Yocket Team interviewed Abhijith Asok who got into Harvard for data science programme. Here's an excerpt,
Q. Did you expect that you would get through Harvard?
A. Much like most of us, not at all. I made an application because I was going to make these applications only once in life and it felt much easier to live with “I tried and didn’t get in” than “I may have had a shot if I had actually given one” in future. My academic credentials weren’t the cream in any way and applying to the Mecca of education and the Medina of Public Health was definitely an extremely long shot. Evidently, they made their decision based on the holistic profile – a point all of us have heard many times over, but find it hard to digest in general. I hold my experience out as a flashlight to assert that one should never be scared to take a step. If you lose, it’s just an application, but if you win, it’s gold.
Q. What is your profile?
A. My profile is briefly as follows:
Q. Which all universities did you apply for?
A. I made applications to a lot of universities because of the same reason that I said earlier. I do this only once and I wanted to explore all available options and get the best out of them. At the time of writing this, I had the following admits apart from Harvard University:
Q. Why this course?
A. Being a Data Science enthusiast, I wanted the program I choose to have a very good focus on the scientific side of things, with a secondary focus on the technical side and desired less of business aspects in the curriculum. The Harvard program has a much neater focus like this, more than my other options. Although the degree is specialized for healthcare, it felt nicely packaged with fundamental data science skills to enable diversification if need be. In addition, this is the first year of the launch of Harvard’s Data Science Initiative, and for the same reason I hope the program to be more flexible and receptive to suggestions (Harvard admissions themselves have been the most polite and nicest people I’ve interacted with from any university, so far). Lastly, there is always the brand of Harvard and the Chan School of Public Health that tells you not to worry about opportunities and open doors in future. I have been to the Harvard campus before, for an HPAIR conference and it felt nothing short of heavenly.
Q. How long ago did you start your preparations?
A. At the time of my applications,
The first time I got to know about data science and what it was, was in July 2014, when I started my internship with Mu Sigma in Bangalore. Everything in my profile except my academic degrees, experience at LSE and the HPAIR conferences was built up between then and now.
Q. Run us through your journey from taking the GRE to receiving an admit.
A. I decided to start my graduate studies in Summer/Fall 2017, back in November of 2015. I planned to give my GRE and TOEFL in July 2016 so that it would give me a good 2-3 months to re-take if I score poorly. However, I was doing a full-time job, working with a non-profit, looking into presenting my paper etc that time and spending 2 months or so to prepare for GRE would mean stopping a good number of those and concentrating largely on test prep. The idea did not sit well with me, since I felt that when you give up something you like for something else that you need to do, it doesn’t really create the best self-lesson for the future. So I decided to spread out my prep more, along with everything that I had been doing. I started my prep in February 2016 and gave GRE on July 17 and TOEFL a week later, on July 23. After my scores came, I seriously started making a list of universities and programs to apply to and started writing my SoP, contacting my recommenders etc. Once I had a list of 5-6 programs in late September, I started applying and built the list alongside. Harvard required a WES evaluation of my score. I applied for it, but I personally found the WES evaluation of my transcript to be unfair. I wrote to WES explaining why I think it is unfair but they refused to change their stance. Following that, I wrote to Harvard explaining the same and they agreed to add the explanation to my application. If I remember right, I submitted my application sometime around November 15, 2016. I forgot about it afterwards, since I wasn’t expecting a positive decision at all. But, finally, the admit came around on March 3, 2017.
Q. What advice would you give your juniors?
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 gaining 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. 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.
Q. Do you know anyone else who has got an admit?
A. As I understand now, the batch size would be just around 30. I’ve met 3 of my classmates so far. One is a Canadian who did his undergrad from McGill University and spent 4-5 years in pharmaceutical consulting. Another is an American who did his undergrad at University of Michigan and spent 4-5 years across both software and marketing. The third is Chinese and she holds a PhD in Neurobiology from Purdue University.
Abhijith Asok can be reached through his yocket profile https://yocket.in/profiles/Infernodox
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