How They Got into Harvard and Eight Key Strategies for Getting into the College of Your Choice

By Sam Rosensohn

Leave it to the stellar staff of my favorite college newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, to put together a book that offers high school students eight key strategies for getting into the college of their choice.

“We have often wished that we knew then what we know now,” wrote the staff that divulged what it perceives to be “the most successful proven admissions tactics in the game” in a book entitled, How They Got into Harvard.

What I particularly like about this $12.95 manual is that it offers high-priced information that some parents spend over $20,000 to acquire from expensive college consultants in New York City and Boston.

This paperback is a wealthy distillery of secrets that Harvard students used to gain admission to college; a chronicle of how 50 students employed some of these eight strategies:

Strategy I: Flaunt Your Talent and Get Recruited. This is no time to be bashful, say those who made it. Be proud of your skills and accomplishments and display them prominently throughout the admission process.

This chapter is about focusing on your strengths and letting admissions know how your success in a particular field carried over to other aspects of your life.

Strategy II: Be Passionate. “Passion,” they write, “pulls at the heartstrings of admissions officers. Put your heart and soul into your application and show how your sincerity and passion resonate in everything about you and with everyone you meet.”

While this too may seem over the top to those who don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves and abhor boasting, the book helps students to steer away from the notion that the college application is based on self-restraint and bounding modesty.

The book offers suggestions on how students can emphasize their passion in their essays and interviews. It also suggests having a recommendation from someone who has witnessed the passion in action.

Strategy III: Find the Perfect Balance. If you haven’t published your second novel, won an Intel science prize, or excelled in a particular area, not to sweat it. Many successful applicants to Harvard didn’t and they demonstrated balance: excellent student, excellent outside the class.

The book notes that admissions recognizes that the balanced applicant (the ones who have yet to be recognized nationally) will be the backbone of a Harvard class. This just makes sense – schools need to balance their incoming class with leaders and those who can join the existing clubs and activities on campus.

Strategy IV: Lead the Pack. Academic excellence isn’t the only thing, as if you needed a book to tell you that. “Colleges seek out leaders, applicants who have a record of peer leadership and civic engagement. Leadership really counts and it’s not just for your resume,” the staff writes.

Leadership has many different faces. Many students lead activities that don’t come under the traditional headings. James Sietstra worked for a “Get Out the Vote” campaign, and Amelia Kimball was a peer educator. This chapter has a series of questions to help students portray themselves as leaders. It also suggests getting a recommendation from someone who has helped you hone your leadership skills.

Strategy V: Beat the Odds. Let admissions know what you had to overcome or how hard you had to work to become the person you are. Show admissions how you went the extra mile to beat the odds.

The key to the success strategy of beating the odds, according to the book, is to show admissions how no barrier was bigger than you. Meeting challenges, rising to the occasion, and showing how you worked with what you had lets admissions see just how far you’ve come.

Be yourself. Illustrate who you are in relation to what you’ve done. And don’t try to conform to expectations – it won’t get you anywhere. Let your unique experience shine. If you’ve had a fascinating, unconventional, or unique experience growing up, talk about it.

Strategy VI: Write the Standout Essay. The personal essay is your chance to distinguish yourself. A few tips: There is no template for writing a successful essay. Nearly any subject can work. Successful essays convey something about an applicant’s personality and his view of life.

Communicate something about yourself that didn’t appear on your resume, something that will allow you to make a unique contribution at college, or something that will let admissions get a sense of the way you go about life and where you might want to go next.

Take a look at this book and you’ll see lots of helpful examples, some of which will help you to get out of the traditional essay box. One student wrote an attack on the College Board and AP tests as monopolistic and superficial. The newspaper staff has published another book entitled, 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays.

Strategy VII: Make and Use Connections. Find your six degrees of separation. A trip to the school is a minimum, since it will help to ensure that those reading your application will remember you. Try to forge a connection with an admissions officer. Look to see if you can have an alumni interview. Use anyone you can with clout.

Strategy VIII:  Make Yourself Heard and Campaign to Win. This chapter addresses how students can demonstrate commitment to a school, persistence, courage and forthrightness. Most people don’t have someone on the inside opening doors for them; the chapter tells you how to open doors when you know no one at a particular school.

It’s a great little book and you can read it an afternoon.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at