Frequently Asked Questions

Questions I often get from people via emails and social media, all compiled into a nice FAQ section. Topics covered are: college admissions, life at Penn, career, and miscellaneous. 

If you don't find your questions answered here, send me an email at alyssamaharani@gmail.com or ask me here.

College Admissions

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What SAT or TOEFL score do I need to get into a good school? What's your SAT and TOEFL score? 

Honestly, there is no right answer to this question, because that depends on a case-by-case basis. Each student's application is evaluated holistically and comprehensively, hence if there are extenuating circumstances that make your application extraordinary, SAT and/or TOEFL scores may not be weighed as much in the process. A good idea is to check the incoming class's average SAT and/or TOEFL scores to gauge yourself. Here are the stats for Penn's incoming class profile. I cannot disclose my SAT and/or TOEFL scores for confidentiality reasons.

How do I improve my SAT Reading and Writing/TOEFL scores? I'm struggling with English, since it's not my first language. 

There are always four components to learning a language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Reading is best improved by, well, reading more books. In particular, striving to read books with higher degree of difficulty. While the typical chick-lit and murder mystery might be more fun to read (I know, I read those books too!), the vocabularies are rather limited and the literary devices are sparse to learn English to prepare for SAT. I think reading classic literature and publications are the best way to improve your scores, aside from just memorizing the vocabularies. Some of my favorite books in this category are The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte),  and To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee). As for my favorite publication, I think The New Yorker has a lot of great articles with various subjects that can be suited to your interest. To address the writing scores, generally test-taking writing is at best formulaic and grammar-focused. Hence, the best way to improve is to practice by writing outlines to essay prompts. On the grammar aspect, a lot of it is just reading grammar books like The Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White). I think my grammar isn't that great, but reading books on writing have helped me to learn how to formulate my thoughts coherently on paper while minimizing grammatical mistakes. As for speaking and listening, what works for me are two things: speaking partners and music. Speaking partners are great way to practice language. Work with someone who is a native speaker of English and chat with them every week or so, and you can help them learn another language by doing the same for your native tongue. As for music, I generally try to listen music from the language I'm trying to learn. Look up the lyrics and see if you got the translation right. It's a fun way to learn a language without putting in too much effort.

I currently go to a community college. How do I decide which universities to transfer into?

I think you need to be realistic with your expectations in choosing which universities to transfer into. Some schools are easier to transfer in than be directly admitted to. Other schools have the reverse admissions selectivity for transfers versus freshman. In addition, community colleges are generally affiliated with local schools. For example, if you go to a community college in California, your curriculum is probably more or less aligned with universities in California and it would be easier for you to transfer all your credits to the local universities. Whereas, if you come from a community college in New York and transfer into a university in California, your credit requirements are less likely to be accepted. Other than that, you should consider all the same things that a freshman would consider.

Here are my SAT/TOEFL and/or college essay. Can you gauge my likelihood of getting into Wharton/Penn/other university?

I am not a qualified college counselor, so no, I don't think I can gauge your chances quite that well. However, I do know that college application is all about branding. Think of it as an exercise to sell your brand to a college counselor. You want to find a way to tie together your different achievements with your story (as reflected in the essay), and convince the admissions officers that you are worth giving the spot. If you have an interesting brand that fits to the school's desired candidates, you are more likely than not to succeed.

How do I choose a topic for my college essay? What things should I be looking for in order to make my college essay as polished as possible? 

Your college essay topic will depend on the prompt that you are given from the school. Most prompts are very general, so it is easy to modify a school's essay to another. In terms of choosing a topic, you should keep in mind that it is probably the only part of the application that you have the freedom to express yourself. Choosing a topic that is close to heart will only make your writing process easier. You want to sound as authentic as possible.

In addition, I think it is important to keep in mind that your college essay is like a sales pitch. A sales pitch has to be targeted for your audience: the colleges you are applying to! So to make your college essay as polished as possible, there are a couple of things that you should keep in mind. (This is adapted from one of my favorite books, Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath)

  1. Keep it simple. Strip an idea down to its core and don't make it too complicated. Some essays try to do too much with a short amount of word allowances. You are writing an essay, not a novel.
  2. Make it unexpected. Grab people's attention, especially in the first few lines - that's the make-or-break point for many college admissions officers.
  3. Choose concrete ways to illustrate your point. Make the links between your decisions in the story easy enough to understand.
  4. Credibility is always important. If you say that you're passionate about community service in the essay, your extracurriculars and academic involvements should reflect that. If you say that you're a fighter who never gives up in the essay, don't show transcripts with "withdraws" from classes. 
  5. Let the reader feel something! Emotions can strongly influence someone's perception of you. It is very easy to remember how someone made you felt, rather than what someone said to you.
  6. Stories form bonds much more easily than expositions. This isn't a "must", but it certainly is true for many people. Storytelling has lived on for thousands of years, so it must be an effective tool to spread an idea. 

