Below are the rules I believe I followed to achieve this dream. But let me first be clear. In no way does a Harvard degree or a degree from any school dictate your value to society or your value as a human being. I believe the desire to make it to Harvard was a reflection in my mind of a limitation placed on me at a young age. In a way, it was my way of proving that I didn't need to listen to the world and could dictate my own path forward. Above that, it was a goal I had set for myself and that is where I believe anyone can find value. I hope that no matter your goal, I can be of service, even if in a minimal way.
I wholeheartedly believe, though, in the real world, no one gives a shit where you went to school. It doesn't matter. What have you produced? I am only using this experience to hopefully explore deeper findings about the world we think we live in. Maybe if you want to go into investment banking, they care about these over simplified metrics and measurements of your ostensive worth in the first round interview. But you can meet someone to get you past that point anyway, so why stress? Jokes aside, I want to be devastatingly clear that this is not some attempt to build my ego but rather the first topic I could think of to pull value from, even if solely based on the time I spent in preparation of getting myself there.
As I stood there upon the steps of Widener library at just after 1:30AM, staring up at the stars piercing through the fog of a cold Cambridge night, slice of Noch's pizza in hand, chills rolled down my spine. Not from the cold. My brain had fired them off through my nervous system in response to a more cerebral realization that I had created this experience for myself, from my own mind, by my own initiative. I would tell you that I then zipped my Barbour jacket up a little more but the truth of the matter is I didn't have money for that, let alone more than one slice of Noch's. I shouldn't have been there. But I relentlessly forced the cards in my favor until I got there by adhering to rules I had set for myself. Rules that are only confirmed more convincingly in hindsight:
These are general principles I followed. They are not for everyone. Your walk along the path to your goals will most likely diverge from mine and you will learn even more about the world than I have. We can only hope that our knowledge is somehow bridged in the future in order to best serve the next generation. and perhaps in some small way, buoy them up to an achievement they will seek.
1. There's no reason why you can't do something or be somebody:
Anything that anyone tells you is their own perception of reality. Don't worry if your guidance counselor doesn't think you can handle an AP course load or if one of your parents doesn't believe you're special enough to get into a school like Harvard. Don't worry if your family can't figure out how to pay bills, let alone eat for the rest of the week. Don't worry if you came from a school that has never sent a single student on to an ivy league. These are just components that fuel your story. And specifically fueled mine. You may emerge from an even more difficult situation. Homeless to Harvard is not just a sappy made-for-tv movie.
You will have advisors, parents, friends, coaches, inspirations who will help guide you along this journey but none of them have the exact vision for your life that you do. Without getting too sappy or converting this entire post into a self help book, ignore everything negative. All you can see is yourself enjoying your goal once you've reached it. Nothing else. Nothing. If you don't trust in this power of belief, click on this first rule above which links to a clip from Fight Club. If you really want something, go get it as if Tyler Durden was sticking a gun to your head. And don't be surprised when you figure out how to get it. I realize this seems like far out emotional bullshit but if you don't have this component down, the others don't matter and you can stop reading here.
2. You have to buy your ticket first:
As a high school coach of mine once explained, you need to know where the hell you're going. If it's Harvard, great! If it's Brown, Princeton, Northern VA Community College, great! But you need to know. You can't show up at the train without a ticket. Have a plan and begin to learn everything about where you're going. Nearly 7 years before I ended up at Harvard I had drawn myself in front of the steps so beautifully captured in the image attached to this post. I had visualized myself in the dorms so many times that I already thought I was a student. At one point when I had the opportunity to visit the campus, I creepily peered in the windows of the student dorms to get a sense of where I would be living. I was in 6th grade at the time. Get crazy. Five years before I ever applied, I had a collection of books on Harvard. Who reads books about Harvard?
3. Then you have to get your ass on the train:
Put in the time! There's no shortcut here. They won't let a mindless teen off the street into Harvard. You have to mold yourself if that's what you actually want. No one will do this for you. Yes - if you were fortunate to grow up in a super well educated, wealthy, high achieving family then this may come more naturally. For the rest of us, it doesn't matter. Study. Associate with the smartest in your class. I almost exclusively was friends with Asian students because we were the only ones putting in the time. Aside from ignorant stereotypes, they had a system. Get tutors if you need them. Work with friends, form study groups. You likely already know these things but the proportion of students who are crazy or willing enough to follow through is devastatingly slim. It probably lines up quite nicely with the Harvard acceptance rate. Don't be afraid to seem weird or unpopular. Once you get accepted to Harvard every "popular" queen bee or super sweet jock will want to know you. But it doesn't matter, your train has already left the station.
