2 January 2014

How I Got Into Harvard

Do you want to know who wrote this article?

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Dr. Pattberg publishes widely on global language and linguistic imperialism. He is a promoter of Confucianism, a former disciple of Ji Xianlin and Tu Weiming, and the author of ‘The East-West Dichotomy’ and ‘Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion’. He is an alumnus of Peking University, Tokyo University, and Harvard University, and now runs his own website.

General overview                                         

It is (almost) impossible (for foreign nationals) to get into Harvard straight out of high school, but if you have the potential; you should always try your luck of course. I believe, however, that Harvard is a much better mid- or late career choice. Go there for a LLM, a MBA, a PhD, or as a visiting fellow and it’s far more rewarding. Here’s how to do it. If you don’t come from your country’s ruling class and if you are not the daughter of the president of China, you may want to start with small steps, get your first degree elsewhere (in your home country), establish a strong network, build your career, travel the world, be outstanding somehow, then call on Harvard, attend conferences at Harvard, and make friends with people at Harvard, read books about how to get into Harvard, contact Harvard professors, and meet with faculty members. Find out what they are looking for. Dream about Harvard. Attend schools that have exchange with Harvard. Most important is to never give up. Remember it’s a very exclusive club. Fortitude, but more so connection and recommendation, will eventually get you there. Beneath the brand surface, Harvard is run like a big business, so fees for international students are very high. Better to find a sponsor. Having said that, Harvard is really that rich and wonderful experience they say it is.

What program did you apply for at Harvard, and why?

I first applied for a PhD program in Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies. I wasn’t desperate for a degree because I was already three years into a doctoral program at Peking University. But it would have been a great combination. I needed to do research on hundreds of missionary texts, and I wanted to consult with experts in Oriental Studies such as Francis X. Clooney, Parimal G. Patil, and Michael Witzel (author of The Origins of the World’s Mythologies) to name but a few. Also, Harvard had its Tu Weiming and Ezra Vogel (author of Japan as Number One) whose works on China and Japan respectively I strongly admire. Besides, Peking University and Harvard University have excellent ties and cooperate on many levels. A former classmate and excellent Sanskrit scholar, Zhang Zhan, already studied at Harvard, and I even bumped into PKU’s lecturer of Tibetan, Saerji, during a conference at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. It’s a small world. I had also met Harvard people during my stay at Tokyo University the year before. So it wasn’t really that much of an imaginative stretch for me, but rather an obvious choice. I had visited Harvard the previous year but found that’s inconvenient without having at least fellowship status and thus free access to all library resources and other university privileges. In the end, my PhD application wasn’t successful, but I was kindly informed about an opening for a research fellowship, so I re-applied for that and got in.

Can you tell us more about your personal experience at Harvard?      

I arrived in Cambridge with the personal mission to use every minute of my time for collecting materials and talk to experts. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else anyway, because I had such a tight budget. The Harvard Library System is amazing; I had easy access to most collections in the United States, could read any journal online and then had relevant pages sent to my email box. That was unheard of at that time in Peking University. In just a couple of weeks I had collected enough material for years of post-doctoral research. Harvard’s China Studies is world-class and I was able to put my gloved hands onto a 1691 copy of Intorcetta Prospero’s translation of the Confucian Analects. There were a couple of older books that I was the first person ever to check out. That’s usually the sign that you are going where no one else had gone before. Something like that.

What impressed you most and what could be improved?

What impressed me most was how beautiful Harvard people are. I have seen and experienced academic poverty with all its erratic, pitiful behaviors that goes with it, especially in China, a developing country. But here in Cambridge most students seemed to be above and beyond the usual hardships of life. Instead of thinking about naked survival, I heard people talking about Fulbright scholarships, investments, real estate, and holidays in Malaysia, private yoga teachers, trips to London, the next conference in St. Petersburg. Wow, I thought. Harvard students could afford to walk through life gracefully, privileged, full of positive energy. Especially the international students were superhumanly resourceful and brought a lot of unique experience, new insights, and brain power to Cambridge. There’s a strong Jewish and a German connection at Harvard, and many of Chinese diasporas.

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