How I got into TWO Harvard Ph.D Programs (Application Review)

August 29, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Hey everyone and welcome to my channel. So I am absolutely shocked. I’ve received a lot of requests to go over
my PhD application that I would have now turned in… two years ago. So for those of you who are new, I’m a Ph.D
student in Biology at Harvard University through the Biological and Biomedical Sciences PhD
program – also known as BBS. And I applied to grad school 2 years ago,
so I really haven’t thought about my application since then. But you asked, and I listen, so I’m going
to bring it up from the dead and talk to you about my application. So I applied to eight programs? seven programs? I’ll just count. The two Harvard programs, UC Merced, UC Irvine,
Stanford, MIT, and UCLA. And as you can tell from that list, I really
wanted to stay in California, so the ways things turned out was quite a shock but I
had lived in Boston before and I decided that was a place I would have loved to go to graduate
school outside of California so I decided to apply. So I don’t want to waste any of your time. I just want to remind you all that every application
is very different and every application has strengths and weaknesses. So I’m going to be talking about certain parts
of my application and you’ll be able to tell which parts were stronger than others, but
just because your application doesn’t look like that doesn’t mean you’re not going to
get in. Like really, calm down. Let’s breathe together. Take a deep breath in… and deep breath out. Okay. So to start off with the basics, every PhD
application asks their prospective students a few things. First, there’s the basic data – what school
did you go to and all of that. They ask you about your research experience
which is the most important part of the application because you’re applying to a research degree. They ask you about publications, whether you
presented at conferences, things like that. They’ll ask you if you won any awards, honors,
and whether you held any jobs or had any volunteer experience. They will also ask you for, at the very least,
a statement of purpose. It’s different than a personal statement. A personal statement is about you, and a statement
of purpose is about your research. It’s called the statement of purpose because
it’s asking “what is your purpose in applying to this program?” But it’s basically you talking about why you’re
qualified. So throughout this video I’m going to be covering
what my stats were and what my general theme was for my application. So let’s get started. So I graduated in 2017 from “Pitcher” “Pitr”
Ahhh Pitzer College. I got a Bachelor of arts because it’s a liberal
arts school, so that school doesn’t in particular have the option for a Bachelor of Science. But I did take a bunch of science courses
while I was there. But very well balanced with the liberal arts
curriculum. I majored in Biology and got honors which
I was so excited about, and I also got a minor in chemistry. Most schools don’t care about your minors
– like really – I just loved chemistry so. So in terms of GPA… I may have mentioned before that I didn’t
do super well in high school, so I really went hard in college to make sure that I learned
as much as possible. And that’s the mindset I went in with. I just want to learn. So thankfully all of that studying did pay
off for me, and at the time of my application, I had a 3.91 GPA in my biology major and a
3.93 GPA overall. It was physics that brought the GPA down. Something to keep in mind is that GPA is factoring
in other classes that I took from other universities. So the summer right after my first year, I
took both semesters of biology at Boston University. Full year in one summer. Please don’t do that to yourself -I don’t
recommend it. And I also studied abroad my sophomore year,
but my GPA doesn’t include those classes. So in terms of the GRE. I took the GRE the October before my application
was due, so that same season. And I got 92nd percentile in the verbal, 82nd
percentile in the math, and 98th percentile in the writing section. I was absolutely shocked when I got my math
score because I was pretty sure I bombed it.. and I have bombed math in the past. Like with the SAT, I don’t even think I scored
above 20th percentile when I took the math. So it was proof that I had grown. So yeah those are my basic statistics. Now onto research experience, which is WAY
more important. So this was actually interestingly one of
the weaker parts of my application. I had a combined total of four and a half
months of research experience at the time I applied. The reason I don’t think this actually negatively
affected me too much is because I had a reason for that. At my school you don’t get paid to do research
and as a student who REALLY needed to hold a job during college, I did other things which
I will talk about later. But it was pretty much impossible to do research
and take my classes AND work jobs so I mentioned that in my application. So four and a half months of combined research
