Off Campus Class picks the brain of Mr. Abhijith Asok, who has recently been admitted to the MS program in Health Data Science at Harvard University’s prestigious T.H.Chan School of Public Health. An ardent data science enthusiast, Abhijith is currently the lead of Safecity’s data science initiatives, where the team explores the power of data as a tool to counter gender-based violence. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering and a Master of Science degree in Mathematics from BITS Pilani Goa Campus.
In this piece, Abhijith shares his experience and insights with respect to cracking into Harvard.
Sourya (S): Was Harvard a result of a long-term plan for you or had you decided merely months before having sent your application?
Abhijith (A): Studying at Harvard is always a dream, at least somewhere in the subconscious for most people. However, what I’ve noticed from my own experience and others’ is that not many people actually make an attempt simply because of the imbalance between the amount of work involved and the meagre probability of getting in. My timeline lay something like this, at the time of my application:
* Going for a Masters abroad was a long-term plan
* Going for an MS specifically was probably a 2.5-year old plan.
* Going for an MS in Data Science/Analytics/Business Analytics was probably a 1-year old plan.
I went through all the major courses offered in this field by the major universities and started off my applications in the September of 2016, for starting a program in Summer/Fall 2017. A month into the process, I realized that there was a very little representation of the Ivy League schools when it comes to masters degree offerings in data science and related programs. Columbia’s Data Science program and perhaps, Cornell’s Statistics program with a Data Science concentration were the only names I had heard of. So, I did a search myself and found out that Harvard is launching its university-wide cross-disciplinary Data Science Initiative grandly in 2017 and stumbled upon the MS degree in Health Data Science at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, which was one of 3 degree offerings from Harvard, and one of the 2 that would begin in 2017 – the other being the Masters in Biomedical Informatics at the Harvard Medical School.
I thought a lot about whether to make an application, wherein on one side, I had the confidence that I have a good story to tell, for which this program might be apt, and on the other, I had the apprehension regarding the added cost of applications, all the additional effort and a very slight chance of actually making it through – particularly since this is the inaugural batch of the program. I had heard that inaugural batch admission standards are usually a notch higher than the following batches since they look to position the program high up the ladder using the first batch’s admission criteria. But then most people do these applications only once in life and I would rather live with “I tried and didn’t get in”, rather than with “I may have had a shot if I had actually given one”, which is why I decided to go ahead with it.
(S): Paint us a word picture about the general Harvard application process.
(A): It’s hard to generalize like that, since I assume it varies within Harvard itself, by course and school. The process for this program was done through the application management system called ‘SOPHAS’, which is a system that is common for many public health schools and programs. The application asked for pretty much all that you would expect in a regular application: Personal details, undergraduate and graduate(if any) scores, GPA, test scores(GRE General and TOEFL are mandatory for Indian applicants), resume(a one-page resume is always the best – crisp, precise clear. You would be surprised at how much you can actually fit into one page. Unless you have 4 or more years of experience, I believe that one page would be more than enough, unless you’re asked for a detailed CV in particular), minimum 3 and maximum 5 letters of recommendation, personal statement, details of work experience(if any), research background(if any) and many more.
In addition, this particular program asked for a WES evaluation of undergraduate transcripts from universities outside US/Canada. This particular component will cost you at least $200 or so and even after that, I thought this would be a deal-breaker since I believe WES wasn’t fair in converting my GPA on 10, for a dual degree from BITS Pilani Goa Campus, on a scale of 4. I wrote to WES explaining point-wise, as to why I thought it wasn’t a fair conversion, but they refused to change their stance. As a last try, I emailed the admissions coordinator at Harvard, explaining the same, and they said that the best they can do is attach this explanation of mine to my application. To give you an idea, my GPA on 10 was 7.65 and WES converted that to 2.84 on 4. That was the point where I thought that was it for the Harvard dream, as according to our general understanding, such a GPA would not even be anywhere near Harvard’s consideration. But, being the Mecca of education that it is, Harvard evidently looked beyond a number.
(S): What do you feel were the best aspects of your CV which helped you stand out?
(A): Firstly, let me point out something that may not necessarily help you stand out – test scores. They are sort of like a negative threshold, in the sense that, scoring below an unwritten threshold can make it very difficult for you to secure an admit, but scoring very much above that threshold need not necessarily help your chances of admitting as much as you would think.
