Hettinger student accepted to prestigious Ivy League school

Already showing academic poise in elementary school, it became sort of a joke that Michael Shirek would one day go to Harvard. This fall, that joke will become Shirek’s reality as he was accepted to the Ivy League, east coast school on March 31.

Hettinger High School senior Michael Shirek holds up his Harvard acceptance letter. (Photo by Cole Benz/The Record)
Hettinger High School senior Michael Shirek holds up his Harvard acceptance letter. (Photo by Cole Benz/The Record)

By Cole Benz
Record Editor

“It was always kind of this little joke, ‘oh Michael is going to Harvard,’” Shirek said. “I think it was sort of this dream that I didn’t really take seriously.”

Shriek told the Record he was given a Harvard t-shirt by his father, and he suspects that’s when the joke started.

Shirek’s acceptance letter and Certificate of Admission to Harvard. (Photos by Cole Benz/The Record)
Shirek’s acceptance letter and Certificate of Admission to Harvard. (Photos by Cole Benz/The Record)

Hettinger High School Guidance Counselor Darin Seamands said this may be the first student from Hettinger to get into Harvard.

Over the last few years, the senior at Hettinger High School said he started to believe he might actually be able to gain admission.

“This last couple of years I think, it was like ‘I might actually have a shot,’” he said. “That’s where it started getting serious.”

About 40,000 people applied to Harvard this year, according to Shirek, and roughly 5 percent of those applicants are accepted. So it comes down to a numbers game, and Shirek said the school does their due diligence when it comes to analyzing their prospective students.

“[Harvard] looks at the entire spectrum, and extra curricular [activities] is one of them,” Shirek said.

Shirek participated in many extra curricular activities throughout his high school career, but listed music, Future Business Leaders of America, drama/speech and Student Council as a few of his top activity performances. Shirek served as the Senior Class President this year.

Though it is strenuous, he said the application process is very similar to most other colleges, with Harvard just digging deeper. For example, Shirek said, where some schools will ask for a student’s class rank, Harvard will ask if the student shares the rank with another, or if the student holds sole possession.

The school also wants to make sure their prospective students are keeping up with their studies throughout their senior year, requiring accepting applicants to submit grade reports in February and a final transcript after the school year. Shirek said acceptance can still be denied if the grade reports come back unsatisfactory.

Along with the standard, albeit in-depth questions, Harvard requires three letters of recommendation. Shirek said that the majority of the application process is done online.

Everything required for application was due Jan. 1, and Shirek said his proof reading “was almost obsessive.”

“The last day I sent [the application] in I think I read over everything like five times,” Shirek said. “And I don’t know how many times, I lost count, so many times before that just going through ‘is this worded right, is this the right punctuation, did I fill everything in just the way it needed to be?’”

His anxiety grew everyday from the moment he hit submit, but added that he did not actually feel too much pressure.

“Pressure wise, very little,” he said. “Anxiety wise, that’s a little harder to control.”

He had always mentally prepared himself for rejection, something he said anyone in their sane mind prepares themselves for.

To make matters worse for Shirek, Harvard didn’t give him an exact date as to their decision, only to say that it would be in late March.

“I was anxious, they didn’t give an exact date,” he said.

So after not hearing from Harvard by the last day of the month—March 31—anxiety was at heightened proportions for him.

“That anxiety on that last day [of March] was just skyscraper high,” Shirek said.

So when it came to March 31, Shirek was on a bus after competing at the regional choir competition. He knew the notice of acceptance or rejection would be available at 3 p.m. MT, and for that last hour leading up to the deadline he was checking his phone nearly every minute.

“We were on the bus and I’m sitting there just counting down the minutes for the full hour before,” Shirek said.

But when he checked his phone the last time, he saw there was an update notification, and knew it was the alert he had been waiting for. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the screen when it first loaded. But he finally mustered up the courage to tilt his head down and look.

“I looked down and the first thing I saw was ‘congratulations,’” Shirek said. “I screamed, and everyone else screamed.”

He said someone captured the moment on a phone.

Shirek immediately sent a group text message to his family, then he called a few close friends.

Now that he has that acceptance letter, he is on cloud nine. Though he has to keep up his studies, Shirek said he can now relax and is truly starting the feel like the year, and his high school career, is finally wrapping up.

Shirek plans to study medicine, though he doesn’t know what type of medicine he will choose to concentrate on, he said that will be figured out as he gets deeper into school.

He was told that of the 40,000 applicants this year, only seven are from North Dakota. Shirek believes that most don’t try because they have a perception that only the privileged, east coast students have a chance with the Ivey League school.

“We think, because we’re not on the coast and we don’t have [big] cities, that it’s something where the east coast is just going to take it from us, there’s no point,” he said. “I think anybody that wants it can get it, they just have to work for it.”

Shirek believes that students from North Dakota have skills to offer schools like Harvard that students from major cities don’t develop.

“Being from a small town provides a certain attitude towards things that also benefits your application because it benefits you,” Shirek said “It’s that attitude that ‘I can make it happen if I’m determined to make it happen.’”

He said that if you want to set your academic sights on Harvard, you need to start thinking about it and working hard no later than your junior year of high school, or earlier to get your tests scores and grade aligned with their admission standards. But it isn’t impossible.

Ryan Moser, the high school principal, said Shirek has made a definite impression on the school.

“You have students here that do a lot for our school,” Moser said. “Michael is one of those students who has actually changed our school, and contributed to our school. While other students do that, he has left an imprint on our school.”

As the summer draws near, Shirek will prepare for his life on the east coast, get his housing situated and readying himself for classes to begin; he has a May 1 deadline to officially accept his admission. He said this whole process was a group effort, and was very appreciative of all of the help he received.

“[I’m] extremely grateful for everyone who helped out,” Shirek said. “I couldn’t have done it on my own at all.”