4. Learn who you are and use that to start building something unique:
In my experience, the key to standing out during the admissions process in a highly competitive school that employs a "holistic method" of selecting its candidates is to be so different and unique that you aren't even competing with anyone. It's not easy but it's doable for anyone. And this is personal. What do you enjoy? Don't just do it like 99% of high schoolers would. Turn it into something amazing. Take your hobby and build a business around it or utilize your skills to help the world around you. Turn yourself from a consumer into a creator. Do it now! Once you create one thing from your unique set of skills you will feel the impact your energy has. It's something that becomes very addicting.
5. Be good, not great:
Perform at your level. Don't fear that crazy super genius who had a perfect score on the SAT since the first grade. The world (or at least college admissions at high end institutions) seeks well roundedness. If you're that super genius then you're probably set and you can solve some tough problems in number theory and possibly submit an interesting theorem to a respected math journal. If not...
6. Be exceptional at one thing:
Find something to set you apart so far from the crowd that you're essentially performing in a different atmosphere with an instrument the world has not yet heard. But don't just play an instrument. Use your instrument to do bring joy to the world. This is not a sexual innuendo. This is the key and will serve as your unique competitive advantage. In this world of competitive institutions of higher learning, the admissions officers are wannabe Warren Buffett's looking for the next solid company to invest in. His biggest investment criteria? Competitive advantage:
Even if you're largely average or maybe slightly below/above average in other components of your life, figuring out a way to save the lives of baby turtles on far off beaches by playing a unique hymn from your flute can override everything. Far fetched childhood video game references aside, there is a very real underlying concept here. Apply what you like to do in solving an issue important to you in a unique way. That's it!
7. Don't text and screw social media:
Unless they're part of your solution to world hunger, things like this don't play a large role in your life. Most importantly, you'll need to be extremely comfortable communicating your ideas and visions in person. This is key for the interview process, from alumni interviews all the way to ones you may be requested to do on campus. Moreover, being able to hold a conversion with an adult while having no screen to hide behind can pay huge dividends in turning your crazy ideas into anything more than just crazy ideas. Despite arguments for the usefulness of social media tools, I continue to belief it's all fluff and appearance. Do something meaningful and people will be posting articles about you. No need to put selfies out there for them to like. The Kardashians would argue this for sure.
8. Use anger to your advantage:
Stay positive as much as possible when following these steps. It makes the world a brighter, more opportunistic place. However, when anger or frustration creep up bottle it up like some sort of liquid gold. Throw some mentos candy inside, shake, and then put that power to use. It's like a boost of nitrous oxide to your engine. Whether it be a late night study grind, or the 37th email you had to send in order to secure a volunteer opportunity, utilize frustration about your current situation to push further than anyone else is willing to go. But be careful, a less caring wolf lurks behind this sort of emotion. Use it and then let go.
9. Read these books and this blog! Then ace your courses by any means necessary and balance that stress with the outlets you're using to generate your unique competitive advantage:
This book outlines the exact strategies and specific tactics you will use to make sure that you ace your courses and balance any academic schedule. You don't actually need to ace every single class when you have a unique competitive advantage but the strategies here will prep you for greatness. In fact, it will help you do this so well that you'll have tons of excess time to develop your out of school interests, turn one of them into a competitive advantage, and then have enough time left over to hang out with your friends:
Forget all the SAT prep courses and books larger than a small elephant and just read this pint sized book. The SAT is a man made assessment and as such there are ways to game the results, namely by learning only the exact things the creators are looking to test:
Head on over to Cal's blog. He does a phenomenal job of making clear the balance between your academic pursuits, life goals, and the tangible world. You will be inspired but also find specific lessons and tactics to maintaining this balance and making the world a more awesome place in the process of racing toward your dreams.
Whether you're trying to deal your way into Harvard or not, I hope I have imparted something valuable here. Undoubtedly your journey will be or has been different and I'd love to hear about it below or via email. I've kept this post relatively general and perhaps slipped too far into a sappy motivational role. My only counterargument to this fault is that it's tough to not fall down that proverbial slope when you've experienced the magic of these rules working to stack the cards in your favor. Let me know your thoughts.
Relentlessly pursuing perfection,
- The Wolf