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Evolution of Minerva is a podcast exploring how Minerva has changed from the class of 2019 to the class of 2022. The first episode focused on the admissions process and featured Tanzila Bhuiya (M’22) and Snehan Kekre (M’19). The full transcript is available below.

If you listened to the episode and want to share your own thoughts about how the admissions process has changed, if you have another question or subject you’d like the podcast to explore, or if you just have general feedback, please leave a comment through this form.


Emma: Hello, and welcome to the Evolution of Minerva podcast! I’m your host, Emma Stiefel.

E: This podcast explores how Minerva Schools at KGI has changed over the first few years of its existence. In each episode, I pair up a student from the class of 2019 with one from the class of 2022 to talk about how their experiences compare to each other.

E: This first episode focuses on the admissions process. Tanzila Bhuiya, a 2022 student from Bangladesh, will share her very recent experience with applying to Minerva. Snehan Kekre, a 2019 student from India, will have to remember all the way back to when he applied in 2015. Snehan has also worked for Minerva as an admissions processor, helping to preprocess applications for evaluation.

E: I edited Tanzila and Snehan’s conversation for length and clarity. Here they are!

Tanzila: I’m Tanzila, I’m from Bangladesh, and I’m an M’22. I enrolled myself this year, I’m a freshman. Right now I’m in San Francisco enjoying my first semester, and things are pretty much going well.

Snehan: Hi, thanks for having me firstly, especially on your first episode. I’m Snehan from the class of 2019, which is not the Founding Class though we are on the same year now. I got here through, what’s the word I’m looking for, nontraditional means. I heard about Minerva through a Reddit surprisingly, there was I think an Atlantic article on the news subreddit, and Reddit, if your listeners are not fully aware, is a message board where topics get upvoted or downvoted based on their popularity. So there was this news subreddit that I was going through in 2015. The headline of the post said something like online education being redefined, Harvard-level education for the masses, something like that, It had “online” and it had “higher ed” and it had “reinventing,” all those buzzwords together, and it got a lot of downvotes. I clicked on it to see what was getting all the hate, and it turned out to be Minerva, when it was just starting out in 2014. That’s how I heard about it, we can go over the rest later.

T: Wow I have so many questions right now, but I’ll just talk about myself. When I was trying to enroll myself, I knew so many Minervans and they were very accomplished. I was like, “Wow, they must be going to some good universities.” I saw #Minerva, #Minervalife, bla bla bla, global experience. I was like, “Ok wow, they’re in different cities.” So I clicked on the Minerva website and the website is amazing, whenever I talk about Minerva I’m like, “You must visit the website, this is one of the best things about Minerva.” So I’m like, “Ok this is online,” and that’s what struck me as, yeah, it might be a scam. Because how can a university take you to seven different cities, and they’re some of the best cities? So I kept researching. I asked the seniors, like Antonio, he’s an M’20. I asked him, “Is it real? Do you really go to the university? Or are you just working for it?” He was like, “How could you say that, it’s a real university.” I thought, “Ok, let me just apply.” I didn’t tell anyone because I thought that other people were all so accomplished and I did nothing, so I won’t get it. I just randomly applied and the application process was really long, I don’t know how I got in but I’m grateful.

S: Did your parents have anything to say about Minerva though?

T: No, the only thing that’s good about my parents is that they were quite independent in this case. They didn’t stop me from applying to different places. When I got my acceptance letter, the first thing my father said was, “It’s not real, why would they take you?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so embarrassing! How could you say that, why would they take me?” He was like, “You did nothing, it’s the USA.” Because from my country, people really don’t go to the USA because it’s quite expensive and really competitive and stuff. My father’s like, “You should check.” He got so many bad influences from people saying, “Maybe it’s a scam, don’t enroll your daughter, that’s a lot of money, who takes classes online?” I was like, “Ok, I can just take my classes from my bed, that’s the best thing ever.” So that’s how it worked. But I want to ask you something, based on Reddit, how can you enroll yourself? That’s so weird!

