How I Used Personal Stories in My Application to Harvard

Daria Levina

This post has been the hardest for me to write so far. Partly because most of my reflection on the circumstances in which I grew up happened after I went to Harvard. As a consequence, the interpretations I have now were not there at the time of my applications.

I still decided to talk about them here because I want to highlight a few important points about relying on personal stories and circumstances in a master of laws (LLM) application.

One is that difficult life circumstances, in and of themselves, do not entitle you to admission to the program or a scholarship. It’s the becoming, the overcoming, that counts (I talk about it more here).

It may sound harsh but that’s just how it is. When referring to your personal circumstances in a graduate application, the criterion you have to use is always: is this relevant? Does it relate to your argument about why you are applying for an LLM? Does it show how you've matured under the influence of the circumstances? Does it show how you translated them into lessons for your own benefit?

You have to be very strategic about what personal circumstances you use, how, and why.

Not all of them need to be in your essay. It does not mean they are not valuable. Not at all. It simply means they are not driving your argument forward.

Experiences that make the admissions committee pity you but don’t help them make inferences about the strength of your profile should not be in your essay.

In this post, I’ll show you how I dealt with personal circumstances in my Harvard essay.

the final version i used in the personal statement

In the essay, you’ll see this paragraph:

According to transactional analysis, everyone has a life script (cf.: Eric Berne). Formed through parental programming, the script affects entire human life and is extremely difficult to break. If this is true, my script is “Pollyanna”. A girl raised by the father. A girl whose family had beans and fish balls for dinner, who wished for a doll to arrive in a missionary barrel and received a pair of crutches instead. A girl who is by circumstances forced to play the glad game: find something to be happy about; change the attitude; adapt.

As you see, this is quite succinct, only 6 sentences and 93 words (the total essay word count was 750 words).

To be able to write it this way, I analyzed a wealth of factual material, most of which did not make it to the essay.

To compare, I’ll now describe the circumstances that I analyzed before I wrote that paragraph. I’ll reduce it for the purposes of this post (there is a lot more to talk about, but it's not the right forum).

the factual material i worked with

When I was 7, my parents separated. I moved to live with my grandmother, my mom, and my sister in Kazan, 800km to the east from Moscow. My father lived in a village one hour away from Moscow.

During one of the visits to Kazan he abducted me, lying to my mom that we'd go to the park and taking me to Moscow instead. After that, he initiated the divorce proceedings. In the meantime, he did a lot of brainwashing. I was told that my mom and my grandmother were bad people who did not love me and mistreated me, and he had to take me away to rescue me. The divorce went on for several years, during which I only saw my mom and my grandma under his supervision.

At some point he threatened my mom that if she didn’t sign a settlement agreement under which I stayed with him, she would never see me again (I only learned about this a couple of years ago). My mother signed it, and the divorce ended in my father's victory. By that time, I lost the ability to separate the facts from his interpretations.

For most of my life, I was on my father’s side. I was my father's daughter. I only started working with these memories several years ago, after I could not handle the symptoms of PTSD and depression anymore.

I’m mentioning this here to clarify the use of the Pollyanna metaphor in my essay: It felt so relatable. (for those who don’t know, Pollyanna, the heroine of a book by Eleanor H. Porter, grew up with her father after her mother died). Since the contact I had with my mom was extremely limited for most of my childhood, the story of a half-orphan felt like succinctly describing what I went through.

Further, the metaphor allowed me to allude to the socio-economic environment I grew up in. We lived in extreme poverty. My father worked as an electrician and a plumber. He was never much of a provider, and the 1990s never ended in our household. The material conditions in which I spent most of my childhood were atrocious, to say the least. There was no flush toilet, only an outhouse I had to use at -20C. Water supply came from a well outdoors that would freeze in winter, and you’d need to go to the basement and pour hot water on the pipes from a kettle. Heating was irregular. For a few years, we had a coal heater, and I woke up every day with a layer of coal dust on my hair. When I was around 10, my father decided to install a gas heater. First snow that year fell in October, but he didn’t finish the works until the end of December. We celebrated the new year’s at +10C. Plus, the conditions were simply unsafe and included things like an uninsulated wire in my room and a stack of wooden planks with nails sticking out of them (a wire burnt through my finger once, and a wooden plank left a 15cm scar on my leg).


Now, that’s just a fraction of my personal circumstances. As I mentioned, the process of interpreting them largely happened after I came back from Harvard.

I’m not telling this here to indulge myself. Rather, I’m telling about it here to show that just like with professional experiences, you’ll use only a few of the stories you’ve uncovered. That’s ok. That’s how writing works.

Compare the wealth of empirical material you'll need to analyze and how economical you have to be when using them in an essay to make an argument. As you can see, I reduced all of the complexity to a single paragraph. It doesn’t mean that the rest was not valuable. It was. It just did not drive my argument forward. I wanted to show the transformation, and everything I included had to work towards that goal.

This paragraph also highlights just how important the Pollyanna metaphor was to me. When I wrote the essay, I asked a native English speaker, an American, to have a look at it. His feedback was that I’d be better off removing that metaphor as, in his opinion, it was a cliché. I got extremely upset, disagreed with him, and left the essay as it was.

First, I believe that it'd be a cliché only if an American used it (because it's an American cultural reference).

More importantly, what an American saw as a ‘cliché’ was a way to convey a lot of things, such as the socio-economic conditions of growing up in extreme scarcity and without a mother; the longing for the better circumstances and getting the metaphorical ‘crutches’ instead; the glad game– how you live with the circumstances you can’t change. The metaphor allowed me to convey all that meaning in under 100 words in a way that an American audience could understand. It also allowed me to show how the profession I chose – the law – helped me to liberate myself from that narrative. All that in one paragraph.


I hope the above helps you with describing your own personal stories and circumstances in an application. Please let me know if you'd like me to elaborate on anything I've discussed in this post.