I feel that one of the projects I was part of, during my work at ZS Associates as a Business Analyst was prime in helping me stand out. My regular work at ZS wasn’t really helpful for the process, but this project was something I went ahead, asked and took up on my own. So, I guess knocking on doors that you aren’t otherwise expected to knock on is something that will definitely help you stand out since you never know how something can help you later.
The project was a prediction project in the healthcare space, on quite a big dataset and as I understand, very much aligned with the kind of expertise the program looks to nurture and develop. One of my recommenders was the lead of this project, so his substantiation of my explanation of the project definitely helped. Apart from that, I believe I could demonstrate a steady passion for data science, through the many initiatives and projects I was part of in the space. I definitely think my experience with Safecity, where I lead the data team in data-based initiatives as a counter to gender-based violence, helped in portraying myself away from the crowd, through initiatives that linked health conditions with violence. I had worked on my own research idea in data transformations, which is now a paper on IEEEXplore and I believe that the independence in research while giving way to many flaws, stood out as a highlight when it came to the Admissions Committee. Apart from all this, a vision on how I would use the knowledge I gain was very significant, and I believe that my demonstration of the same, down to specific plans, packaged the profile well.
I believe it always helps to look at one’s profile as a story, away from the traditional bullet point and yes/no structure. That’s what they want to see too, a flow from one to another rather than a list of what you have. I believe the biggest indirect highlight of my profile is that I have touched base upon the corporate, social and research aspects of data science.
(S): What kind of activities helps boost the profile of your CV? Is there any clear cut straightjacket formula?
(A): There is definitely no straightjacket formula to this. The best thing would be to ask oneself whether what one is doing at the moment is adding value to who they are and how they can be portrayed. If yes, how, and if not, how not? What is it that is lacking if any, and how can that be achieved? Such questioning can go a great deal towards helping to figure out how they can stand out from the crowd.
Relevance to what you are applying for is very important. You can be a rockstar singer with a lot of accolades to your name, but if you are applying for say, Computer Science, it won’t do much more than convincing them that you have a drive for success/ambition and that your extracurriculars are strong. In short, success in one field won’t be translated in all its might to success in another, by the admissions committee. This is not to say that relevant experience is mandatory. It is not. But it definitely helps a lot and in the scenario that you don’t have it, make sure you have something else that will balance it well enough. A lot lies in how you portray yourself in your application, in your story.
A worthy involvement in a non-profit is generally considered as a good way to boost your profile. If the field of work is relevant to what you are applying for, even better. But, working for a non-profit just so that you have a non-profit to show in your profile is not a healthy approach and is likely to backfire later as the admissions committee does have a good eye to distinguish genuine efforts from others. So, if a particular cause and/or organization hasn’t spoken to you mentally yet, do your own research and find something you are passionate about and then think how you can be of use to it in the best way.
I’ve heard that some experience with the government is helpful to set yourself apart, although I don’t have any information on how true this is. But if you have created some kind of social impact in the past, that certainly helps.
(S): How did you go about writing your Personal Statement? How important is a good Personal Statement to the Application?
(A): I think the personal statement is perhaps the single most important part of your application, or one of the two most important parts of your application – the other being the letters of recommendation. Many universities mention a specific word limit for the SoPs and essays. While it is usually said going beyond the word limit by around 10 words or so, is acceptable, I would say that it is always advisable to stick to the limit as you never know how an admissions committee member might view an overflow. One can never predict how exactly they view something, so it is best to not give them any reason to view any part of the application negatively, as much as possible. The word limit for the personal statement of this program was 600 words, where I was asked to talk about my academic and/or professional preparation for a career in healthcare, focused interest in the degree/department and career plans upon completion of study and a note on my strengths and weaknesses in my background and my ability to carry out professional responsibilities.
I’ll stress on a previous point about weaving everything into a story. A generic style of personal statements usually follows an “I have <achievement>, I’ve done <achievement>, I’ve also been part of <achievement>….” style, which while putting in all the points you want to convey, fails to make an impression and help you stand out, even if your points have enough substance to make you stand out. Rather, a story-based format of how each experience of yours led you into the next and helped you do better is something that becomes sort of motivational, even when it wasn’t intended to be so. Extrapolating this into the future, into your career plans after the program, makes an even greater impression, since it tells the admissions committee exactly why you have applied to this specific program, and exactly what you plan to do with it afterward. It need not always talk about creating social impact in some way or the other. As long as you have a vision for yourself that indirectly might create an impact, that works just as well.
