Getting to Harvard Business School —and elsewhere — on a dare.
UPDATE: A modified and updated version of this piece was sent to Harvard Business School as my MBA application essay. Sadly, I was not invited for an interview.
This is an edited and expanded version of a part of my latest TinyLetter.
For a little while now I’ve idly wondered about applying to “prestigious” schools like the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, or all those other schools that I grew up being told were The Only Schools Worth Going To. (Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. Over and over as though no other schools existed. Well, maybe except for Stanford and Imperial.) I had eschewed them when younger as a political statement: I was sick of the assumption that only certain schools (and, by extension, certain subjects and career paths) were worth following and choosing anything else means that you are Dumb and Stupid and Wasting Your Grades. Much of my time being an alternative education activist in the late 2000s was spent disavowing people of the notion that only Certain Schools Mattered; I advocated for a more holistic approach to university selection, one that took into account personal choice and preferences in everything from the weather to learning styles, and welcomed those who chose not to pursue university for whatever reason.
Indeed, if it weren’t for family and the desire to be Anywhere But Here, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with university myself — instead, I would have kept on exploring with Up with People or any program similar to my semester of travel (RIP WorldSmart), maybe backpack across a new continent or figure out some WWOOFING program in Tajikistan or something else that was Not University. Somehow, Anywhere But Here has been enough to propel me to an MFA two countries later. I should be done with school, right? I wanted to be done ages ago.
Yet there was something about throwing my hat into the ring for those particular schools that appealed to me now. Would it be just like me embracing femme in recent years, having violently pushed it away as a teenager because femininity was violently imposed on me? Perhaps, now that I am no longer beholden to the toxic messages of Only School Worth Going To, I am more able to evaluate schools — and academia as a whole — on their own merits? Maybe I’m just really smitten by the potential for secret societies and Mystery Hunts — ok, those are really big reasons.
But mostly, I think, the challenge of sending in an application appeals to the part of me powered by my One Setting (according to an ex): Overachiever.
I wanted to know if I can.
Signing Up For Anything That Looks Interesting
For the last few years I have had a running New Years/life resolution of “applying to anything that looks interesting even and especially if it’s a long-shot” — which you might recognize from the front page of my website or my various social media bios. My therapist calls this “following your developing question”: there is an internal logic to my choices, which is that they relate to something I am personally curious about, and each choice was inspired by the choice before it.
This has led to some very interesting and powerful life events: indeed, whole new lifetimes, SMBC-style.
My life tends to go through 3–5 years cycles, all sparked by some developing question/new curiosity. Right now I’m at the cusp of exploring the intersections of arts and technology, growing from an MFA and 5+ years in performance art and creative production, which was mostly sprung from a personal dare to try out burlesque classes on a whim. I pursued Creative Industries Management for my Bachelors mostly because my ex-WorldSmart team leader said I would be good at logistics, and it was in its flagship class that I learnt a definition that changed my life:
The artistic director is the person who goes “For this year’s festival, I want BLUE DIAMONDS ON TRAMPOLINES!”.
The production manager is the person that has to figure that out under budget.
DREAM JOB: ARTISTIC DIRECTOR. Thanks, Zane Trow.
Even my highly successful run in alternative education activism was sparked by Something Interesting: the Up with People semester inspired me to start writing a blog about my further investigations into alternative education and youth empowerment, and the success of that blog propelled me to try out other Interesting Things such as live-blogging international conferences or participating in major youth programs such as Brightest Young Minds.
Ironically, it seems to be the longest-shot, most unlikely ones that work out much, much better than the ones I thought I’d be a shoo-in for: the Al-Jazeera Media in Context Hackathon, the White House LGBTQ Tech & Innovation Summit, StartupBus (and ergo Screet), and even membership to Double Union and the Fembot Collective were all the results of me sending in an app that I never thought would get me anywhere close. To be fair, I’ve also sent in long-shot apps that really were long-shots: apologies to the Berkman Center for the long, rambly internship application letter that went at length about the cat.
