How to Become a Harvard Boy

Shaun Rein (GSAS ’02) would have hated Harvard as an undergraduate. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to help

Shaun Rein (GSAS ’02) would have hated Harvard as an undergraduate. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to help others gain entrance to the College. Rein, who is half-Chinese, is finishing a book tentatively titled Xiao Shan’s Guide on How to Get Into Harvard. Targeted at students in China, the book promises to debunk the myths harbored in China about the Harvard admissions process.

Rein realized that the best and brightest in China were failing to get into Harvard when he helped some Chinese friends prepare their applications. In China, where university admissions depend solely on test scores, Rein found that students with perfect or near-perfect scores do not realize these represent only one component of an American school’s application. He told his friends that they needed to show leadership, motivation and a desire to “change the world.”

“I don’t think Harvard students are that much more talented than other people,” Rein says. “They want to do big things in the world, but they’re not necessarily smarter.” Other popular misconceptions discredited in Rein’s book include: “I am not rich. Therefore, I could never attend Harvard University;” “If I’m not number one in my class, I will not get in;” and “If a famous or powerful person writes a letter of recommendation for me, then I am guaranteed admission.” According to Rein, the Harvard name carries less weight in the United States than it does in China, where Harvard students are likened to mythological creatures.

Rein, who did not learn Chinese until college (his book is translated into Chinese by his fiancee), wants to show Chinese audiences that it is not the best-looking, best-connected or wealthiest students who receive acceptance letters to Harvard every spring. Rein intends his book to serve as a cultural exchange, elucidating the differences between the Chinese and American university admissions processes. “It’s not always good to be the loudest and most ambitious person in China who sees an opportunity and seizes it,” Rein says. “Modesty is a much bigger thing in China, so it can be hard to sell yourself.”

The highlight of Rein’s book is the 15 essays submitted by Harvard students. Although he has never served on an undergraduate admissions committee, Rein analyzes each essay, demonstrating what made it successful. For example, referring to an essay about a girl’s memories of her grandfather, Rein explains, “Somene who is capable of such a strong relationship and is so confident to reveal her true feelings in an essay is someone that we want to know.” Rein says that his book differs from other college essay books, such as The Harvard Crimson’s 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, because the essays must be read in order: “You can’t just bounce around.”

Rein concludes that Harvard wants dynamic people who will contribute to the Harvard community and society at large. “They tend to be students who seize and create opportunities to make the world a better place. They are self-reflective people. It was a common thread through almost every one of the essays,” he says.

Rein acknowledges that not all the essays are equally well-written. Some were included because they presented various ways of expressing a point. “They weren’t all my favorites,” he admits. Nonetheless, the criticism can be read between the lines. For example, Rein advises, “This might not be a good idea for you to do because it’s hard to do well,” and “This person uses a lot of metaphors, but in your essay you may not want to use so many metaphors.” Rein says that he was not as critical as he would have liked to have been because Harvard students would have hesitated to submit their work knowing that the essay would be “torn apart.”

Rein is convinced that the book will succeed because the Chinese are mesmerized by the Harvard name and want to know what it takes to gain admittance. At present, Rein’s book has a 30,000 initial copy distribution. The book is ready to go to press, but he is waiting for Zoujin Publishing Company in China to agree on a title. He expects that the book will appear in bookstores in China in early 2003.

Rein also dreams of having his book showcased alongside Harvard Girl Yiting Liu, a publishing phenomenon in China that remained on its bestseller list for over a year. In Harvard Girl, the parents of Yiting Liu ’03 share their approach to parenting and their educational theories. Projecting into the future, Rein has begun collecting essays for a second book, which may include essays from other top colleges within the United States.

In addition to preparing for a second installation, Rein would ideally like to hit the talk show circuit and travel around China as a guest lecturer. His real love, however, is teaching. “Education is the key to everything. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t teach,” he says. In summer 2001, he taught English to children in China and lectured on English literature in the Philippines as a guest professor at the University of Manila. At Harvard, he worked as a TF for Professor Eileen Cheng-yin Chow’s core “Chinese Literature 130: Screening Modern China” in fall 2001. His popularity as a TF in Professor William Kirby’s “Historical Studies A-74: Contemporary China: The People’s Republic and Taiwan in the Modern World” in spring 2002 landed him a Certificate of Distinction for his CUE guide evaluation.

Rein earned his masters at Harvard in regional studies, focusing on American, Chinese and Japanese trilateral political and economic relations. Harvard was appealing for graduate school because in Rein’s opinion, “it has the best program for studying China’s political economy.” “I also wanted to come to Harvard to become one of the leaders in America to help bridge the gap between America and China. I find a shocking level of ignorance about China, even at the highest levels of American government,” Rein says.

The irony of it all is that Rein reveals that he would have disliked Harvard as an undergraduate because of the “pressure.” He insists that unlike the rest of his high school class at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, he had no interest in coming to Harvard as an undergraduate and ended up at McGill University in Canada, where he graduated in spring of 2000. “I wanted to learn French, I wanted to get out of the United States, and I wanted to learn about a new culture,” he affirms. “Harvard is not the best school for everyone. In many ways, I feel my book could be unhealthy.”