PRESENTING THE PAST
Harvard’s application process required Ida Valentine to write an open-ended essay on something they didn’t already know about her. But while Ida had been open about her past, she didn’t know how to put it in a college essay.
Enter admissions consultant Linda Abraham. Abraham, of Accepted, has been a consultant for a quarter-century and seen just about all there is to see when it comes to applicants’ stories — or so she thought. After meeting Ida, Abraham was blown away.
“My conversation with Ida Valentine was one of the most heartbreaking and inspirational of my career,” Abraham says. “Although she talks a lot about her career in investment banking and her successful application to Harvard Business School, it’s her personal story and resilience that are amazing.”
Applicants to Harvard can show resilience following failure, difficulty, or trauma by picking themselves up and simply going on, Abraham says — by going to work, building a life, contributing. Ida Valentine embodies this approach better than anyone she’s ever met. It was just a matter of putting the tory down on paper. “A few short years after her parents’ murder/suicide, Ida entered one of the most demanding fields in business, investment banking, and has become an associate, a position that MBAs normally pursue — while having a side career as a speaker on sexual abuse,” Abraham tells Poets&Quants. “Harvard wants evidence of resilience: deciding to make the world a better place, and specifically in reaction to that pain. Ida is clearly doing so with her speaking and nonprofit work.”
LESSONS FOR OTHER APPLICANTS
Abraham says Ida Valentine’s story — and her experience in the MBA application process — can be instructive for other applicants.
“Most readers will correctly think they don’t have anything as dramatic as Ida’s story. They are blessed,” she says. “However, everyone by this stage in their lives has had disappointments, failures, and difficult experiences. I’m not saying that all applicants have to focus on those experiences, but if they choose to write about them, the candidates should only briefly describe what happened. The bulk of their response should focus on their reaction and how that reaction has helped others, made the world a better place, and helped them grow.”
Abraham says Ida is also notable for her purposeful approach to the admissions process. She is not doing an MBA just to do an MBA, and she is not going to Harvard “because it’s Haahvaad or ranked X in magazine Y.” Instead, Ida has made a thoughtful, purposeful decision comprised of knowing what she wants do after her MBA, being clear about the gaps in education and experience that she wants to fill via the MBA, and showing how HBS in particular will help her fill in those gaps and achieve her goals. Abraham featured Ida on Accepted’s podcast, Admissions Straight Talk, in June.
“As an admissions consultant for 25 years, I have heard tens of thousands of applicant stories. I have interviewed over 300 guests for Accepted’s podcast,” Abraham says. “I can think of only a handful who have impressed me as much as Ida Valentine.”
‘EVERY TIME I TELL MY STORY, I HEAL A LITTLE MORE’
Ida had no doubt that she would tell her personal story in the Harvard essay. “I felt like no one would really know who I am without this background story,” she says. “I struggled with trying to make it sound less angry. The thing that helped me the most was having lots of people read my essay.”
Consultants “helped me take the tone down to: ‘I want you to know who I am because my experience made me a stronger, more resilient person, who is able to speak up for myself and my ideas.’” Those ideas include more than just personal tragedy. Ida has also been more active in her community because that’s where she found her strength and self-worth. She realized her experience could help others.
Since she joined Barclays, Ida has been volunteering to tell her story to various groups to “let them know that trauma doesn’t have to define you,” she says. “There is light at the end of the tunnel. You can survive and even thrive.” When she was working for Barclay’s in California, she volunteered for Rape Trauma Services and is currently pursuing a second career as a motivational speaker.
The volunteer work keeps her going and makes her feel like she can help others, she says, while helping herself. “I’ve gotten notes from students saying how much my story helped them,” Ida says. “They tell me that they are going through something similar, and I gave them the strength to go to a counselor. I also wanted to talk to more people because many black women have been through a lot of abuse. As a black woman, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me talking about this.
“Every time I tell my story, I heal a little more.”