Studying at Harvard College - Nourhan Shaaban
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Hometown: Alexandria, Egypt
High school: Public
Undergraduate: Behavioral Economics - Harvard College
Masters: Public Policy - Harvard Kennedy School
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. With COVID-19 and the current quarantine, I would say that my favorite activities have been cooking new meals, writing, speaking with my friends, and exercising (if I get myself to do it). I finish my masters in one month so I’m also working on my final papers and projects. I genuinely believe that education matters - and not education in a traditional sense - but learning for its own sake, exploring, challenging ourselves, and becoming better versions of who we are. As a student, I enjoy creating and designing, as much as I hate taking timed exams.
Let’s go back in time a little. When did you first consider applying to universities abroad?
Growing up, I didn't personally know anyone who ever studied abroad. In middle school, I received a scholarship to study English through Amideast (a US nonprofit organization in Egypt) which gave me a lot of exposure. In 10th grade, one of my teachers at Amideast mentioned that I should consider studying abroad. He told me that there are scholarship opportunities and that I should apply. As a student, I cared a lot about my education and when I knew that I may have a chance to receive a scholarship from a good university, I worked harder to make sure I get that opportunity. My father - who believes in me way more than I deserve - also encouraged me to apply. The rest of my family, especially my mother and grandmother, were very concerned about sending their "daughter" abroad and it was a bit of a battle :)
When did you first start preparing for the US application process? How did you prepare for the application process?
I started preparing in 10th grade. I read a ton of resources online, and started studying for the SAT and TOEFL through online resources. For the SAT, I took the exam 3 times to improve my scores. I also began to think about my essays and the universities I wanted to apply to. None of my teachers had ever written recommendation letters, so I explained the process. Writing a personal statement was also extremely challenging at first, and I remember writing many many drafts. I simply was not trained to write “personal” stories, let alone in a different language.
I do not think I would have been able to apply successfully without the support of EducationUSA, which offered free counseling to students. They had offered a program called the Competitive College Club (CCC) which supports students who are applying to universities in the US. They answered questions and were extremely helpful to me. They also covered my entire college application fees through a scholarship they had at the time.
How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?
I understood clearly that funding is a challenge for me, and that is why I only applied to universities that can offer financial aid/scholarships. Honestly, it requires a lot of research to map the different scholarships and narrow down your university lists. I spent a lot of time researching universities, looking up professors, imaging different campuses, but the most important thing for me was whether a university had financial aid/scholarship opportunities. I applied to universities such as Vassar College, Amherst College, Wellesley, Smith College, Mount Holyoke, and Wesleyan University. I received almost full scholarships from each one of those.
What do you think Egyptian students often get “wrong” about the US application process?
First, I think most students get confused about the timeline. In Egypt, you finish 12th grade and then you apply to universities. In the US, you start preparing much earlier. The process can be lengthy especially for those of us who are not familiar with it. Applications typically take place in December of your 12th grade. (That being said, it is never too late to start).
Second, many students in Egypt do not realize that grades are not the only factor. Do not get me wrong; grades do matter, but the application process in the US is more “holistic” which means they also look at your activities, your personal statement, and the recommendation letters. So you really need to think about all of these aspects.
Third, your leadership activities, essays, and letters of recommendation are SO important. I see many students not dedicating as much time to those pieces.
Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?
Yes, I did. Formally, EducationUSA offered free advice to students who were interested in applying abroad. Through this program, I learned a bit more about scholarship opportunities and met other students who were also applying to schools abroad.
Informally, which was so important for me, I received a lot of support from different mentors who took the time to talk to me, edit my essays, and support me. Two of my closest friends also read everything I wrote and helped me brainstorm ideas. Their unwavering support was so important for me as a teenager who was juggling “thanwya amma” and applications.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?
Start thinking about this early and give yourself time to prepare. If you do not know how the process works (like when I was applying), take some time to read online. Finally, I would say be honest and reflective about why you want to study abroad and your own personal strengths and weaknesses. Share resources with your friends and ask for their help.