There is also a part of me that wants to know if these schools would actually accept me for me, even if I don’t try to impress them as Their Ideal Student by doing things like hiring an admissions coach or signing up for cram school. A large part of what frustrated me about Prestigious School rhetoric was the loss of individuality: you were expected to mold your studies, interests, and schedules to fit some stereotype and make yourself more inviting as an applicant. What if I pulled an Elle Woods and get in on my own merit — and let my self power my applications?
While talking to my parents about “what if I applied to these big-name unis just to see what would happen”, my dad dared me to apply for the Harvard MBA. He did some management courses at Harvard 20-something years ago and is now their biggest fanboy. Despite seeming like a born businessman (his current hobby is suggesting business ideas like “build the next Facebook” to me so that his retired self has something to invest in), he didn’t actually explore business until partway through his engineering career, and now he won’t stop talking about how if he discovered business studies earlier he would have enrolled for the Harvard MBA because it was the Best. Thing. Ever.
Indeed, Harvard was the first university I was ever aware of: I remember reading a Students Guide from 1994 or so where it had every club known to man and being really keen on joining all of them. So many choirs! And theater clubs! And everything else! (I’ve tried looking for this book again and can’t find it despite my parents holding on to a lot of old books; it might reappear sometime.)
Yet my dad’s enthusiasm and that Student Guide didn’t make enough of an impression on me to overcome Prestigious School rhetoric. Part of it was likely my contrarian nature — the more you tell me I should do something just because I “should”, the less likely I am to do it. But part of it was also that I didn’t think Harvard had any space for anyone like me: artsy, weird, liminal, rabble-rousing. It seemed like a place for people comfortable with upholding the status quo — I didn’t think they’d appreciate or welcome an amorphous being like myself there, someone who learns best by experience even if she has her head in a book all the time.
Now that I’ve gotten to know some Harvard graduates, including a super close best friend who is similarly weird and rabble-rousey like me but with her own brand of smarts (❤ you Q) I’ve found that my initial perceptions were misplaced: I could have probably stood a chance.
But would I stand a chance now? Even just for the hell of it?
So when my dad made his dare I took him on, and then talked about it with my friends online, most of whom are strident anti-capitalist types.
They egged me on further, telling me that I would probably be the first Harvard MBA they liked.
And now I find myself surrounded by post-its with algebraic symbols and assignment charts and calendars and schedules and a stack of GRE books while I struggle to beef up my English and relearn Math in a whole new language.
The Kid That Could Have Applied Herself
I was never really a diligent student, though I did love to learn: mostly, I never felt like I had any good reason to expend all that effort. My thirst for knowledge meant a lot of time online or reading anything I can get my hands on or crashing my older cousins’ private tutoring — which often placed me a few years ahead of my peers in school, and sometimes in conflict with outdated official textbooks. I also faced a ton of trauma due to racism (and later ableism), and dealt with a lot of stigma against my choice to pursue Arts and Humanities over Science. School became pointless — nobody cared what I learned, if it doesn’t fit The Exam it’s no good. I quickly became disillusioned with school and mentally switched off in class — yet somehow I coasted through with good grades.
I was that kid who always got “she would do so much better if she just applied herself”. Even scoring the highest in class was never enough — I’d get that same lecture anyway. If I had just applied myself I would get All the As and be a Lawyer (since I was in the debate team, one of the few school things I enjoyed) and Provide Well For My (not likely to exist) Children. But I didn’t see the point in it — my sincere efforts were not really rewarded or recognized, so why waste energy on something that won’t really matter after I turn 18?
Tertiary study didn’t really do much to change my skepticism towards formal education systems. A major screwup/sabotage at my first university turned me off academic writing forever, the second university didn’t do much to repair that, and I chose the third one specifically because writing papers was optional — though ironically my favorite classes were precisely about teaching academic writing.
About the only time I really studied was in my first semester of University #2, where I had to take a ridiculously difficult History of Australian Theatre class that was usually meant for 3rd Year Drama students, had Masters-level assignment lengths, and yet was somehow a 1st semester prerequisite for Creative Industries Management. Lectures without the regular tutorials (so your only contact time was a couple hours a week), an exam, and a paper twice as long as all the others — add an international student who had no background in Australian or Theater history, never mind the intersections of the two, and you get one very, very lost and frustrated first-year. I studied hard, notes and all, just so I wouldn’t have to do the class again; I would have been happy to barely Pass. I was very surprised to find that I had somehow earned a Distinction.
