In 2014, I graduated from public high school in Chicago before heading to the University of Chicago for my undergraduate studies. I got my Bachelor's degree in Linguistics with Honors, while also taking several math and computer science courses. Since graduating, I have been working as a technology consultant in Chicago. My experience with the US College Admissions process was straightforward and relatively stress-free for two reasons. The first was that my grades in high-school made me a strong candidate for most universities. Secondly, since my parents were poor, the only way for me to afford college was if I received a full scholarship from a private school. This constraint simplified my choices tremendously. Here is how I got into some of the top colleges in the country
My journey started before secondary school, when I tested into one of the best high schools in the United States, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Because it was free to attend that school, there was a tremendous amount of socio-economic and racial diversity, which is rare in top-performing schools. Additionally, the school had the resources to support college level courses in music, art, acting, social sciences, literature, technology, science and math. My school also prided itself on close relationships between teachers and students, making it easy for teachers to create lesson plans and entire courses based on student interest.
The most important factor for me was the Academic Center, which allowed 11 and 12-year-olds to test into highschool early. When I applied, the test was more of an IQ test than most content-based admissions tests, so many of the students who got into Whitney Young early were intelligent and creative in unconventional ways rather than organized and disciplined test-takers. These people in particular helped make Whitney Young an unlikely mix of focused hard-workers and aimless creatives, all brilliant and eager to learn.
When I got there, I was happily overwhelmed by my smart peers and the high expectations of everyone around me. Like everyone else, I was used to being a top performer in elementary school, and so had yet to be challenged academically, despite my mother's best efforts. I quickly learned several valuable skills. If I neglected my homework, I would not get good grades. If I failed to pay attention in class, I could not do my homework. The end result was that if I did not do the work I was supposed to, I could not correctly guess the test answers as I had in the past.
After a couple of years, I was smart and hardworking, efficiently working my way through all of the credits I needed to get. I took all honors level classes, and, starting freshman year, I took as many Advanced Placement (AP) classes as I could. These college-level classes have a standardized exam at the end of the year. Students who do well can sometimes skip classes in college as a result, while some colleges are unlikely to accept you as a student if you have not taken any. Throughout this, I kept one important focus: the wind ensemble. I loved playing the flute in one of the top highschool ensembles, and it was by far the most challenging of my classes.
While my involvement in band was the biggest commitment of my high school career, it was a scheduled class during the normal school day, so I had time after school for other extracurriculars. My freshman year I joined several clubs, and I continued to be minimally involved in several of them throughout my high school career. My four favorite were Business Club, Ecology Club, Asian-American Club, and the Math Team.
The Business Club was a one-year commitment. Students would show up a couple hours before school to help run a small coffee shop in the dining hall. During that time I learned how to budget, keep track of money for a business, and what a caffeine addiction is like. This was also an excellent time to meet new people and get some studying in before class.
I was in the Ecology Club longer, but the commitment was smaller. I designed and helped build an aquaponics system in our green house, took care of the plants and fish over the summers when fewer students were around, and generally helped clean and organize the environmental sciences' department equipment and pets.
On the other hand the Asian-American Club was an enormous commitment. We rehearsed traditional Asian dances most days after school, and at the end of every year we put on the most popular production at our entire school: a two hour show with twenty choreographed dances from all over Asia. From K-Pop to Poi Dancing to a thousand-hand-buddha dance, it was harrowing, but everyone became great friends because of it.
However, my most important extracurricular was the Math Team. Having started at Whitney Young in 7th grade, I had completed all of my math requirements by the end of my Freshman year. I was on track to finish all possible math classes by the end of my Junior year. Because most of the students in the honors level math classes were the same every year, we became close friends and I started going to Math Team to spend more time with them.
Our coaches were amazing, and by the end of my Sophomore year we had become one of the top teams in the state. Whtiney Young was the first Chicago Public School to win a single contest against the wealthy, northern, suburban highschools, and the first one to win the entire year-long competition. We went on long trips together to compete at state competitions and stayed at school late to practice. As we got older, it became our job to help the younger students practice and learn problem- solving tricks. Our math family grew with our successes.
Preparing to Apply
Near the end of my Junior year I got sick, and was told to stay home for a month. My teachers encouraged me to drop some classes, since I did not need them to graduate, and to skip the final exams for the four AP Classes I was taking. I refused. Instead I stayed home for two or three days per week, and went to school the rest of the time. I got most of my homework done and did my best to keep up in class. While my grades dropped, I managed to get everything done, including the AP tests. By the end of the year I was ready to begin the much dreaded college application process.
I understood that Junior year was the year that colleges and universities cared most about, so I knew I was at a disadvantage. Luckily, I had always gotten excellent grades, so even though my Junior year grades and attendance were not as good as the other years, I had a shot. Most college applications include an optional section where applicants can explain extenuating circumstances, so I had to take advantage of that. I found it comforting to know that difficult circumstances should not ruin affect my chance of going to college. I definitely had the worst grades of my peers, so I was glad I had the opportunity to explain why.
