An alumna’s perspective
by Viroopa Volla
October 25, 2016
College Expert Counselor: Sue Luse
With the college application cycle in full swing and students putting finishing touches on applications, you probably have major questions running through your head: What is this college really like? Is it every thing that the admissions committee says it is in their presentations? How am I going to “fit in” at this university? Understanding the answers to these simple questions is not only a key part in putting together a complete package for the dream school, but it is also, in my opinion, the best way to ensure that your application is genuine and real. In pursuit of answers, a motivated student will probably do the following—scour the school’s admissions website for details, visit the campus to get a “feel” for the campus, and maybe even speak to other students who have applied. However, the most helpful way to approach this is to do your “primary” research by speaking to current students themselves!
I found speaking to current college students as invaluable experiences. Through coffee chats and phone interviews, I took every chance that I got to speak to multiple students at Harvard, Princeton, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, and Duke. With every conversation, I learned just as much as about the college as I did about how I would contribute to the student body. It left me energized, excited, and focused. I cannot stress how important it is to talk to current students and alums—in fact, I use the same approach today as I apply to graduate schools.
As a recent graduate with plenty to share, here is my story of my Harvard experience. College, for me, was a period of major growth that helped me understand what I wanted in my career, friends and family, life, and beyond. It shaped me in ways that I would have never been able to predict before I attended and has created longstanding memories. In order of importance, here are my thoughts on Harvard’s academics, extra-curriculars, career preparation, culture, and campus.
Harvard is known for its academics and accordingly, I spent about seventy-five percent of my time on classes and sections. When I started, I was undecided among computer science, premed, or economics. I quickly narrowed in on economics after attending the introduction classes. A typical class is taught in lecture style by the professor and then small sections of ten students are led by a teaching fellow. I wish I learned early on that attending the professor’s office hours is the most helpful thing to do in understanding class material. Students are often intimidated by office hours because they are unsure of what questions to ask, but the professors are so helpful. For example, EC10 is an introductory economics class taught by Professor Greg Mankiw, who is quite well known on campus. I was really reluctant to attend his office hours but was cajoled into going by a high achieving friend and he was down-to-earth when I spoke to him. In fact, my friend and I asked him to our first faculty dinner and we had an one-on-one conversation for over two hours! It was an amazing experience and well into senior year, I continued to ask professors to faculty dinners. I still keep in touch with these professors when I’m back on campus.
The other unique aspect of classes is that Harvard offers a “shopping” and add/drop period. Students get two weeks to attend as many classes as they want and then choose a class schedule. If you are still undecided, you can sign up for up to six classes and then drop classes until the six week mark. I took advantage of this option many semesters and it allowed me to really explore my class options especially for my general education requirements.
At Harvard, extra-curriculars are treated sometimes as part-time jobs because they are demanding and really strong on campus. Unlike other colleges, Harvard’s clubs are handled as well run student organizations with big budgets, committed leaders, and dedicated impact beyond the school. As a freshman, I used these organizations to meet people with the same interests as me and develop my skills for professional use. I would recommend signing up for as many email listservs as you can so that you can be aware of what is happening on campus. There is definitely not enough time to attend all the events that you want to go to, but you can filter out the ones that seem most interesting and applicable to you. Since many of these events are held on Friday nights and weekends, they also serve as a great way to use your spare time wisely.
My main extra-curricular activities were the Harvard U.S.-India Initiative, Harvard Smart Woman Securities, and Harvard College Wine Society. I decided to narrow in on these organizations as a junior because I had leadership positions and wanted to stay as committed as possible. As president of the Harvard U.S. – India Initiative, I hosted two conferences about social entrepreneurship in India and in the U.S. with each one having as many as 1,500 attendees. With that type of turnout, we had to make sure that things were running as smoothly as possible under a $100,000 budget. During peak times, I was committing about fifteen hours a week to running the show with another forty organization members. Having strong commitment to one’s activities was a pretty common theme for many of Harvard’s student organizations and is one of the major contributors to why the school is able to retain a great alumni network. When I am back on campus, I still keep in touch with the current leaders of these activities as the membership is well connected even after graduation to share job advice, graduate school help, or other general questions.