Yet somehow, for this silly dare, I’ve used all the organizing genes I had (I often joke that my sister, who organized her own wedding, had inherited them all) and came up with a plan.
Some initial testing found that I was woefully underprepared for the GRE — specifically, my Quant skills were either rusty or non-existent, and any that did exist were in a different language. When I worked as an after-school tutor in San Francisco, I recall being stumped at some of the Math not because I couldn’t do it but because I’d learnt it all in Malay, likely in a different way, and so half the time I didn’t quite understand the question. To be able to deal with the GRE, I had to relearn Math, not just in English, but also with sections that didn’t get a lot of coverage in my regular studies, such as combinatorics. (We got barely a week of stats, which was sad because I actually kinda enjoyed it.)
And while my Verbal was pretty good, it could be better — and most of that had to do with understanding how GRE questions worked. Unlike typical English exams in Malaysia — but more akin, I guess, to IELTS or similar tests — you couldn’t just skim through passages and pick out an answer. You actually had to pay attention and think through all the options. My speedreader brain had to learn to slow down.
I scheduled study time for the GRE and outlined a plan to work through questions from my study books, allocating a certain number of questions a day, using assessment tests to figure out which sections needed more work than others. I accounted for a few weeks of family-related international travel between now and the GRE exam, booked for Dec 15th to fulfill a deadline, and planned to review easier sections while out of town. I even made up a spreadsheet to track my scores.
Here are my resources so far:
- Books: Manhattan Prep’s 5lb Book of GRE Practice Problems and GRE Quantitative Comparisons & Data Interpretation (I wanted to get their whole set but it got expensive), ETS’s Official Guide to the GRE General Revised Test, CliffNotes’s Math Review for Standardized Tests, and Mary Jane Sterling’s Algebra II For Dummies which I haven’t opened yet
- Practice Tests: One a week, for Verbal and Quant; the week of the test I’ll take a practice test every day. I have access to 6 from Manhattan Prep (the books give you codes) and a couple from ETS’s POWERPREP II. I also bought Barron’s 6 GRE Practice Tests and Pass Key to the GRE.
- Online: I’ve been making my way through Khan Academy, and in the process of editing this article I found ETS’s guide to Khan Academy videos for the GRE which is now going to be so useful zomg. I’ve also been using Magoosh’s GRE Vocabulary Flashcards on my phone.
- Other things: I keep post-its of Math concepts on the desk, but they’re cluttering things up so I might need to consolidate them. I have a wall calendar with post-its to denote important appointments, such as job interviews or the test date. I also have other post-its nothing writing assignments for the various things I am applying to.
I was reminded of how much I enjoyed taking the UNSW ICAS English tests at school because it actually felt like an intellectual challenge. Prepping for the GRE felt like it was scratching that same itch as that of the ICAS tests: it feels like I’m learning something, and it feels like my efforts get reflected on the scores.
Perhaps. My Quant scores scare me still.
One Setting: Overdoer
My One Setting means that I never really learned how to be half-hearted — I either put in all my effort or put in none at all, and even when I think I’m slacking off I seem to expend more energy than expected. It’s similar to how people tend to assume I’m “shouting” or being loud or intense when I’m not even trying: it’s like my psyche has an amplifying effect applied onto it.
When I started scheduling my study plan, I got ambitious. (Such a Slytherin.) I was taking Spanish lessons on Duolingo at the time, but I was not very regular about it, so I decided to add that into the schedule. I had also started a Udemy course on learning coding through games-making before The Dare, so let’s pencil that in. I wanted to make sure my soul and my body weren’t neglected, so I added slots for meditation and exercise in the morning, though my plans to start Couch to 5k have to be pushed back until the haze clears up. I needed to make time to work on applications for jobs and school, as well as creative projects — such as producing a podfic reading of a highly convoluted fanfic-of-fanfic of Homestuck. I discovered Memrise and added an extra half-hour after Duolingo for Bengali and ASL. I found that I had a Python for Data Science course in my Udemy account, so let’s switch between that and the Games course every time I finish a module. Oh hey, I could get back on SuperBetter, and maybe I should log my progress on a journal, and how about a dream journal…
Slytherin ambition plus Ravenclaw love for learning equals Tiara failing to concentrate on Sal Khan talking about angles and rushing through practice tests because she has a wicked migraine.