experience. I had two summers of research. The first summer was the summer right between
my sophomore and junior years and I did research at UC Merced. That was a metabolism project and I really
enjoyed the work and it was the first time I was ever exposed to research, so obviously
it kept me going. So then the next summer I did research here
at Harvard. I spent thirteen weeks there and actually
wrote my thesis on the work that I did there. I absolutely loved it. And that’s about it. Yeah. Not that much experience. Most applicants have more experience than
I do, even if they’re coming straight out of undergrad like I did. Usually they will have been in a lab like
throughout their college experience. A lot of people also took two years off at
least to be a technician in the lab or work on projects before they came into graduate
school. That being said, I really missed doing lab
work while I was taking all of my classes and working and such, and I loved talking
about my work, so I went out of my way to go to conferences. And that actually transitions us into the
next part which is essentially like science communication. Publications, conferences, talks, etc. So I think this was actually one of the most
important parts of my application. I gave several talks at conferences because
I really missed just talking about my research. If I remember correctly, I gave two presentations
at SACNAS, one for my first research opportunity and one for my second, and for my first research
opportunity I also gave two presentations at the Experimental Biology Conference. In addition to that, I was so lucky to actually
go to a meeting that NSF put together related to my first fellowship. They invited me to talk about my perspective
on how to diversify science and make it more accessible for students since I had had a
lot of experience with coming from a background that didn’t really prepare me well for science. And then I guess, succeeding by their standards. So I did have one publication but it wasn’t
really significant. It wasn’t like in a big tier journal or anything. And I was second to last author, which means
I contributed the least on the manuscript. But it was still cool to have one! And then I think what REALLY tipped the scales
in my favor for the application. I love talking especially in person about
science like honestly, once you get me started on talking, I like won’t stop so beware. And I think that people at the conferences
were able to sense my enthusiasm for things and how enthusiastic I was — not just about
my science, but about science culture as a whole and how I wanted to make it more accessible. So for every presentation that I presented
(except for my last SACNAS conference), I actually won presentation awards. I won a presentation award for my first SACNAS
presentation both my Experimental Biology presentations, one of which was specific to
comparative physiology and I got first place for that (which I’m very grateful for). So in addition to that, I won travel awards
to go to the SACNAS conference, and in addition to THAT I won the Goldwater Scholarship which
is seen as one of the most prestigious scholarships in STEM for undergraduates. The cool thing is I won that after a year
of doing lab work, so… did not expect that. But anyway. I think it helped tip the scales in my favor. Also, they’ll ask if you applied for fellowships,
and I did. I applied for NSF and Ford. And even though by the time your application
is in and you hear back they won’t know if you got it or not, I think they really appreciate
that you applied for it because it means they’ll have more money to fund more people. So I think that was really the strong part
of my application that distinguished me. I also think the theme of my application was
not ONLY science and spreading science and making it accessible, but was also how I am
able to interact with community. My overall goal is to be a professor so I
demonstrated my ability to work with different kinds of students. So now the jobs that I worked that I tried
to demonstrate that with. First of all, I was an RA for 1.5 years of
my college experience. First semester sophomore year, then I went
abroad, and then all of junior year. And during that I worked in an upperclassmen
hall so I was helping students through a lot of stress, especially spring semester after
grades would come out and then when people were worried about graduation and stuff. In addition to that, I was a TA for Cell Bio
for one semester and I tutored a bunch of different biology subjects, like organic chemistry,
genetics, and biostatistics. And finally, when I was a senior (so just
as I was applying), I had already accepted a commitment for a year at the Writing Center. So I was working at the writing center where
I was helping people with their essays, especially in science, or lab reports, as well as fellowships. I was a Fulbright Consultant which meant that
I worked with the Fulbright applicants to try and help them win the fellowship. Also, I volunteered with the college chapter
of SACNAS. It wasn’t super active, but my role in it