S: Yeah, I guess with partial information it seems weird. It’s weird even with the full picture. I was enrolled in a bachelor’s degree back in India, I was doing physics, chemistry, and math. This was I think 2015, just around the start of 2015, and I had always had an interest in watching lectures online, taking MOOC courses, MIT Opencourseware, EdX, Coursera, the whole spectrum. What I saw in my own college back home was that it was not the sort of experience that I really wanted for myself. It seemed like going to an orthodox traditional school for four years again. I really tried to reflect on what I want from my life, and it seemed like four years of being told what to do and not having a lot of flexibility wasn’t really my jam. I was looking for a way out, but there wasn’t really a program that I was comfortable with. Minerva seemed to fit all those aspects, though it wasn’t set in stone in terms of having alumni behind it, a really grand name, and all those factors. What really stood out to me was what Minerva stood for in terms of their values. First they wanted their admissions process to be democratic in that everyone is allowed to participate. The first thing you notice on their application is that they don’t charge any fee. At the same time, I was applying to many different colleges in the US, a lot of the Ivies, and most of them go through this portal called Common App, and the bills there can rack up. Like every application, regardless of whether you’re getting in or not, is $70-90. And that was one of the first attractive properties, that I can apply to this crazy school and I have nothing to lose but I potentially have something to gain.

T: This part is quite the same, because when I was doing my Common App I was like, “Which is cheaper?” Because in Common App there are certain levels, and then after that you have to pay. That’s another reason I thought it was a scam, because you don’t have to pay. I was like, “How come it’s a US university and you don’t have to pay for the application fees?” And the application was really, really long. I wanted to ask another thing, back in your time was there four parts like ours? We did exams, about you, accomplishments, then there was another part that was like a live interview.

S: Firstly, you made me feel really old by saying back in my time. It was just a few years ago. But it does seem that way. But it was even more nontraditional and rough for the Founding Class, because apparently Minerva’s admissions process wasn’t robust or skilled enough, their product was not developed enough, so they had a lot of interviews over Skype I believe. That was only for the Founding Class and the process took a couple of days, whereas when it came to my year they did it pretty much as it is now but just not as polished on the website. You had to create an account and it was kind of the same workflow. There were three overriding main sections, one is about who you are so there’s demographic information, and then how you think, so they have these cognitive tests, there’s a bit of math.

T: Yeah math, English, IQ, some situation and comprehensive skills, yeah, that was pretty much the same. When you applied, did you have this outreach opportunity where the senior will interact with you and say, “If you have this problem, talk to me, bla bla bla?”

S: Really interesting question. Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it in all these years. Initially I saw it on Reddit, I started the application, and I got an email saying thank you for starting the application, and there was also a letter from Ben Nelson I think, just a generic one of his vision for Minerva and stuff. As I was going along the application, at some point a founding student reached out to me, he’s still at Minerva in London currently, his name is Guillaume, he said he’s a student and someone I can count on if I had questions about life at Minerva. But at the same time I was really skeptical, I don’t know who Guillaume is, I certainly didn’t give him my email or contact details, and he reached out to me on Facebook, so I kind of blocked him. That is what I did.

T: That is hilarious! Why did you do that?

S: I dont know. I was in a weird place and Minerva was a weird school, so yeah. I said, “Ok, this is weird, I’ve never seen this sort of application, I’m trying to figure out uses for a broom on the fly, and now someone’s reached out to me on Facebook.” It was a really surreal experience. And I’ve heard this come up in a lot of conversations with various Minerva students, where the first reaction for the parent is really of skepticism, and the word “scam” keeps coming up, because it seems too good to be true, right? You have a social sciences dean from Harvard as your main dean, you have all these different professors who are not tenured but are still willing to teach, you get to go to all these different countries and have a global experience, and on top of that the application is free. So there must be a catch here, and maybe you are the catch, they’re going to exploit you, you go to the US. So yeah, a lot of parents have this concern. I guess since a lot of them have it, it’s valid to be addressed, and that I feel like is one of the factors that Minerva has to overcome in terms of marketing and outreach. How do you reach out to students that need you but also have these constraints where their social environment might not be really conducive?