My parents were already pretty befuddled at my sudden studiousness, which I thought was ironic given that they’d spent all these years wishing I would “apply myself”. After really evaluating my schedule, though, I have to concede. They have a point: I am trying to do too much at once.
Not that this is particularly news to anybody.
As I mentioned, I have One Setting. That One Setting, coupled with my vibe of signing up for anything that looks interesting, means that I often sign up for more than I actually have any space for.
On the one hand, this strategy has actually been life-saving for me, in a weird way. My mental health maladies (either depression, bipolar, or related; my Australian psychiatrist called me a “diagnostic dilemma”) get exacerbated when I have nothing to do to distract me or occupy my time. During times when I am especially low, signing up for something is literally what gets me out of bed in the morning — I have committed to something or someone else, and I cannot let them down. Also, once I get immersed in The Thing I Signed Up For, I feel a lot better in general — I’m more productive and more social.
Coming back to Malaysia after ten years abroad was going to be a huge hit to my mental health. This was a country I’d left for multitudes of reasons, and me being back is an absolute last resort after visas and job hunts failed. I am still missing valuable resources that helped me in other cities, such as a regular therapist or plenty of social interaction. There is literally not much to do here other than shop or eat (I live in a smaller city). The GRE prep and all that scheduling is giving me some much-needed structure: it’s something to do, some reason to get out of bed even if I’m not going very far. It represents a way out. Do this, and I may end up somewhere better, internally or externally. There’s something meditative and calming about being in the Study Zone too, which was a surprising development — I felt focused and clear, and the discipline feels good in a weird way.
But, like a corset done up too tight, I never really gave myself any breathing room. The first version of my schedule had break times filled in, so it looked like I didn’t have any breaks at all. The second version has more space, but no day off. I am studying Quant every single day, even on Practice Test days. I’m working on an application of some kind every day — at least two a day. And I’m trying to cram 3 languages and 2 programming languages as well as some major habit overhauls.
No wonder I have a headache.
I’ve been looking at my schedule the last few days and am trying to work out where to cut things down without having to spend more time and energy reorganizing my structure. I’m noticing that streak-based motivation in general is actually pretty dangerous for me — feeling shamed by the broken streak, I spend energy trying to keep up the streak even when it’s not practical or I desperately need a break. Already I’m letting go of Memrise and the overly-structured exercise/meditation apps, and am going to try and be less diligent about Duolingo. I’ve paused on job-hunting for now — I already had a bunch of promising interviews, and I can’t really start anything until after the tests anyway. And I still have some time for the essays.
My parents — particularly my dad — have taken care in telling me that I don’t have to follow through on this dare if I don’t want to. That I could delay the test, or the application itself, if it was causing me too much stress. Dad might be remembering the fight we had early on in the process when he said he didn’t think applying was “good enough” for the bet and that I had to be accepted for the bet to work; I contemplated quitting then and there because I was frustrated that nobody would honour the work I was putting in to have this application be ready.
Which is funny, really, because the long-shots that worked out? Usually the ones where I winged the application. 5 seconds, done, oh hey I got accepted. Meanwhile, the applications where I spent some solid time on don’t get as much attention or success. Sometimes I wonder if I have an Opposite The Secret curse on me: the more I want something, the less likely I am to get it.
But does Opposite The Secret apply if it’s something I’m not entirely sure I want but I want to spend the effort on anyway? Will that be different? Will that be a change in the usual pattern?
Am I changing too much for Harvard? Am I doing what Elle Woods didn’t want to do?
The Fungible Nature of ‘I’
When I told my sister about the dare, she asked me if I would go to the Harvard MBA if I got accepted, given how out of character it was for me. I told her that if they were going to accept me then it seems like there’s something about me they liked, which means I could still be me and be OK. She then noted that Harvard would probably change me.
