giving my valedictorian speech
Giving my valedictorian speech

Recommendation Letter(s)

When asking someone to write you a recommendation letter, make sure you ask people who know you well and given them at least three months advance notice.  It will give you time to meet them in person to discuss, and if they happen to refuse your request, you will have time to find a replacement. Next, make sure the content of your letters are not overlapping but rather complementing each other. I suggest that you create a bullet point summary of your work that would help the recommender to make the letter more personal and less generic. This summary is not a draft, but more like a general guideline to make their job easier.

Here is an example: 

  1. Prof. XX (focus on my teaching experience) | Teaches Education related courses, I was her teaching assistant (TA)
    • Talk about class ZZ TA: my role and contribution
    • My performance in class as your student and as your teaching assistance
    • How long we have been known each other
    • Recommendation: Paragraph on why I will be contributing to the institution
  2. Prof. YY (focus on my leadership skill) | Dean for Education Department, PhD in Education, my part-time supervisor
    • Focus on my leadership skill: my role and contribution in the program
    • Emphasize the teaching and education-related activities involvement: TA, LTA, English Assistance, teaching part-time
    • Recommendation: Paragraph on why I will be contributing to the institution
  3. Prof.  ZZ (focus on my academic/research ability) | My thesis advisor, studied in the US, I took 3 classes of him
    • My academic performance
    • My research experience
    • Qualifications for comparing to other applicants

You can email or talk in person with your recommender. In addition to the bullet point summary, you can also attach your resume, a brief explanation of the program you are applying to or the draft of your Personal Statement to give them have a general sense of the program you are applying to.

Lastly, my informal advice would be: surround yourself with other grad school applicants. The IM Mentorship program paired me with a very helpful group. The group assignment made us really close and because we were all in the same mode of applying we supported each other and consistently shared our progress. At the time, I was also taking a grad school preparation class back in undergrad. Where other students were busy with job hunting in Japan, I was able to find a group who were also applying for grad school, and a very ‘sarcastic’ yet supportive academic supervisor who used to say, “In your way to apply for graduate schools you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. If all the frogs turned out to be princes then pick your best prince charming!” I applied for a university in Japan, one in the UK, and one in the USA.

My graduate school support system and academic supervisor
My graduate school support system and academic supervisor

Anyway, in my opinion you should just apply! Because you never know if you’ll  get in unless you apply! No matter what stage you are in; whether it be thinking of applying, in the middle of your preparation, or about to submit an application in the next few weeks, I hope this article helpful!