Throughout the application process the most important goal was getting into a college. I refused to get caught up in the drama of comparisons and prestige which were happening around me. Instead, I collaborated with friends who wanted to go somewhere they liked rather than the highest ranked schools. This approach helped us craft more genuine applications, and most of us ended up getting into top 10 schools.
I applied to any schools that would waive their application fees because of my family's low income. Obviously some Ivy League schools made the list, like Harvard, Yale, and Brown, as well as other great schools like MIT, Stanford and the University of Chicago. I also applied to private liberal arts schools that caught my attention: Wellesley, Carelton College, the Rhode Island School of Design, and a small school in Indiana called Earlham College where I had worked on snapping turtle research one summer.
I was not certain about my major, and I could not afford to visit the schools. At the same time, I knew that I was a strong candidate because of my classes and grades. I had taken the state-mandated ACT when I was sick Junior year and got a 33, but I had to take it again with the writing portion for college. Since I had already taken the ACT, I ignored the SAT even though SAT Subject Tests can help applications. I simply could not afford to take more tests than were necessary, so I made sure to focus on my ACT shortcomings: Reading and Science.
I took an ACT prep course at school where I learned some useful tricks for the Reading section. There are always two answers that are obviously wrong, and two answers that are potentially right. As test-takers, the goal was to choose the best of the two right choices. I also learned the best time to take the test was at the state mandated time because the test is scored on a bell curve. That meant a high score would get a better grade when compared against the entire state, as opposed to another day when only high-achieving students are retaking the test.
I also learned the purpose of the science section. With no previous exposure to ACT Science questions, I had gotten lost in the details of the experiments. My class taught me that the experiments and papers presented were meant to be as confusing as possible, with an abundance of scientific words and badly organized data. The best strategy was to read the questions and find the answers in the documents, rather than to try and understand everything before looking at the questions. This time-saving trick made a difference and my score improved
Applying to College
I got a 34 on the next test and decided the 99th percentile was good enough. After all, I still had to write good personal essays before the deadlines. One essay went to all of the schools I applied to, and I wrote it fairly early. I wrote about a stressful family relationship and how it ultimately made me a stronger person. Because it was difficult to write about, I wrote it in the third person with an almost poetic repetitive theme to highlight the changes in me over time. My favorite teacher read over it for mistakes and I never looked at it again.
The University of Chicago had the best essay prompts, and I had trouble deciding which question to answer. They were designed to inspire creativity and they did just that. I settled on this one:
In a famous quote by Jose Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia" (1914). Jose Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: ”Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012).You are you and your..?
I liked that the original quote was in Spanish, my native language. Since I had been thinking about the differences in communication styles between languages, so I decided to take it a step further and make it a bilingual pun: ”Yo soy yo y mis sentidos.” Since ”sentidos” means both ”senses” and ”feelings” in Spanish, I wrote about the way my senses influence the way I perceive the world, and therefore my feelings about the world. I have never had a sense of smell, so I started with examples of misunderstandings I had as a kid before I realized I lacked the ability to smell. Icompared it to other sensory experiences I had not understood until I grew up, like actors' lips not matching their voices in dubbed movies.
For my application to the Brown-RISD dual-degree program, I wrote about my favorite television show, Avatar the Last Airbender, and about my appreciation for the arts despite my heavy math and science education. I wrote about the value of creativity and being inexact and how I wanted to stay immersed in both the arts and the sciences when I went to college. I also created a portfolio of my artwork which was tedious, but easy enough since my dad is an artist and I had been making art my whole life.
For the small liberal arts colleges I was applying to, it was easy to write about the reason I was applying, since I had heard about the schools from people I knew. I also did some independent research on the schools, because admissions officers like to see that you care enough to have researched their school.
I had much more trouble with the other essays. Unfortunately for me, "I'm applying to this school because I've heard of it," does not make a good essay. Why MIT? I guess I like math. Why Harvard? You guys have a big endowment, right? If I had known what I wanted to major in, I would have been able to learn more about different schools' programs of studies. I could have gotten into MIT to study Linguistics under the great father himself: Noam Chomsky. But alas, I did not know, and I refused to make something up. With deadlines approaching, I wrote something unremarkable and probably boring.
I enjoyed my holidays and returned for my last semester of high school stress-free, aside from my remaining AP final exams. I got into all the small liberal arts colleges, as well as Brown and the University of Chicago. Brown and Wellesley flew me out to visit their campuses, and UChicago invited me to stay for an admitted student event. I attended all three, but I was already leaning most towards UChicago. I liked their students and culture the best, and I preferred staying in Chicago because my father lived there.
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