As previously mentioned, I’ll be attending Harvard Business School in the Fall. Lately, I’ve been thinking about who I was when I applied five years ago. These are my application essays. I’m amazed by both how familiar and how distant they feel. There’s a lot that I’d like to change and update, but I haven’t. These are exactly what I applied with. I’ve also included the fifth essay that I wrote for an “application update” last fall.
1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?
Raw passion, drive, and confidence can be the most critical resources in academia or work. Despite all the rules, structures, and guides of how to be successful the one thing that seems to propel me towards success more than
“You’re ruining your life,” used to be a statement I heard frequently, “you’re going to go to a school no one’s ever heard of. Why don’t you go somewhere good? Don’t you want to apply to more of the Ivy League?” My passion for Olin College propelled me forward. I never worried about if I would get in- of course I would get in- because I was going. The act of going to Olin College would not be listed amongst my accomplishments, even with its accreditation recognition. What’s substantial about Olin College for me is my devotion for the mission, and my consistent dedication to change.
Despite the fact that a substantial part of the Olin curriculum has been refined since I’ve been there, despite having helped to reform the student government, the service organization, and the student external relations group, I’m still open to change. My passion for having change at Olin has never wavered, and I’ve never become complacent with the educational community we’ve created. Institutionalizing change is an oxymoron, and a near impossibility. Yet, somehow, I have managed to do so within myself for this one school. Being constantly critical of the group and never allowing me to become complacent have been constant struggles. There are days it would be easier to say “it’s okay, Olin is done now because it’s successful” but my internal feelings have never let me say that.
“Don’t have six co-founders if you can help it- try to get some to quit. At least distribute the equity unequally,” are words I’ve heard more than a few times lately. Everyone insists that to have a successful start you can’t be a student, you can’t have more than 2-3 cofounders, and someone needs to be the one definitive leader. Sometimes, the achievement is in proving the system wrong. Alight Learning started in a completely nonconventional way- six students deciding they wanted to start a company, and then decided to come up with something they had in common. They all worked equally on all parts, not dividing the labor, and each passionately pursuing their favorite elements. With little experience, organization was a constant struggle. Yet somehow, these oft-criticized circumstances have led to the alpha launch of a product that will hopefully revolutionize middle school education. Creating Alight in a circumstance that many business people would fight against was a challenge. Yet in the Fall, we will launch and refine the alpha product. Being able to do this was an uphill battle, but the most rewarding of anything I have done.
Neither of these things would have been possible without what I regard as my greatest accomplishment: a sense of fearlessness. Being fearless is about knowing what risks are worth taking. The combination of passion and fearlessness means that some attempts will work out and others won’t. While this isn’t a concrete accomplishment I can point to and say “I made that,” “I helped that situation,” or “this will keep going because of me”, fearlessness is what makes me sure that there will be countless more accomplishments to add to this list as I go through life. Doing this means I’m never afraid to go to a new school move to a new location, risk not making money for a while, or try something that might be dangerous. Fearlessness is the context for all future accomplishments.
2. What area of the world are you must curious about and why?
In the entire world there is only one aspect that truly captivates me. It isn’t a location, an industry, or a movement. Rather, what makes the world an interesting place for me to live in is people. In fact, it’s not people as a whole, but specific individuals and their mentalities, and how those play into a group mindset.
Over the past year I’ve worked closely with a psychiatrist in the Boston area, Arnie Kerzner. Arnie allowed me to sit in on his therapy sessions, visit other schools to discuss student problems with them, and attend his lectures. Working with Arnie and watching his analysis of why people behave the way they do, and what challenges they face has completely changed my mindset. People and how they think is a compelling concept, as no two people seem to think in exactly the same manner.
The next implication of this is how it impacts people when you look at the dynamics between people. This can be people in pairs, or small groups, or larger entities. This is where my passion for organizational behavior stems from. When I work, I spend far more time examining how the people and groups work together in order to create the overall system than I spend just doing the assignments that are laid out for me. Products and services would not be created without the organizations behind them. These organizations do stem from individuals, and how they perceive others, their interactions, their assignments, and the overall goals.
The next level to this discovery of how people think, and how their thinking impacts each other is that I am curious about how to best do things for people. Both from a business side and a design side, it’s important to know what a user is looking for. One must not think of themselves when designing, but instead be aware of the broad uses and many types of users.
Though each of these descriptions is brief, there’s near-infinite material for thought in the concept of people. As one, I’m entrenched within that constraint on my perspective every day, and it controls nearly everything that happens to me. Life would be nothing without the study of how people think and how that thought is applied.
3. What have you learned from a mistake?
Large mistakes point overarching problems, but these problems are often the type that can be seen from other viewpoints. The small mistakes reveal layers of complexity that I would not have considered.
