HOW TO GET INTO HARVARD
or the Ivy of your choice
by Bernard R. Levine (Harvard c ‘69) ©2006
Disclaimer: This article is satire, for entertainment only.
Getting into Harvard is not rocket science. If you want to be a rocket scientist, go to Caltech. If you want to get a real education, go to West Point. But if it’s status you want, it’s Harvard you need. When I was a student there we called it P.U. -- Prestige University. Here are the six essentials for getting in.
1. Change your family name, from whatever it is now, to the name of one of the larger older buildings on campus, one that was named after a major donor. Pick a family that produced at least one U.S. President, or perhaps a Secretary of State. Choose a family that was either Congregationalist, Episcopalian, or possibly Dutch Reformed, not one of those dirty, barefoot, or, God help you, enthusiastic Protestant denominations. And definitely not Mormon, Jewish, Catholic, or Asian; a quota of such people will be admitted, of course, but why stack the odds against yourself? Muslim is presently in vogue at Harvard (Sunni only), but that could change overnight, so don’t risk it -- plus it requires circumcision.
Your parents also need to change their surname, and your paternal grandparents, too, whether living or not. Remind them that this is the smallest of many sacrifices that they will be required to make, to get you into and through college. If they balk, tell them they can change it back after you graduate. If they still refuse, threaten to finish high school at the local junior college, followed by a tour in the Marine Corps. This should bring them around. If it doesn’t, follow through, as that sequence will better prepare you for life than any liberal arts university.
Do some creative grafting on to your family tree. Make it appear that you actually are related to the person for whom that building was named, as well as to several other buildings by marriage.
2. Obtain letters of recommendation. Most applicants misunderstand this. Letters from your high school English teacher, your Frisbee Golf coach, and the Burger King manager at your after school job are worse than useless. Instead get at least one letter each from:
• a major donor to the school
• a Democratic U.S. Senator from any state
• a Democratic Congressman from New England, who is also an alumnus
• the president of a multi-billion dollar charitable foundation that is also a major donor to the school
• a National Football League coach
• a mainstream media publisher
• a dean or department chairman at Harvard.
Be inventive with these letters. All but the last can safely be forged. Write a childish letter, in crayon, to the target recommender, asking for his autograph. Then use the form letter you get in reply to duplicate his letterhead, his printer font, and his third assistant secretary’s version of his signature.
It can be risky to forge a faculty member’s letterhead and signature -- too easy to check -- so either a sexual favor might be necessary here, along with blackmail if you are under 18, or at least some creative lying. Use whichever tactic comes most naturally to you, although ideally you should become adept at every vice, since you will need them all for an exemplary undergraduate career, especially if you aspire to be a professor someday.
3. Find out what admissions officers want to hear this year, then tell them that. When I was interviewing Harvard applicants, the regional coordinator told me that Harvard was only interested in candidates who were committed to staying four years and graduating-- no more dropouts like Bill Gates. At that time the college’s undergraduate retention rate was pushing 96%, up from about 60% in my day (I dropped out in 1969, Gates in 1976), but the goal was 100%. In other words, Harvard still wanted to recruit from the top 1% of high school graduates (with the usual financial and political exceptions, such as children of Senators and of investment bankers, who can be morons and still get in), but not from the top 1% of the top 1%, because really smart kids like Bill Gates eventually realize they are wasting their time there, and leave. If you doubt this dumbing down, read the profiles of current exemplary students in Harvard Magazine.
4. Publish. That admissions interview coordinator also told me that Harvard wanted secondary school students who were already doing serious, professional-level, published work in their chosen field, or even better, several fields. He said that a high school student who had already won a Nobel Prize was pretty much a lock for early admission. He meant this as a joke, but a letter of recommendation from a Nobel Laureate, especially one with a Harvard affiliation, would be a worthwhile alternative. Be creative here, because world-famous faculty members are already being offered more sexual favors than any celebrity has time for, and by people who are both more interesting and more attractive than you.
Almost anyone can do original research worthy of publication. Look at the drivel in most academic journals. Just remember, those journals charge their contributors, as well as their subscribers. You too can pay to publish, the same as any professor. The catch is that academic publications require academic credentials, and scholarly journals have been burned so often by impostors that now they usually check.