T: So in my time, when I started applying, oh my god so many seniors reached out. I was getting so many automated emails from 2019, 2020, and 2021. I was like, “Wow, oh my god, maybe Minerva’s giving me attention.” I was super happy, and then one of my friends, I influenced him to apply, he was like, “Hey, you know what? I got mail from Minerva!” And I was like, “Oh, you did as well? That’s a turnoff!” Then I kept asking my seniors, “What if my electricity is gone in the middle of the exam? What if my phone keeps ringing in the middle of the exam, will they expel me?” I kept emailing Minerva, and after some time I thought that maybe Minerva is going to expel me because I keep emailing them a lot. And then there was a lady named Emma Noizumi right, she’s such an amazing person, she said, “If you want a one-on-one with me you can.” Then we had a Zoom interaction and I told her about the situation in Asia, that there is an electricity problem and we don’t know how to deal with it, and at that time I didn’t have a personal laptop so I had to go through a struggle. But somehow I managed. When choosing Minerva, I really, really researched a lot about if it’s a scam. I did a background search of Ben on LinkedIn. And Kenn Ross, he’s amazing, so I talked to him, we had a video conference on Twitter and he showed up, so that means it’s real. Then I told my parents, “Did you know there’s a professor from Harvard?” And they were like, “Oh, how can a Harvard professor teach in some university that is literally new?” Still, in my case it was quite good because we had so many over accomplished seniors and they’re doing really well. But maybe in your time, you guys are like seniors to us, and you guys were just getting started at that time, so it must be very difficult for you to choose Minerva, that Minerva keeps saying that it’s just an experiment, you guys might do good might not, so it must have been tougher for you than for me.

S: Yeah, perhaps from your perspective I can see how it must have been unnerving for the past students given that there was not a solid grounding on which Minerva was built. But also the technical issues, I had a ton of technical issues applying to Minerva, they required bandwidth for the videos, and I also shared your concerns of, “Oh crap, I’m not going to get into Minerva thanks to my slow internet.” What remains constant over the years is that Minerva and their staff really care about their students and will go seemingly out of their way to make it work. So for you they reached out via email, and then you had a Zoom conference though you were not a student back then.

T: Yeah, exactly, that’s another thing that’s different. How can a staff reach out to you and talk to you even though you are not a student of Minerva? That’s quite interesting.

S: Yeah, so that was something that really stood out to me. Though they were not credentialed in the way that other colleges are, they really seem to care about the individual behind the application. And Kenn Ross, the Managing Director of Asia at that time, also reached out to me and said, “Hey, I see you started your application process but you haven’t logged in for these many days, what is up, can I help you, do you need questions answered, are there concerns that your parents or immediate family have?” Though I was really skeptical of Minerva at that time, this allowed me to ease into the idea of Minerva and say, “Ok, maybe this won’t work out but at least I know that there are people in there who care about the mission and the student body.”

T: How come you don’t need any ACT or ILS? At least ILS is so basic, you need it. But I literally emailed Minerva twice just to make sure, “You’re sure I don’t need ILS exam for this?” And they’re like, “No, you don’t have to.” After giving the exam I realized, because they have their own voice interviews section, so yeah that’s why they don’t need ILS. But yeah this is so cool, because there are some people in my country, giving ILS exam is really expensive. So it’s open for everyone, even if you haven’t sat for the ILS exam you are good to go and just do well. That’s awesome!

S: Yeah, another reason why they don’t have these standardized tests is to reduce the barrier of entry. All of these tests cost a lot of money, and many people, I’m not saying all but a large section of people who excel at these tests, have had prior training and that training doesn’t come for free, you need to pay for tutors and they get really expensive. So Minerva is trying to reach as wide of a net of students as possible, regardless of their socioeconomic status or background, and they care solely about merit and are really analytical in their admissions process.

T: As Ben said, everything is intentional. Minerva does everything intentionally.

E: And that concludes the first episode of this podcast! Thanks again to Snehan and Tanzila for coordinating across busy schedules and a 14 hour time difference to make this conversation happen.

E: Next episode, we’ll focus on how academics at Minerva have changed over the past four years.

E: If you’re still listening, thanks! This podcast is a work in progress, and I’m hoping it will grow and get better as the year goes on. I especially want to incorporate as much feedback from you, the broader Minerva community, as possible. If you have insights of your own to share, if there’s something you’ve been wondering about how Minerva is now or how it used to be, or if you have any general feedback, let me know! Fill out the survey linked to on the web page for this episode. I’d love to hear from you!

E: Now we’re actually at the end! Once again, I’m Emma Stiefel, and this is the Evolution of Minerva podcast.

E: This podcast is a Minerva Quest production. It was written, edited, and produced by me, Emma Stiefel. Music is Balloons Rising and Mosey by A. A. Aalto.

E: Thanks for listening!