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Reading My Admissions File, Writing My Harvard Story

I remember wondering, in the few short moments before I shared my Harvard acceptance with anyone else, how I would ever be able to live up to the opportunity. I knew that I had just been handed an extraordinary gift, but I worried that I didn’t deserve it.

It’s an unanswerable question, how we should best make use of the immense privileges we have been handed as Harvard students. I think everyone, at one point or another, has wondered what got us here.

Like many other freshmen, I submitted a form online requesting to view my admissions file, a decision that has become controversial in recent years. I imagined that my admissions file, with its pages of cryptic notes, scores, and abbreviations, might hold answers that would help me in the future.

I soon found myself in a conference room in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar's Office with a surprisingly thin folder in my hands. I had assumed that I would feel like a voyeur into my own life, that I would need to fight off the feeling that I was somehow betraying my recommenders and my alumni interviewer. (Admissions files include the report from the alumni interviewer but, if you’ve waived FERPA as I did, you won’t see your faculty recommendations.) I didn’t feel any of those things.

I expected to see discussion of my extracurricular activities and the number of AP exams I had taken, but found nothing more than a cursory acknowledgement of those elements of my application. I didn’t think I had connected to my alumni interviewer (especially after telling her that I hated “Hamlet,” only to discover that she was a professor of English, specializing in Shakespeare) but she hadn’t held my blunder against me. One admissions reader seemed concerned with the rigor of my academic schedule and demanding extracurriculars, but noted that my apparent joyfulness was reassuring.

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There was one aspect of my file, one piece of my high school story, that the admissions officers emphasized in their comments, and it was not the classes I took or the extracurriculars I was involved in.

It was, instead, a situation concerning academic integrity that I found myself in in high school in which I had to decide, quite simply, between trusting my gut and taking the easy way out. I was in a situation in which I had to react, and I had to do so without being able to predict the consequences of my reaction. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, privy to information about others that I didn’t want to know. And while I didn’t want to know it, there was no escaping the fact that I knew now and felt strongly that I had to act. Ironically, I remember wondering if being in that wrong place at that wrong time might undermine my ability to get into college when the time came.

My mom recently reminded me that I often referred to that night as “the worst night of high school,” the night when I saw the neat order I perceived in the world begin to unravel farther than it had before, the night that forced me to define my own values for myself.

While I spent four sleepless years focused on AP classes (when to take them, how many to take), the admissions officers seemed to be valuing not the decisions that I consciously made, but rather what I did not try to do, what type of person I was when things didn’t go according to plan, when I was caught in a situation with no roadmap and had to decide what type of person I was going to be. I’m not saying here that I got into Harvard because I made the “right” decision during a difficult time. To this day, I don’t know what the “right” decision would have been. Rather, the admissions officers cared that I was willing to wrestle with the complexities of the situation.

We have all been trained in one way or another to follow the “steps” to success. We take that class we don’t want to take (for me, that was multivariable calculus my senior year of high school). We get too little sleep and tell interviewers what we think sounds smart, only to discover that we’ve just insulted their life’s work. We talk about graduate school or professional school as if it’s the prize at the end of a sequence of decisions we make correctly. And there’s no doubt that those decisions might be part of the puzzle. There’s no doubt that success is built on a foundation of concrete accomplishments.

But reading my admissions file offered proof that there’s so much more that matters, that leaning into the complexities of our experience as students has importance that transcends numbers and statistics. The unraveling I experienced on that night, that messiness and all that came with it, mattered to the admissions committee — it mattered so much that it just might be the reason I’m sitting in Annenberg right now.

Orlee G. S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Greenough Hall.

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