Why ‘Be Yourself’ Is Both the Best and Worst Advice You Can Get

UPDATED: August 8, 2022
PUBLISHED: August 10, 2022
Why ‘Be Yourself’ Is Both the Best and Worst Advice You Can Get

I applied to Harvard’s doctoral program in education leadership (EdLD) at the encouragement of a friend; I figured I had nothing to lose.

To start the process, I did what I usually do when I’m doing something that terrifies me: I reached out to people who were already doing the terrifying thing to ask for their advice.

I was amazed at how many current Harvard EdLD students were willing to help me. I usually just ask for a word of advice via email, but most of them talked to me on the phone and offered to read my essays and share feedback. It turns out they weren’t Elite-Snob-Way-Smarter-Than-Me-Robots as I had perhaps subconsciously imagined.

They were nice.

In one of those preparation phone calls, one current student gave me this final piece of advice: “I know this may sound trite, but when it comes to your application, really be yourself.”

Be yourself.

I’d heard it so many times. And honestly? I thought I knew what that meant. But this time, when he said it, something clicked. I knew exactly what he was trying to say: Don’t be what you think Harvard wants you to be. Be you and see if Harvard wants that.

Easier said than done.

And especially hard to do for a straight-A student who is good at playing the game, learning the rules, getting the A. Oh, you like flowery language? Done. You prefer essays that are more succinct? I can do that. Oh, you like when I show my work on the math test? Got it. You prefer I just write the answers? Done.

In my first drafts of my application essays, I was indeed trying to be what I thought a Harvard student was supposed to be. Not because I thought that would work (it usually doesn’t), but because the real truth is that I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t think I was what a Harvard student should be.

But since the guy giving me this advice was in the program, I took his advice and rewrote my essays to reflect who I really was, and I sent in my Harvard application with the real me spilling out all over the pages.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I got an email from Harvard inviting me to the interview phase.

My application had made it as one of the top 50. Me and 49 other people would be flown out to Cambridge to interview in person, and then a month later, 25 of those people would be accepted.

Being myself actually worked. I was going to Harvard for an interview. The Harvard!

I decided to keep this whole “being myself” experiment going and take it a step further for the interview.

I knew how interviews worked and how the game was played. Even when you’re interviewing for a job and you simply need to pay your bills, you don’t say “I’ll seriously do anything I just need the money,” even if that’s the truth. Instead you say “This company is the best company of all the companies and I’d practically do this job for free, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life!”

Interviewing for Harvard isn’t quite like interviewing for a job, but just like a job I had a gut sense of what I might need to do to get past this phase. I knew this program, its goals and what they were looking for backwards and forwards. I knew it was a program meant to train people who would transform K-12 education at a systems level. They were looking for people who would start innovative schools and become high-level administrators who could help make big, positive changes in the public school system.

I didn’t ever imagine getting asked to interview because all my experience was in the community college world, not K-12. And also, I didn’t have any career goals of being in administration. My heart was in writing, teaching, storytelling—inspiring students on an individual level.

But somehow my passion for college access got me to an interview.

I decided, though, not to pretend that I wanted the kinds of jobs I knew the program was preparing people for. I told the truth in the interview. I was myself in a way I probably never have been before. And it felt great in the moment. I had a wonderful time. I made new friends. I felt like I had nailed it.

A few weeks later I got an email saying I did not get in.

It was not a good time. The part no one tells you about being yourself is that, while eventually you can say, See, it wasn’t the right program for me, initially all you feel is: Yep, I was right I am an imposter and Harvard saw me for who I really am and probably laughed their faces off—HA, she thought she was Harvard material?! Now I know the truth: Who I really am is not good enough.

My heart was broken into sharp little Ivy League crimson pieces. I wished I’d never applied. I wished I’d never been asked to interview. I wished I’d never stepped on the campus or bought that stupid Harvard T-shirt or imagined myself studying in that library.

I had many current Harvard students encourage me to apply again (one guy said he had a friend who applied three times before he got in). A few months later, I attended a Harvard Institute conference on The Achievement Gap and met the EdLD program director who also encouraged me to apply again.

Deep down though, I knew it wasn’t right for me; being a systems-level leader wasn’t really my goal. Going to Harvard—the Harvard—would have been so awesome for all the reasons you’d expect. But the program itself? It was close, but not quite me.

I decided not to apply again.

But very recently I did start applying to other graduate programs, and one alumnus from one of those programs—an author and lecturer at Stanford University—said this to me as parting application advice: 

“If you’re a rhino, be a rhino. Even if you think they’re giraffes, don’t be a giraffe, because then you might end up with a bunch of giraffes—and you’re a rhino!”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the “giraffes” in the EdLD were awesome people. I am still Facebook friends with the current students who helped me and the amazing ones I met in the group interview. They rock and are doing amazing things to improve K-12 education at a systems level.

But if you’re a rhino with rhino dreams, being in a graduate program structured to help giraffes reach their dreams might not help you all that much.

Applying for graduate schools and jobs has been brutal. In applications you’re forced to put your worth to words and, for me at least, it often makes me start to question how much worth I have at all.

But somehow, I keep applying for things. I keep trying, charging my big stubborn rhino horn against all these doors, hoping maybe one day I’ll crash through.

I still wear the Harvard T-shirt I bought the day before the interview. Oddly, I just realized I’m wearing it right now. I’ll admit, it still makes me sad. But it also reminds me that I tried. It reminds me that sometimes I’m brave. And maybe that’s good enough.

This article was published in December 2015 and has been updated. Photo by sergey causelove/Shutterstock

Isa Adney is an author and TV host named by GOOD magazine as one of the Top 100 People Moving the World Forward. She is currently writing a book about dreams. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at IsaAdney.com.