My Harvard Application Experience (Aqil Azmi)

Hello! My name is Aqil Azmi and I’m a freshman at Harvard College. I’m planning to pursue a joint concentration in Mathematics and Philosophy. I’ll be sharing the journey I went through while applying to Harvard.

To start off, let’s get the basic requirements out of the way. They sometimes change it from year-to-year, so you always have to check at the official Harvard website. But generally, what you need is at least one year of study post-SPM (A-Levels, IB, STPM etc), the SAT exams, the SAT Subject Tests, and two teacher recommendation letters (plus one recommendation letter from your school counsellor). I know for a fact that as of now, both of the SAT exams are not compulsory for the class of 2025, but it’s always good to check the website in detail.

Let me talk a bit about academics. All of your examination results will be scrutinised from your Form 3 exams until whenever you’re studying. Yes, that means it’s from your PT3 Trials exams all the way to where you are now, and it really is every exam (SPM Trials and SPM are included). You will need an official slip for it all in English, so I would recommend you going back to your secondary school early to request for a translated copy of all your results with verification from the school. If you’re reading this and you’re planning to apply to Harvard, it’s extremely important that you don’t flunk any exams at all. I took A-Levels and usually it’s only the final AS and A2 exams that mattered for UK universities, but it’s different for US colleges—every single internal exam matters.

Okay, here’s the thing about SATs. Lots of people think that you need a perfect score, but clearly you don’t. It might help but I don’t think it helps much. I’m pretty sure that you just need to reach a certain minimum score that they set (which is unknown) and any score differences beyond that doesn’t really matter. But I’m not an expert so don’t take my word for it. Anyway, anything above 1500 is probably fine.

Application-wise, you can apply through the Common Application (CommonApp—which was what I used), the Universal College Application and the Coalition Application. I can’t speak about the others, but when I applied through CommonApp, I needed to have one general essay that I used for all my college applications, and a supplement essay that was specifically for Harvard. While applying, there’ll be some prompts which require around 150 words of response (either a short paragraph or a list).

For the general essay, there are many prompts that you can choose. I chose the one about overcoming hardship/difficulty and what I learnt from it. Generally, this essay is truly where you as a person should come to life. The admissions officer reading this should be able to imagine you as a real-life person with passions, values, and goals just by reading your essay—so make it personal. The golden rule is, “show, don’t tell”. Have a captivating narrative that showcases who you are. For my essay, I told a story about my experience in learning Arabic and how difficult it was during school. In the end, learning Arabic opened up a new dimension of learning I never realised existed before which changed how I viewed knowledge as a whole. I made an observation on the depth and intricacy in learning Arabic and found that it was similar to learning mathematics. The essay was quite philosophical which is one way to go about it if you don’t know how to write an essay that focuses around feelings like me.

From my essay, you can already see what I was trying to show. Firstly, my passions: in Arabic, the Islamic sciences, philosophy and mathematics. Secondly, my values: curiosity, perseverance, intellectual development, etc. Thirdly, an interesting narrative with ups and downs in the story: I failed some exams when I was in school, got better, but still wasn’t satisfied so I got even better. Fourthly, my goals: that I can continue learning things in larger depth and breadth in college, that I can share my values with people I meet, etc.

Officially, they say on their website that an interview isn’t required for admissions but I’m pretty sure that every single international student who got in was interviewed. That happens about a month after you submit your application. The interview itself is super chill. Honestly, don’t sweat it. My interviewers were two Harvard alums who invited me to have coffee at a coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur. There’s no way to “prepare” for the questions that they ask because it’s like having a conversation with someone. There’s no structure to it at all—they’ll ask you about almost everything they find interesting about your background, your interests, extracurriculars, your goals at Harvard, your future goals, your past experiences, etc. To give you an idea of the depth of the questions, I was asked what my favourite A-Level subject was, to which I answered Further Mathematics. I was then asked which specific topics I enjoyed and why, and we ended up discussing a bit about Proof by Induction. The next minute, when they asked about my interests, I told them I read philosophy books in my spare time, and we had a long conversation about specific books I’ve read and how it shaped my life.

All in all, you definitely cannot anticipate the questions during the interview, because it’s not mechanical like your normal sort of interview. Thankfully, I didn’t do any preparations for it. What I found incredibly useful to get an idea of what Harvard is looking for is the opening essay in the Interviewers’ Handbook. You can just Google this. It tells you about the type of students they are looking for, and you should mold yourself into it.

I don’t think I can pinpoint exactly what made my application successful but one thing I noticed is that everyone at Harvard is incredibly unique. You have to look past the academic excellence and extracurricular achievements and you’ll see that each one of them has something that they’re devoted to which shaped them into who they are. As for myself, I think my background was kind of unique because I went to a religious school and was personally tutored rigorously in the traditional Islamic sciences, which instilled a lot of the values that make me the kind of person I am today.

Therefore, the advice I have for aspiring Harvard applicants is to remember to go beyond your classroom studies, beyond your school-sanctioned extracurriculars, and beyond cliched activities. Be curious about everything, and chase down strange projects!

If you have any questions, please feel free to DM me on Twitter on Instagram at @aqilazme

Aqil Azmi is a freshman at Harvard College, Class of 2024, Joint concentrator in Mathematics and Philosophy. He can be contacted via Twitter and Instagram @aqilazme


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