And on the one hand? Yes, it might change me into someone I don’t like. Someone who doesn’t think about humanity or social good, but only on wealth and gain and Money Money Money. Someone who loses sight of what’s important. One of those capitalist pigs my friends rail about all the time. I’ve certainly had run-ins with folks who think they’re hot shit when it comes to business and management, and Harvard Business School could be seen as an incubator for that kind of behavior.
On the other hand, this isn’t the first time I’ve changed, and I haven’t been the worse for it. My explorations into burlesque and creative sexuality were highly out of character for me, compared to my teens and early 20s self who was more prudish and leaned closer to sex-worker-exclusionary-radfem politics. I gained better understanding and respect for sex workers, found ways to interact with femininity and femme in non-toxic ways, and reconnected with my body after a lifetime of feeling like I was a brain in a jar. My younger self would probably be aghast, but I hope she could see all the positives that came from me going out of character.
And even through my various lifetimes, there are still certain fundamental things about me that carry through. Every endeavour has been motivated, in large part, by wanting better representation for people like me — the Liminal, the Other, the ones falling in the cracks. I’ve always been a bridge-builder, a network weaver. Social justice and the desire for equity influence everything I do. And I’m still all about learning by experience, by doing.
In going through this process I’ve learned about things that are or are not core to me. For instance, not being a diligent student or being someone that coasted by? That’s not core to me, that was my coping mechanism for an environment that didn’t value independent learning. Studying way too hard and being hyper-scheduled doesn’t seem particularly core to me either — it seems I function better with less projects, but larger, and less busywork.
And who knows? Maybe the Harvard MBA will get me closer to my core anyway. Maybe it’s the extra push I need to achieve the Artistic Director DREAM JOB from so many years ago. (Hmm, the Artist as MBA, a durational art piece currently in progress.) Or maybe I can use my bridge-building resourcefulness to bring about change from within the school — hey, it’s happened before. Why not take the MBA as a potential incubator to change into something more unexpectedly awesome?
Sign up for anything interesting, even if it was a long-shot.
The long-shots usually work out the best.
Besides, they’re not the only long-shots I’m aiming for.
Better Egg-Basket Distribution
I’ve learned the extremely hard way that focusing all my energies on a singular cause for devotion is folly. So I’m not going to stake all my hopes on the Harvard MBA — I’m not applying to win, I’m applying to see what happens if I try.
I did apply for their pre-MBA online program; I’ll know if I get in in a couple of weeks. At the very least, I’d get a feel for the regular MBA, and will learn enough business skills to help me with my other projects (including my own take on Blue Diamonds on Trampolines).
I also found an amazing digital humanities post-doc opportunity at UC Berkeley that accepts MFAs, and I may also use the same material to apply for the MIT Comparative Media Studies program. For both these places I want to look at the ways that online fandom is a gateway for young girls to get into arts, tech, and larger topics. I’ve been interested in this ever since I started exploring arts and tech, and have talked about how fandom was my main gateway for writing and web development in my pieces for Geek Feminism as well as Model View Culture. I also want to propose a Fandom/Pop Culture track for the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in 2016, and could use a couple more folks in the organizing team.
I started a survey to poll fangirls past and present about their engagement with fandom, and the responses have been really interesting so far! Quite a few people who talked about fandom as their way of learning ESL, some web dev folk, and a couple who credit fandom with saving their lives by showing them positive examples of queerness. If you are or were a fangirl, or you know of any other fangirls in your life, please take the survey and let me know if you’d like to be part of the AMC track group!
If you want to be my reference for any of the above, want to help look over all the essays, or have any other suggestions for where I can spend my energy and resources, feel free to get in touch.
I’ve also been applying to some jobs in Malaysia and Australia, and have been getting a few promising interviews. Nothing confirmed as of yet, but it’s been heartening to find places back here that will accept and welcome my strengths. And I’m sure I’ll find some other creative project to fill up my barely-existent time.
In the meantime, though, it feels like I’ve already written my Harvard MBA application essay. And there is a part of me that not-so-secretly wants someone on their side to read this now and respond favorably, though the more genre-savvy side of me says that now that I’ve said it it won’t come true because of narrative irony, and the side of me that is apparently Dave Strider remarks:
we dont have fuckin “arcs” we are just human beings
The Harvard MBA essay prompt reads:
It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.
Hello, my name is Tiara, and I am here on a dare.
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