How to get into Harvard

3 minute read

Here are my notes for students who ask me for advice on getting into good universities. I attached them here, but please note that there are many ways to get into a good university, my journey might not be the best journey for you (for example, I did not do too much sports, but sports can be very helpful for univeristy applications). Frankly, I am not the best person to answer this question, since I only got 2 offers out of my 6 US applications. With that in mind, here are my notes.

Asking for advice and guidance is a clear hallmark of your motivation to succeed, and it is a good characteristic found in many successful people. For your question on how to get into Harvard, I used the following principles

  1. Be nice, to you teachers, friends, and family — so they can support you in achieving your goals
  2. Get good grades — so people know that you are ready for challenging courses in university
  3. Do something you are passionate about — so you will have your own exciting story to tell

I followed the principles above from the MIT admission office (read more here).

I would recommend applying to all scholarships in Malaysia (check out BASE a list). I studied A-Levels, but plenty of people went to good universities after completing their STPM: whichever program you choose after SPM is fine. If you have the chance, choose the more challenging program as it will prepare you better for university.

When you apply for universities, know that some of them offer very generous financial aid. For example, if you get into Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Amherst or Yale, you can get full financial aid, including additional stipend for personal expenses so that you will not need to spend any money during your education there. In short, focus on getting in, they will help you on the money matters.

During SMK times, I find this book (PDF available for free here) highly inspiring. It tells the different stories of 101 Malaysians after SPM. I used to read one story every morning before I go to school.

I would also recommend joining the Olympiads (more details at Start with the national selections, which are usually free or low-cost and coordinated with the Ministry of Education (a few has a participation fee of about RM30, but full financial aid is available if you reach out to the organizers). Aim to do well in them: they are well-recognised internationally, and is very fair to all participants, since it all comes down to your curiosity and perseverance in learning things outside of school. If you do well, then they will sponsor you to participate in the international Olympiads. Pick an Olympiad that you are interested in and prepare well for it. All five Malaysians at MIT right now did Olympiads during SMK or A-level times. However, I know plenty of people getting into good colleges without Olympiads: this is just one way, not the only way. It all goes back to “doing something you are passionate about” in the three principles above.

I hope that you can be an inspiration to your friends and classmates. Feel free to pass along this information to anyone that you think will be helpful, including your teachers or parents that will help you in your journey.

For SPM students, focus on getting a good scholarship or securing a place to do your pre-university program first (which means it is important to do well in your SPM). These programs include matriks or STPM or A-Levels or IDP. Many scholarship holders did their A-Levels at Kolej Yayasan UEM or Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar, while many other successful students now studying at MIT or Harvard did A-Levels or IDP at Taylors or Sunway. When you are doing the pre-university program, you can then apply to universities. (Some people apply earlier than that, but most people go through a pre-university program, which is important since American universities require you to get one more year of education on top of SPM, and the British universities require A-Levels).