Another point to definitely talk about is the personal touch in your personal statement. It’s very difficult to actually say what this is and how it comes about, but all I can say now is that it is very important in creating that sense of positivity in the mind of the admissions committee member. For this reason, I always advise writing your SoP yourself and not having a friend, or educational consultancy write it for you. It’s the case of a personal statement V/S just a “statement” and the former always trumps the latter, since you know the most about yourself and how you view the things you’ve done, much more than anyone else. Once you write a draft, ask your friends/seniors/people you trust to read it and give you suggestions for the same and prepare multiple drafts, each building on the previous one to finalize a good SoP in the end. This way, you take input from people around you, without losing that personal touch in your SoP.
[To Learn About The Difference Between Cover Letter & SoP Click HERE]
I’ll advise the exact opposite of the same when it comes to letters of recommendation. It’s always the best thing when your recommenders write the letter themselves since that gets you a letter with a personal touch (and that matters), but it is a general trend in India where the recommenders ask the applicant to prepare a draft of the letter or the final letter itself, which they would then just upload. In the event that you, as an applicant, have no other choice but to do this, I’d advise not write the letter yourself. Instead, talk to a friend you trust, give them the points and get the letter written, to have it in an external perspective.
(S): What tips would you like to share with people who may be applying to Harvard next year?
(A): The primary tip would be not to underestimate yourself. University admissions of interest, outside India, are hardly objective. What might actually work in your favor, even for the biggest names out there, might be some point in the corner, which you yourself thought was irrelevant. You do this only once in life, so give it your best shot and let the rest come through as it would.
The next point would be to do everything yourself. To this date, I haven’t really found an educational consultancy that’s worth what you spend. In fact, I’ve seen many that are predatory in nature. The university recommendations that many consultancies provide are hardly a match for your profile. They provide the safest ever options as moderate and ambitious for you, as they can then vouch that they got yet another applicant into a masters program. This can seriously leave out a lot of unused potential in your profile that can get you much better admits if used properly. I’ve also heard stories of how some consultancies have tie-ups with some universities, by which they recommend those universities to most applicants that come to them, irrespective of their profile.
The bigger statement is not that there is no good consultancy, but that there is not really any need for help from a consultancy. The application process is no rocket science and you can definitely figure it out yourself and is best done so, in my opinion. To give you a perspective, I don’t think any consultancy would have suggested this Harvard program to me. I got to know about it only because I did my own research and strongly believe that a big factor that led to a positive decision was that I did everything on my own. You could always use the facebook and Whatsapp groups with other fellow applicants for discussions and gain more information. I got a lot of help that way. In the case that you feel you really badly need a consultancy’s help, do so. I won’t go to the extent to generalize and say “All consultancies are bad”, but if you are going to one, make sure that you do enough research on it, talk to people who have used the consultancies before, get their profiles and their recommended universities and see if they make sense etc. Most universities have average class profiles of their previous batches in the appropriate program page, so that should help you get an idea of what kind of people got in before.
Lastly, I’ll stress the importance of SoP and LoRs again. Do not forget to quote a couple of your weaknesses or places you need to improve on. All universities, including Harvard, understand that no one is perfect. It is as important to know your weaknesses as it is to know your strengths. The SoP should have a couple of your weaknesses as well. That being said, don’t leave your weaknesses as is. Weave them into a positive in the end, maybe as another window, it opened for you or giving you the motivation to look forward further – as it happened in your specific case. Also, choose your recommenders wisely. Make sure you choose people who can speak about you more than “someone in my class” and “someone in my team”. The credentials of your recommender matters, but in my opinion, the amount of personal interactions they can write about and talk about you specifically, different from what they can talk about everyone else, matters more. Most universities demand at least one recommender from university, for such courses, so if you are reading this and currently in college, make sure you have done some good work and maintain good relations with at least one professor.
You may reach out to me on firstname.lastname@example.org in case you have further queries. Please be as specific as possible with the questions. All the best!