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Getting into Harvard: A Malaysian student shares how he did it

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Mohamed Aqil Azmi, will be living the dream of many when he starts his degree at Harvard come September. Source: Study International

Many students dream of getting into Harvard, but few get to experience the opportunities that come with attending what’s considered one of the world’s most elite universities.

Mohamed Aqil Azmi, however, will be living the dream of many when he walks through Harvard’s gates come September, lest COVID-19 restricts him from travelling to Cambridge, Massachusetts from his home country Malaysia.

Getting into Harvard is “one of the most surreal moments” of his life, he wrote in a tweet on May 20.


According to Harvard, 40,428 students applied for the Class of 2024; only 1,980 made the cut. Aqil and Zad Chin Qi Qi are the first Malaysians to be accepted since 2017. 

International students make up 10.8% of the class, making the duo “members of a very select group,” notes a press release by the Harvard Club of Malaysia.

Harvard-bound!

Aqil was midway through his A-Levels when he realised that an US education system would suit him better than a UK one.

“I have always wanted to study with the brightest people and learn under the best professors in the world, so Harvard was a natural choice,” he told Study International via an email interview.

Getting into Harvard

Aqil in Keswick, UK. The Malaysian said his teachers have been a major source of inspiration and always made him feel as if his opinions in the classroom were valuable. Source: Mohamed Aqil Azmi

Aqil had attended an academically-rigorous public secondary school where he had to take “a lot of extra religious subjects” on top of the usual SPM syllabus (SPM is a national exam taken by high school leavers in Malaysia).

After SPM, he pursued his A-Levels at Kolej Yayasan UEM under a scholarship; the debater and tennis player still found time to be active in extracurricular activities despite a hectic schedule. 

Applying to a prestigious institution such as Harvard is a big deal for many students. First-year application requirements include completing the Common Application, Coalition Application or Universal College Application.

“For the CommonApp essay, I wrote about my experience in learning Arabic and how mastering it changed me as a person. For the Harvard essay, I chose the prompt that wanted us to list books we’ve read in the past 12 months,” said the avid reader who will be majoring in Mathematics and Philosophy.

Aqil described his Harvard interview as “very chill,” adding that there were “barely any academic questions asked”. 

“Most of the questions were about your background, your passions [or] interests, [and] your hopes for the future. The interviewers would sometimes throw a curveball every now and then, but if you know exactly what you’re talking about, it would be easy to answer,” he explained.

Earning a spot at the dream school

Getting into Harvard

Wan Nadiah believes that international students should make full use of the opportunities presented at Harvard with all the resources available, especially to learn about America. Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

Harvard alumna Wan Nadiah Wan Mohd Abdullah Yaakob, 36, is an alumni interviewer for the Harvard College Admissions. She interviews  candidates shortlisted by the admissions officer; this includes all candidates applying from Malaysia, regardless if they are Malaysian citizens or not.

Currently, there are only two interviewers for Harvard College registered with the Admissions Office: Wan Nadiah and Nick Khaw. Typically, they conduct interviews together and meet with the students one-on-one for about an hour each. 

“After the interview, Nick and I will compile our thoughts and agree on key points and scores before filling in the Alumni Interview form online and submitting it back to the Admissions Office,” she explained.

Harvard aspirants should note that some of the traits or attributes that would make candidates stand out can be categorised into four areas: Personal Qualities; Extracurricular; Academic Excellence; and Community and Family.

Wan Nadiah said one’s character also plays a role in the admissions process.

“At Harvard, most of the learning happens outside the classroom, in discussions with various students and professors. Would this person contribute to a better conversation? Would this be a person we can chat over dinner and long into the night about different topics?” she said.

A student’s involvement in extracurricular activities and community service is also important; however, the interviewers recognise that the ability to participate in sports, extracurricular activities or even community service can be a privilege as it may require resources an applicant doesn’t have access to. 

As such, they look at family circumstances, whether they’re currently working to support themselves or their family, how they excelled in the activities they did or what they’ve done to overcome difficult circumstances.

While most students who apply to Harvard are at the top of their class, Wan Nadiah said they don’t ask nor see a student’s transcript.

“What we are trying to assess is a student’s love of learning and intellectual curiosity and originality. We try to delve further in their academic areas of interest and find out how they have pursued their interest and also how those interests reflect their commitment to learning or creating original ideas,” she said.

The best interviews are those that run long because the interviewers enjoy the conversations with candidates as intellectual and social peers. 

“There is not much that the student can do to prepare for these as we don’t have a set of questions to ask, but rather follow the flow of the conversation. However, it is always handy to think of what stories can I tell about myself?”

Her advice to incoming international students about making the most of their time at Harvard includes making full use of the opportunities and resources available, especially in learning about the country beyond what students read in the newspapers.

“As a country that dominates international affairs, it’s a good idea to use the opportunity of being in the US to really learn about their political systems, government, history and economy,” she said.

Wan Nadiah recalled an opportunity she had to visit Washington DC on a field trip organised by the Kennedy School of Government. 

“We visited the Department of State and heard from the horse’s mouth how policies are developed and decided. We heard from Supreme Court justices about how the legal system worked. I also took classes on American political history. It was an invaluable opportunity to learn up close what we often just read in newspapers,” she said.

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