Of course there are lots of other publishing venues, not quite academic, but still respectable. Historical society quarterlies, smaller museums’ journals, art and music periodicals, amateur science society newsletters, even your local newspaper -- all of these need filler material to space apart their ads, in order to qualify for Second Class mailing privileges. However most of them have no budget to pay real writers. If you can write well, or can hire someone who does, you will certainly be published (study the movie Almost Famous, based on the director’s own exploits at age 15; he lied about his age and wrote lead stories for Rolling Stone, with much coaching from the editor of a rival music magazine).
You could even publish your own book, if you have some money. Just make sure it looks like it came from a real publisher, not from Kinko’s. Make up a plausible imprint name; mine is “Badger Books,” which sounds enough like Bantam, Ballantine, and Borzoi to fool most people. I paid a pro to design the logo, and I used the same printer favored by Book of the Month Club.
Be sure to remember two rules about writing. First, “research” and “recycle” are practically synonymous, but not exactly. Plagiarism is risky, and can undermine all your efforts if you get caught. But conscientious attribution, using direct quotes, makes you look serious and professional, without a lick more work than plagiarism. Second, always publish under your new name, not your old one.
All the same principles apply if you burn a music CD or a cinematic DVD. Make its packaging look professional, whether or not it sounds or looks that way inside, and always use your cool new name. Mark Twain was really Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Shania Twain was born Eilleen Regina Edwards. Unlike them, your goal is not to be talented, creative, or famous. No one needs to go to college for that. Your goal is merely to be one of the hundreds of fashionably correct clones who get in past the bouncers, and get their sheepskin tickets punched.
5. Display the right kind of sincerity in your application letter. Remember the vaudeville line, “Enough about me! Let’s talk about you. What do you like best about me?” Your application letter is supposed to be about you, but make sure it is really and sincerely about Harvard... about how much the college has meant to your family, all the way back to the 17th century, about how much the Harvard experience will mean to you, and how much it is going to mean in the future, to your family foundation.
6. Arrange your own interview. Don’t settle for a local interview, with a local alumni volunteer like me. Those are for kids who have no chance of admission. They cost Harvard nothing, and that is what they are worth.
Instead, look up the personal interests of all the members of the admissions committee (check Who’s Who and faculty websites, for starters). Pick one of those topics in which you can feign a plausible interest (avoid your real interests, if you have any, as these can make you boringly enthusiastic, a talker not a listener). Then set up an appointment to see that person at Harvard, entirely because of your own deep interest in their favorite subject, and your admiration for their contributions to it. Don’t even mention Harvard, or college admissions. Be completely unaware that they sit on the admissions committee. Let them bring up the idea of your applying to Harvard, which they are sure to do when they figure out how young you are, yet so wise for sharing their interest. Act surprised, flattered, even a little embarrassed. Let them sell you on applying to Harvard. Let them tell you what they look for in an applicant, then be that applicant. In due course they will become your advocate on the admissions committee. You only need one.
In conclusion, lie sincerely wherever it might do you some good, but don’t ever lie to yourself. Ask yourself why you want to go to Harvard. If it’s for the education, for rubbing shoulders and other body parts with eminent scholars, and for meeting and bedding the future leaders of your generation, don’t even bother to apply. Just go to Cambridge and rent a room in Harvard Square (expensive, yes, but cheaper than a dorm room in the Yard, which you can experience firsthand for nothing, by sleeping with freshmen). Bathe regularly, dress like a preppy, audit lectures, hang out at Widener, Hilles, and Lamont libraries, attend university functions and sporting events (which serious students usually don’t have time for). Call on professors during their office hours; after two or three friendly office visits, they will probably invite you home.
You don’t need to enroll to get all these real and valuable benefits. You just need to be there, and act like you belong. Make up a plausible autobiography and class affiliation (transfer student, Dunster House member living off campus), then stick to it as long as it works. Keep it simple! Have a fallback or two in case your story springs a leak and starts to sink. If it goes down in flames, there are always other universities, hundreds of them. And dozens of campus hangers-on just like you at every one of them.
But if what you want from Harvard is prestige, a diploma, your name in the alumni directory... well, that is going to cost you, both in money, and in creative effort. Get busy now.
The author matriculated at Harvard in September 1965, dropped out in February 1969, thereby missing the student strike that closed the school that spring. He now lives in Oregon where he used to interview Harvard applicants, most of whom were better qualified than he ever was, none of whom were admitted, and one of whom did follow his advice about going there anyway, without enrolling. He is the author of Knifemakers of Old San Francisco (Badger Books), Pocketknives, and Levine’s Guide to Knives and Their Values (both from real publishers), along with hundreds of articles in magazines you have never heard of -- but can learn about on his website www.knife-expert.com.
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