Byerly Finally Got It Right

Since I spent two years, or half of my college experience, just trying to get into Harvard, I have naturally been thinking back to my many applications as I prepare to graduate.

I applied to enter the Class of 2001 as a first-year, and I was rejected. I applied to transfer to Harvard after my first year of studies elsewhere, and again I was rejected. But that summer, I was granted the chance to come and spend one year as a visiting student. I gratefully accepted, and honestly gave up on plans to transfer here or anywhere else, thinking that I would spend my year at Harvard, learn what it was like, and then go back to my home school.

Instead, I fell in love with Harvard College in the fall of 1998. There is a precise spot on Plympton Street that I associate with walking to my first class, and thinking the inevitable thought that I must only be here out of some administrative error. In my case, I had more reason to believe this than most. And I was determined to take advantage of the mistake.

The single most memorable part of that fall term was sitting down with other students in the Winthrop House dining hall and asking them about what they did here. I found it so invigorating to be in an environment with people who cared passionately about their activities, be they journalism, drama, model politics, athletics or academics. And I was excited to hear about students trying new things: the actor learning to play an intramural sport, or the Crimson editor volunteering for a Phillips Brooks House service program. New friends here inspired me to new pursuits.

Knowing how much time I spent in the dining hall, my family joked that I could not give up the frozen yogurt. In truth, it was the electric environment of high-energy, dedicated people with a broad range of interests. Most important, I remember getting up every morning and being excited about what I was doing. I remember my parents telling me that they had never seen me so happy in my life.

So in December of that year, I went back to Byerly Hall to ask permission to apply again to transfer, something visiting students are not usually permitted to do. I was given the opportunity to apply, but with a catch: I would have to relinquish my second visiting semester during the spring application cycle. It was probably the hardest decision of my life, but I gave up that second term for just the chance of being back here. I cannot express the heights of excitement I felt when I learned one May morning that my gamble had paid off and I was finally accepted to stay.

To the best of my knowledge, this makes me the record-holder for the most applications to the College ending in a successful one (it is a total of four). I have joked that I will frame my two Harvard rejection letters on my wall, immediately adjacent to my diploma, in order that I can pontificate about persistence. But my unusual and lengthy relationship with the admissions office has also given me a different perspective from which to view Harvard.

In the last few weeks, a number of Harvard officers have asked me whether the school could possibly have measured up to my expectations given the length of time over which they were built up. In fact, it has consistently exceeded them. Yes, there were some disappointments (the Core, the Student Telephone Office), but put into the broader perspective, I could not imagine having had a better undergraduate experience. I feel very, very privileged to have studied and lived in this community, and grateful to the classmates, professors, and advisers who made the time so wonderful.

If I had it all to do over again, I would not do it any other way. I am sure spending four consecutive years here has its upsides, but those two rejection letters changed my life in positive ways I could never have imagined at the time. A teacher whom I trust recently suggested that many of us probably find at graduation that we feel we know less than we felt we did on first arrival at Harvard. But I also have a great deal more faith that things will work out. I feel better prepared to enjoy and succeed in what I do after college, even if I am less sure of what it will be.

Now if only I could get in off the wait list to Harvard Law School.

Michael L. Shenkman ’01, a history concentrator in Winthrop House, is a Crimson editor.