That Time I Applied to Harvard (Twice)

Life’s painful lessons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Remember when I applied to Harvard? Twice? I do. It was a long shot, and yet, my plan seemed foolproof.

When I applied in 2006 (and again in 2007), I didn’t do it because I could afford tuition, had impressive extracurricular activities, or even had good GRE scores. I had none of these things, which is precisely why I thought, “No one in my shoes would even think to apply!”

I, as an unqualified applicant, would bring diversity to the student body. I was so excited about the loophole I’d discovered to being accepted that I told everyone — and I mean everyone — I’d applied. It wasn’t until my mother started telling people, too, that it dawned on me applying wasn’t an anecdote; getting accepted was.

With nothing to counter my unfounded optimism, I applied to the English Language & Literature master’s program. I was going to be a professor of English!

Scrolling through page upon page of online questions inquiring whether I was a relation of any of the specified powerful surnames—donors, I suppose — or if I had ever achieved anything impressive in life, it’s a wonder I even bothered applying the second time. Plus, it cost me fifty bucks a pop. But, I figured, “No one who got rejected the first time ever thought to try again!”

Why did I wish to attend Harvard? Well, it wasn’t simply for the prestige and solid education. It was largely because of the charming buildings and grounds. I heard that even their Dunkin’ Donuts was located inside a stately stone building. I pictured myself in a crimson Harvard sweatshirt grinding away on homework there as I drank a bottomless cup of coffee.

I am obsessed with old college campuses. The architecture, the smell of books permeating the buildings, the very air charged with the electricity of education in progress. The history of students studying there for generations before I ever stepped foot on campus. The grand sense of accomplishment when the cap and tassel are earned.

I’ve unofficially toured Oxford, Brown, and the University of Washington just to marvel at their manicured grounds and unique characteristics. When I toured Fordham in the Bronx I nearly leapt for joy at the abundance of fuzzy black squirrels.

When Harvard turned me down the first time, perhaps it was because the loophole I’d counted on didn’t exist. No matter, impressed with my ambition to give it a second go, I was certain the admissions staff would accept me the next time. It was all about demonstrating how committed I was.

The artist Roz Chast published a cartoon called “April Fools” that resonated with me: there’s a character walking down the street thinking, “How could I not get into Harvard?” It speaks to the stories we tell ourselves; the pursuits that motivate us to get out of bed in the morning but aren’t necessarily rooted in reality.

I told myself that my decent GPA and well-crafted statement of intent — bolstered by my extreme enthusiasm — would land me an acceptance letter.

Now I tell myself a different story.

There is an upside to me not pursuing a teaching career. There’s that pesky stage fright I suffer from. What would I do when my students challenged my authority? When they thought they knew better than I did what William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was about? (Seriously, what was that book about?) I had been driven by visions of teaching students as excited as I was to be in the classroom. I wasn’t interested in dealing with those students who disregarded their homework, were disruptive in class, or didn’t agree that John Keats’ sonnet “When I Have Fears” is the best poem of all time.

What did I learn from all this? Well, I try to make well-informed decisions and only take calculated risks, for one. And I decided to publicly share my experience figuring that, “No one who got rejected from Harvard (twice) ever thought to write an essay about it!”