Masters at Harvard Law School - Dr. Rana Elkahwagy
Updated: May 19, 2020
Hometown: Alexandria, Egypt
Law Degree: Alexandria University
Masters: Harvard Law School, L.L.M
PhD: Harvard Law School, S.J.D.
Profession: Assistant Professor at Alexandria University
Field: International Law, Global Regulation
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a big fan of theoretical improvisation. We improvise every single day; when we meet new people, when we start a new job, when we lose a loved one. Growing up, I was torn between Alexandria and Beirut, as my father is Egyptian and my mother is Lebanese. Every time I moved to a new city, new school, new friends, it was an improvised experience full of ups and downs. At a young age, I learned to accept, adapt, and achieve. This magical recipe guided me to grow on an academic, professional and most importantly on a personal level.
Let’s go back in time a little. When did you first consider applying to universities abroad?
Studying abroad has always been a dream for me. My father did his PhD in France in the seventies and he used to tell me about his experience of living abroad and getting exposed to different languages and cultures. I did not want to leave my family at a young age, so I focused on finishing my law degree. After graduation, I started applying for masters programs in law known as #LLM. As I specialized in international law, I knew that the US is the right place for me to delve deeper into this subject.
I want to clarify the steps for studying law in the US. Unlike other fields, law is not an undergraduate degree. In order to get a law degree, students need to apply for college first, and spend three years in undergraduate studies. After graduation, they apply to get a Juris Doctor J.D. degree, and they need to study law for three years. So in total, after finishing high school, if you are looking to get a law degree in the US, it will take around 7 years.
When did you first start preparing for the application process? How did you prepare for the application process?
I started preparing my application two years ahead. I applied to 10 different schools: Georgetown, Columbia, Cornell, Notre Dame, NYU, UCLA, Harvard, Berkley, Yale and the American University. At the time, the application process was done through the law school admission council website (LSAC), most schools enlisted their LLM programs on the website. I mailed my transcripts, all translated and authenticated and my recommendation letters sealed to the LSAC address, and then I paid the application fees online. Once LSAC got the transcripts and recommendation letters, they sent copies of my documents to all schools. At the final stage, I started to draft my personal statement, a unique experience that was very challenging yet exciting. Once I was done, I took the #TOEFL exam and most schools required a score of 100 and above.
How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?
Throughout the application process, I was eager to get a full scholarship. I knew that studying in the US is very costly and my parents could not afford to help. So I applied for grants and financial aid in schools. I think it is very important to always check the website of each school and explore the eligibility for applying for scholarships. Out of 10 schools, I got seven acceptance letters, and 3 of them, Harvard, Georgetown, and Notre Dame included financial grants in their offers. In order to fund my tuition and living expenses, in addition to the scholarship I received from Harvard that covered half the tuition fees, I have also received a similar grant from the faculty of law in Alexandria University. I was very lucky because at that time, the faculty of law used part of its budget to support junior faculty members seeking to pursue their graduate studies abroad. My advice at this phase is to do an extensive research of all scholarship opportunities offered by the schools you are applying to, or any educational institutions that support students in the Arab World.
Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?
I received a lot of support and help from family and friends. My parents were very encouraging and they helped me pay all application fees. My brother, who at the time was doing his masters in France, reviewed my personal statement and we spoke for hours to discuss how I can use those 500 words to squeeze several aspects of my background and personality. I also received constant guidance from my best friend, she shared her personal experience as she was studying in NY. She reviewed my application and provided me with insightful comments. Another friend, who was admitted to Harvard two years earlier, was always available to read my personal statement drafts, to help with proofreading and to share with me his experiences with course selection and overall #LLM experience. I will be forever grateful to the people in my life who believed in me and inspired me to go forward and accomplish one of my dreams.
How can a candidate assess whether they are a “strong” candidate?
I think numerous factors are essential in determining the likelihood of being admitted into an #LLM program. Focusing on just one aspect is never enough. I will mention the four most important ones in my opinion.
Strong recommendation letters: a way to assess whether the student is a good fit to any program is manifested in the recommendation letters written by employers, professors, or colleagues. Make sure your recommender knows you very well, is familiar with your previous accomplishments, and is aware of your points of strength. Give your recommender full information on the program you are applying to, what type of students are usually admitted to the program and whether previous professional experience is required. If you can, make your recommenders as diverse as possible.
Grades: As schools receive thousands of applications every year, grades are one of the crucial factors that are taken into consideration, especially when you have no professional experience.
Personal statement: I advise students to be very honest in their personal statement; tell your unique story and be precise especially regarding your personality, your dreams and aspirations and why you want to apply to this particular program. To write my personal statement, I spoke about my childhood, my growth in different cities and how this affected my respect to other cultures and religions. Then I wrote the reasons why I decided to study law and how being part of the #LLM program would help me to accomplish my dream in pursuing an academic position and improving legal education in Egypt.
Extracurricular activities: I have done a number of activities during school years: I took Spanish classes for a couple of years, I worked as a script writing and presenter in an online radio station "Radio Tram", I volunteered in several organizations raising political and cultural awareness after the 2011 Revolution.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?
It is never too late or too early to apply for an #LLM. I was one of the youngest students in my class and at times I felt that I was admitted by mistake. I was so overwhelmed with the accomplishments of my classmates, with the participation required in classes and how many pages I had to read everyday. Looking back at the struggles I endured that year, I think it was one of the best years of my life. The experience you gain is totally worth it: you make great friends from all over the world, you engage in mentally stimulating conversations almost every day, and you get to know a bit about who you really are away from social and cultural constraints.