Last November my resume listed the year I intended to graduate instead of the year I was eligible to graduate. I figured this transparency would demonstrate my academic plan, and wouldn’t reflect negatively on my applications for jobs. My first round interview with Microsoft went stunningly well, so I was shocked when a couple months later, with no other explanation, I received a flat out “sorry, no jobs available” email. I thought it might be based in the economy, so I immediately emailed recruiting to ask where the process had gone awry. Apparently, they have a policy of filling all positions with seniors, and then rejecting everyone else without further discussion- regardless of qualifications, or interest level.
I emailed my recruiter, explained I was eligible to graduate (though didn’t intend to) and she immediately found me a position in the PowerPoint group. Reaching PowerPoint, I learned that they did not care at all what year a student was- and instead looked for specific traits in specific people. I was hired for being “crazy, non-traditional, and likely to shake things up” with the long shot of hiring me full time. Their process was to find the best people, regardless of year in school, as the timescale of Microsoft products is far longer than a year.
Due to my experience, I became far more aware of learning why product groups choose to hire individuals- for long or short term, experience, potential, or influence. Yet, this process was being hindered by some filters unrelated to interviews. It became clear that this same problem plagued the company- groups were unaware of what the others were doing, and it was difficult to coordinate between large initiatives.
From this knowledge, I created two initiatives. An intern version of the side project group- designed to allow employees to work on products they weren’t directly responsible for. This group helped people better understand the holistic product visions. Additionally, I launched an intern version of the internal discussion mailing list for ideas- in order to provide external perspective on the company. From a very small initial mistake, I found a niche trying to shake the foundations that silo Microsoft’s teams apart from each other.
4. What would you like us to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
“Are you in, or are you out?” Seven of my best friends and I sat in a circle. The date had come when we finally had to make decisions. We’d all discussed quitting school for a year to see what we could learn free of the educational framework we’d been immersed in for so long.
I opened my mouth, still unsure of what words were going to emerge, and I was shocked at the sound of my own voice saying “I’m in.” I’d never taken such a big risk before- every step of my academic career had been planned through wonderful schools and rigorous courses. I’d never gone without all of those benchmarks to see what learning was about in the real world.
With those two words, the most formative portion of my undergraduate education became the part during which I was not an undergraduate student, but an unemployed drop out.
I reached a new level of fluidity. Rather than being forced to learn a set of objective metrics, I could explore and figure out what I wanted to know on my own. I could struggle through entrepreneurship that was designed for the long-term, rather than for the scope of the class. I could work on research at a graduate level, seeing what it would be like to attended two of the great universities. I could travel to a new conference every week, meet a new set of people, and find new fields to break into.
A year ago, I wasn’t aware of how my passions could be applied. I learned a series of facts, that might or might not fit into a later career, but didn’t know why I learned them. I often felt that the structure of how I was taught was more relevant than the actual facts. My undergraduate experience was plagued with a variety of interests- electrical and computer engineering, software, medicine, biology, business, and education.
Only taking a step back from the educational system allowed me to see the value within. By taking time away, I learned what specific skills I needed to develop to tackle the projects I was looking at pursuing. The value of the 2+2 program is it leaves this buffer, allowing for a student to learn what they need to learn, and then the environment to learn it in. If only undergraduate institutions did the same.
5. Application Update Statement
When I was very small, my parents had a Christmas party for their friends. I remember running around the party, staring at knees, and being overwhelmed by all the strangers. Everyone at the party was trying to be nice to the little girl, and kept offering me cookies from the holiday platter.
The first cookie was fantastic. It was a beautiful sugar cookie. The second cookie was pretty good, too. But the party was long, and near the end I’d had at least ten cookies from various adults. By the time I told my mom I was tired, and she said “well you can have another cookie” – and pointed out a bell-shaped cookie, I couldn’t form any words and burst into tears. I wasn’t old enough to figure out that “you can have a cookie” didn’t mean “you must have a cookie.”
Five years ago when I applied to HBS, I didn’t realize that “being offered an opportunity” didn’t mean “you must take the opportunity.” After my admission I agonized over stacks of post it notes – how could I possibly manage to get a Masters in Design, an MBA, go to medical school, have a startup, and be the CEO of a major company? How would I fit all of these things I might possibly do into one life – even one wild and audacious one?
It’s clear I was trying to take too many opportunities from my anxious journal entries about “not doing enough” at the beginning of Microsoft, and my calendar completely full of back-to-back events. As time went on, I started to realize I couldn’t effectively do everything. The opportunities are like cookies – doing too many just makes me sick.
Realizing this has allowed me to focus and finish my projects. It’s given me a stronger sense of myself and what events I like to go to. It’s helped me to lead more effectively and pick one strategy: just like I can’t be everything, no organization can be everything. I’d feel more comfortable than ever declining HBS knowing this. There would be other opportunities, and I could achieve other great things. HBS sticks with me, because I know it is a place where I will learn more of these lessons. HBS will force me to reflect deeply, and choose carefully. It’s the cookie I want.