Can I see your college essay?

Unfortunately, my essay does talk about someone who is very close to me and their personal struggles. I am trying to protect that person's privacy, so I cannot disclose my college essay publicly. There are some great essay samples though in Indonesia Mengglobal's Essay Clinic, so I suggest you go through that for more clarity.

Can you help me proofread my college essay and suggest improvements?

I'm a pretty busy person, so I can't guarantee I will have time to look through your essay. What I can direct you to is Indonesia Mengglobal's Essay Clinic that has someone with experience going through your college essay and giving it comprehensive feedback. Otherwise, you can send me an email, and I'll let you know if I have time that week to help you.

I'm an Indonesian student, and I don't have enough funding to go abroad for my studies. Where should I look for financial aid and/or scholarship?

Indonesia Mengglobal has a list of viable scholarships for Indonesian students that you can check out here. Other than that, I would recommend going to the university's individual website.

For undergraduate level: Some schools do offer merit-based scholarship for early applications; for example, University of San Francisco and University of Southern California. Other schools, including Penn, only offer need-based financial aid and will require you to fill in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. Unfortunately, since I haven't filled in FAFSA forms yet, I can't assist you with this.

For graduate level: I would recommend you to try applying for LPDP, Chevening or Fulbright scholarships. These are the most prestigious scholarships, and they cover almost everything from tuition to cost of living. Some universities also provide a merit-based and need-based scholarship too!

Life at Penn

 Photo by The Graduate Guide

Photo by The Graduate Guide

What was your decision-making process like in choosing Penn/Wharton as your school?

I always knew that I wanted to go to an academically rigorous school that could challenge me intellectually. I came across Penn around 8th grade from an article about Donald Trump. From thereon, Penn has been on my radar as one of the best schools in the world with a pre-professional emphasis. What cinched the deal for me was going to the campus itself. The location was urban enough that I would have enough things to do in my free time, but also not so "hustle-bustle" a la NYC that I would be too overwhelmed to even study. The campus is beautiful with a gothic feel, and you can feel how much students really care about academics, a stark contrast to how things feel back home in Indonesia. I did look into other schools, most of them located in the West Coast. My parents went to a school in the West Coast (they're SFSU alums), so they were pretty adamant that if I did not get into a good school that I stay in the West Coast. Aside from Penn, I applied to only one other school in the East Coast. In the end, I ended up with around 7 acceptances from different schools (all of which were in the West Coast). Some even gave me merit scholarships for the entire four years of my study, which made the decision very difficult to make. Despite that, I still ended up choosing Penn because of its academic quality and brand (yes, the Ivy League name is hard to resist!). 

How did you get into Penn?

By flying to Philadelphia and walking to the Huntsman building #awkwardsilence #dadjokes

Jokes aside, my application process was prepared much in advance of the deadline. With regards to activities and extracurriculars, these are things I were already interested in before I even thought of applying to schools, so there was no real effort exerted there. As for the choice of curriculum for my high school education, I moved to an international school with both Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. I took mostly AP classes since I knew I wanted to choose an American university, but I supplemented with some IB classes. In particular, I chose classes that I knew were academically rigorous enough to demonstrate my academic performance. I wrote the college essay after reading some great essay samples. It took me 51 revisions to get my essay to its final version, and I had my English teacher and high school counselor read through it before sending it to Penn. I also took the SAT I and II around September and October. For my SAT II, the subject tests I chose were Math Level II and Literature. This was honestly just playing to my strengths. I'm pretty good at math and I enjoy reading, hence the choice of subject tests. So that's my story of how I got into Penn.

Why did you end up choosing business as a major? And why your three concentrations (finance, accounting, management) in particular?

I was actually a psychology major coming into Penn. What changed my mind was that 1) I was terrible at biology and the psychology major at Penn had a lot of biology requirements, and 2) I was looking for something that was more practical and applicable to my career. I took a couple of business classes and found them enjoyable, hence I transferred into Wharton. As for my choice of concentrations, I honestly stumbled upon classes from the majors and found it fun & interesting!

What are some good places to visit in Philadelphia? Recommend me some restaurants and tourist attractions? Also, where do I get my Philly cheese steak?