College is a time to learn and develop what you want to be doing professionally so I focused part of my spare time on figuring out what I wanted to do after college. I started my job search early by doing internships in each of my summers that touched on different industries and allowed me to play different functional roles. The summer after my freshman year, I joined Thomson Reuters for a technology internship. In my sophomore and junior summers, I worked in the Investment Banking Division of Goldman Sachs and as a senior, I interviewed with management consulting companies to obtain full-time offers. In addition, throughout the school year, I worked as a part-time research assistant supporting multiple professors in writing their research papers. These were all wonderful opportunities in which I could develop my analytical skills as well as apply my education to real-world situations.
Harvard has a very structured process for finding internships, part-time jobs throughout the school year, and full-time job opportunities. The amount of resources that Harvard offers through its Office of Career Services (OCS) is incredible. OCS is a department that organizes formal recruiting for many types of jobs in which companies come to campus and hire interested students. OCS also works to arrange company presentations, job fairs, and coffee chats so you can really take the time and understand your interests before you apply. I also found them to be useful in preparing me for the interview process through their resources such as resume shaping and behavioral interview preparation. These resources are even open to alumni five years after graduation. If a job search is not in your near future, the school also offers great information on graduate school applications and fellowships. Harvard really pushes you to figure out what your true interests are and tries to remove any obstacles or boundaries to achieving them.
One of the most memorable experiences of Harvard was getting to live in Adams House. Adams is one of the residential colleges on campus, hosting about 400 students. All freshman live in the Yard and when “Housing Day” comes, you get to choose an eight person “blocking group” and get randomly sorted into a house to live in for the next three years. “Housing Day” is one of the most exciting days as a freshman. Most people live on campus and as a result, the house really does become a second home. Each house has its own dining hall, study rooms, holiday events, proctors, and even house masters. The house culture is what really drives Harvard on the inside because it represents the spirit of Harvard. I fondly remember winter and spring formals, sitting in the dining hall discussing hours about politics, and studying in the house library on a cold Boston day. Most of the friends that I still keep in touch with are from Adams and it is amazing that the house proctors have offered to look over my essays for graduate school applications even two years out.
I was recently back in Cambridge interviewing students for full-time job positions and the campus never ceases to amaze me. Living in Harvard Square and in Cambridge is a lively experience. The campus is well connected and conveniently offers shuttle service even to MIT if you are taking classes there. All of Harvard’s graduate schools, except for the medical school, are situated in the same area. It is really easy to vary your study habits and find a new location. I would often study in the Harvard Law School library to make myself more productive on a slump day.
Harvard Square also boasts a great assortment of local restaurants and has access to the “T”, Boston’s metro system making it is very easy to get to downtown Boston to check out museums and shopping areas. My Sunday night ritual was to stroll down Massachusetts Avenue to walk to MIT, calling my parents on the walk there and updating them on the week ahead. My friends and I frequently used the proximity to Boston to our advantage, planning dinner dates to try out new cuisines and checking out the Boston Commons on a sunny, spring weekend afternoon. In my senior year, we even ventured outside of Boston and road-tripped to Cape Cod, experiencing the scenic Pacific Ocean and visiting quaint New England towns such as Salem and Provincetown on the way.
Recounting my days at Harvard has been an exercise of reflection, understanding how these positive experiences have pushed me forward with my current goals. These memories will always stay with me and I, like many other alums, am always excited to talk about college when asked. Remember that the next time you engage a student in learning more about your dream college. Ask us questions and we are happy to help you!
Viroopa Volla graduated Class of 2014, Harvard College with an AB in Economics and Secondary Field in Global Health and Health Policy.