Among the Intellectualoids

My Application to Harvard

How Kaavya Viswanathan got a life.

By 5.8.06

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''There was more shaping to this book than we generally do," said Asya Muchnick, senior editor at Little, Brown. -- Boston Globe

Viswanathan is the 19-year-old who got a $500,000 book contract and a DreamWorks movie deal, and has since admitted appropriating numerous passages from another writer's teen angst novels for her own, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." -- Washington Post

September 4, 2003, 10:03 a.m.
Dear Kaavya,

This is Katherine over at IvyWise. I'm looking forward to working with you to make sure you can get into Harvard. I thought that your first sentence on your application was great. Remember, do not write more than one sentence at a time without passing it along to us so we can make sure it projects the right sense of who you are based on the automated personality inventory you took on our website. Please see to it that you give me a call when you finish going over this with your parents, so we can go forward.

Why do you want to go to Harvard?

I want to go to Harvard because I feel that Harvard's writing program is very strong, as well as its overall curriculum.

This is a great start! But let's see what we can do to make your first sentence really stand out. Also, personal conflict really gets these admissions officers excited. Let's see what we can add:

As I have come to understand Harvard's mission, I've also come to understand myself. My identity is split down the center, caught as I am along an ethnic divide; Am I an Indian or an American? For me, dealing with the stereotypes of what it is to be an Indian have helped me develop a sense of social justice, to know what I can do to change people's prejudices.

Let me know what you think!
--Katherine

September 4, 2003, 11:00 a.m.
Kaavya,

Katherine told me that you were showing resistance about changing your first sentence. For goodness sake, we did not raise you to go to Brown where you could just float around and not do anything. If Katherine tells you to change something, change it, I don't care what you think about it.
--Daddy

September 4, 2003, 11:30 a.m.
Dear Kaavya,

Don't worry about it. Let's just focus on getting you into Harvard! I think your next sentence actually works very well and there's very little I would change.

I've learned not to be a victim, not to blame everything on a domineering, chauvinist father; how can he help what he has been raised to believe?

Maybe we should put this in a greater context though, so we aren't simply focusing on your father, but on society at large. Here's what we'll do:

I've learned not to be a victim, not to blame everything on an oppressive culture that expects little of its women. Instead, I take that as a challenge to transcend those expectations. This is why I'm not worried about the presence of Larry Summers or Harvey Mansfield at the school.
--Katherine

September 4, 2003, 11:31 a.m.
Kaavya,

Katherine told me that your second sentence was very good. You know we love you no matter what.
--Daddy

September 4, 2003, 2:00 p.m.
Dear Kaavya,

We're running into a problem with this next part, which should show some intellectual depth.

Strange as it may sound, I grew up reading classic poets such as Matthew Arnold, Yeats, and of course Shakespeare. In junior year, I wrote a play similar to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, except from the perspective of Desdemona in Othello, a character with whom I've always felt a close affinity.

First, you wrote two sentences! Slow down, one at a time! Please don't jump ahead, we need to take baby steps in culling out the real you. Now, look, everybody reads Shakespeare, and not everybody knows who Tom Stoppard is. You're applying to Harvard, not Tisch. You should be more quirky in this essay. Talk about teenage authors and how they have influenced you.

Strange as it may sound, I've always felt a strong connection to American authors who appeal to white American teenagers. Their carefree accounts of the youthful struggle to overcome peer pressure and fit in seem so alien to me, considering that I've grown up in a number of different places and have taken to ignoring social pressures in the course of pursuing my own dream: becoming a more culturally-sensitive teen romance author.

Send me that script for the play. Maybe we can do something with it.
--Katherine

September 13, 2003, 1:30 a.m.
Dear Kaavya,

I'm glad you agree about making sure that your name is spelled in the original Hindi on the application. It makes you look more exotic. Besides, it's not like Harvard could access India's birth certificates (do they even have those? Ha ha).

Now that the application is all set and done, except for the recommendation letter from Professor Goodwin, let's get to work on that creative writing assignment you have coming up...
--Katherine

December 4, 2003, 2:00 p.m.
Dear Kaavya,

The Admissions Committee regrets to inform you that it cannot offer you a place in Brown University's Class of 2008...

J. Peter Freire is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He blogs regularly at TheIndividualist.net.

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J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington and a former editor at the Washington Examiner and The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jpfreire.