My favorite places to visit in Philadelphia are: Rittenhouse Square, Magic Garden, City Hall, JFK Plaza, and Fine Arts Museum. Most people would also tell you to go visit the Liberty Bell too. As for restaurants, my top places include Zahav, Parc, Vic's, Pod, Buddakan, Audrey Claire, and Green Eggs Cafe. The best Philly cheese steaks I've eaten are from Pat's and Geno's.

Where can I find out more about Penn/Wharton?

Great question! I've written a short article here about what my life at Wharton is all about, but you can also explore Penn's website here.

Career

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What was the application process like to getting internships at a large finance company like Blackstone or Citi?

Nothing too different from what you would see in finance generally. My school holds on campus recruitment, so we have representatives from different companies coming down for information session. Post-info sessions, they start taking resumes and choosing people to interview for the first round. If you make it through, you get a superday, a marathon interview at the company's office with about 4-5 senior people on the team. You then wait to hear back about an offer. That should sum up the process in short, for more information, I posted about it on Indonesia Mengglobal.

How do I write a resume? How is that different from a curriculum vitae (CV)?

There are many sample resumes out there on the Internet that you could take a look at, depending on what industries you are applying jobs for. Some of my favorite resources on the Internet on resume-writing are: Purdue's Online Writing Lab and The Daily Muse's Resume Verbs List. The difference between a resume and a CV is in the length. A resume is a one-page summary of your background and experiences, while a CV is a more extensive version that allows you to go into more details.

Where do I find a good sample cover letter? 

Here is a cover letter that I did when I was applying for the Wharton Small Business Development Center. This was my first cover letter with very little work experience. As you can see, I have structured it into three paragraphs: who I am and which position I am applying a job for, how the position fits into my interests, and how my experiences qualify me for the job. This is the standard structure for a cover letter, and customizing each cover letter to the job position gives you a lot of leverage with the company.

I have an interview and I don't know how to prepare for it. What are some of your tips to preparing for job interviews? 

Just like many others, I find interviews nerve-wracking too! The best way to prepare for an interview is to research the company and the job position extensively. This will allow you to craft your answers to suit the company's requirements and culture. In particular, asking people who have worked in the position that you want seem to be the most efficient and best way to proceed. If you don't know anyone, then there are Internet and trade journals to help you along the way! As for nerves, I think my favorite advice from my professor (thank you, Professor Adam Grant) is to use that nerves to your benefit. When you are nervous, you tend to be in the arousal stage of mind. Using the arousal stage, you can train your brain to think that you're excited (a similar arousal emotion, with positive impact) as opposed to calming yourself down. Hope this helps!

How did you get a job at Google? What is the process like applying a job at Google?

To be very honest, I applied on the website, which is not the best way to do it, when I was in uni. If possible, get someone from inside Google to refer you - it's easier to get a job that way. I had heard really good things from people working at Google - the working culture, the interesting work, the unending stock of food - so I thought, well, why not apply to one of the best place to work in the world. I got called quite late and I was interviewing with a few other firms as well. I went through a screening with HR to ensure that I can speak English and I can talk coherently. Afterwards, I talked to 3 senior people in my team, all evaluating different areas. Some were evaluating my general knowledge & experience, some tested how I reacted when given a problem directly to solve on the spot, and some tested my knowledge of Google products. I would say as long as you come prepared and are good at analyzing things, the interview should not be an issue. Afterwards, my application was brought to the hiring committee and they approved my hiring. So that's how I get the job. Nothing too different, with the exception that the kind of problems you get. 

How did you get involved with the startup ecosystems?

I found an opening for Launchpad Accelerator at Google on our online directory after hearing about it from my founder friends. Because they highly recommended this program, I interviewed for a role on this project and I got it. Then I just started getting more involved with the startup ecosystem, met a few key people who introduced me to this world (I could probably list them out - but it will definitely be a book long), wrote stuff on Medium, and eventually, lots of people ask me to speak about my experiences with working with startups.

Miscellaneous

miscellaneous

Why do you write in English rather than Indonesian? Can you not speak Bahasa Indonesia?

I'm perfectly fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, however I feel more comfortable writing in English. In addition, English is the universal language nowadays. Not writing in English limits your target audience to only a sub-section of the world, and I want to ensure what I write is universally accessible.

What books do you enjoy reading? Do you have an ongoing book list?

I enjoy almost any genres of books, as long as it is good writing. Most of the books I read are generally business-related, due to the nature of my interests. However, i do enjoy the occasional fiction from time to time. I do keep an ongoing book list that you can view over here.

Any plans for S2 or Masters?

Not currently on the horizon, but it is something that I've thought about!