was to try and get as many people as possible to the conference, cause it was the SACNAS
conference that first really opened my eyes to what research was like and made me even
consider it. Alright, now to the big guns. I think the statement of purpose is one of
the most important parts of the application because you can be this accomplished person
but why are you applying to THIS school in particular? And why are you applying for a PhD now? Something that was really important to me
was to talk about my story from a research context. So I think I had a lot of interesting things
to share on a personal note, but this essay is not the place for it. It’s all about WHAT led you to where you are
today and why are you applying here NOW. So I did talk about when I was a child, and
how I grew up watching my grandmother develop type II diabetes and how I was really confused
because I knew that diabetes ran in my family but when I was five I didn’t really have a
strong understanding of the fact that DNA could influence things. Like I knew DNA was heritable (thank you Jurassic
Park) but I didn’t know you could get diseases from misregulation and all of that. So I talked about how I was confused because
I thought it was a blood sugar disorder but my mom would tell me that it is actually very
prevalent in the Mexican and Mexican-American community. And how I became very inspired by that and
to actually understand how genetics can lead to an entire metabolic disorder that is very
deadly and known as a silent killer. And then from there I transitioned and talked
about my first research experience where I working with Northern Elephant Seal pups and
studying their metabolism. Then I talked about what I actually learned
from the experience being in the lab — separate from my research. And how I learned about how important hypothesis-driven
research is. Then next I did the same thing as I did with
the first research experience but I did it with my second. So first I talked about what I actually worked
on and show that I know how to talk about my science, and then talked about what I learned
from it. Then I reserved a paragraph to talk about
where I wanted to go next and why it was very important for me. And what it was about Harvard specifically
or whatever school I was applying to, SPECIFICALLY that I liked. And that’s another thing. Apply to schools you actually like. There’s no point in applying to 20 bajillion
schools, especially because each application is very individualized. For every school I applied to, I knew I would
enjoy my time there. So I talked about what it was that I liked
about it and what I liked about that program specifically, not just the school in the area. Finally, I just tied it off talking about
my goals, wanting to be a professor and to diversify science and make it more accessible
to different communities. And yeah. That was it. I mean I think the hard part about applying
to PhD programs is that you don’t have a common app so it’s not like college or even med school
where you just write the same essay and then they’ll ask you for individualized essays
letter. No, you just have to fill out your name, and
address, and phone number over and over and over again. So yeah. And pretty much the last thing about the applications
are obviously the letters of recommendation. I never saw mine so I can’t say much about
the strength of them. So the end results. I didn’t get interviews to MIT and UCLA.That’s
not something to take personally. It’s okay. It doesn’t mean your application was bad,
just that they didn’t think you were a good fit for the program for whatever reason. Either research or your goals (like they wouldn’t
be able to meet your needs), things like that. Then I got interviews to both Harvard programs,
Stanford, UC Irvine, and UC Merced. And I got into all of them! I did six interviews in seven weeks. And that off week I had to take a midterm
so that was… complicated. But it was really fun. It’s actually interesting because before interviews
I thought that Stanford was going to be my top school because I really liked the northern/central
area cause I’d been there before. And it was in California, which I know I love. I’d be able to bring my car, etc. And actually interesting enough, the Boston
schools were like my “last choice” schools. Not that they sucked cause they didn’t. But like moving to Boston as a Californian…
like you really have to sell me on that. And the way things ended up, my program, Harvard
BBS, really sold me on it. I knew I was going to fit right in. Thank you all for watching. I’ve never done a video talking about myself
as much. So I hope any of you found it helpful. And if you did find it helpful, like the video,
subscribe if you’re not a subscriber, and share cause who knows other people will find
it helpful as well. So yeah, as usual, also, if there’s anything
you want me to cover, just leave it in the comments section below. This video was a result of people’s requests
so I am always happy to take a look and get new topics to work on. HAPPY APPLICATION SEASON!