If I could travel back in time to visit my young high school self (who would be studying, studying, studying, often all night long, to do well in her AP classes), I would tell her that college preparation requires more than studying. As important as understanding derivatives in calculus or the logic behind the periodic table of elements is, there is more to preparing for an American college than studying. In fact, at most top American schools, there are more applicants with very high SAT scores (say, above 1450) than there are spaces available for them.
This is something my own parents didn’t understand—they thought, “If you are the best, best, best student, why should anything else matter to a good university?” The problem is that there are already many best, best, best students out there.
So, how can you differentiate yourself from all the other dedicated applicants? Although test scores and grades are important—they are one way that colleges can determine if you are a serious student—colleges are not looking for the best test-takers. Why? Because the best test-takers are not necessarily the people who will make the most difference in the world. And colleges are looking for those people, the students whose work (both in the classroom and outside it) will make a positive impact on the world.
By the time a student graduates from Yale, Yale will not look back and say, “Oh yes, she got all 5’s on her AP exams.” Rather, Yale wants to assemble a college class of creative, mature, and intellectually curious individuals who will make Yale a better place. (And the same is true of NYU, MIT, Northwestern, Harvard, Duke, Berkeley, and all the other top universities.)
To that end, American colleges seek creative thinkers whose achievements go beyond the classroom. Originality and creativity go a long way toward making you an attractive candidate. And there are many ways that you can demonstrate that you are an inventive, interesting candidate.
For example, you might consider joining activities that show initiative and interest in improving your community. Think “outside the box”—that is, think from a new and unconventional perspective. When I was a high school junior, my astronomy teacher told our class about a contest for students sponsored by NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—where students had to design an experiment that could feasibly be performed in space. This certainly required a lot of creative thinking: Why would my experiment need to be performed in space, rather than on Earth? What materials would be needed? How would zero gravity affect the experiment? What did I believe the outcome would be, and why? What were the limitations of the experiment? Since I was also interested in microbiology, I developed an experiment that would explore how certain magnetotactic bacteria (that is, bacteria that orient themselves according to the Earth’s magnetic field) would be affected, and whether the lack of gravity in space would disorient them and thus disrupt their ability to detect magnetic field lines.
My teacher told everyone in our class about this contest—but only half of us applied. (So right there, half of my classmates disqualified themselves from this unusual opportunity.) My own experiment proved to be good enough to be chosen among the top 50 entrants from high school students all over the country, and NASA brought me and the other 49 students to Washington, D.C., so we could present our experiments to the NASA judges. It was a wonderful experience, and I got to meet a lot of other science students from around the country.
And no, I did not win the contest. Someone else (whose name I completely forget) was the winner. But that’s OK. Taking a chance on entering such a difficult contest, and developing an interesting experiment that could feasibly be performed, helped to make me an attractive student at Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania (all of which I was accepted by). They cared that I was willing to take a risk, and that I worked hard to make that risk successful. They didn’t care that I didn’t win. (And if you are interested in science, being a scientist is all about taking feasible risks—many important experiments do not succeed, but they are still useful to human knowledge.)
Your own teachers may not announce such contests to your classes—this was the only such project any teacher ever announced to us—so don’t hesitate to do some research on your own to find out what other opportunities exist. They don’t even have to be competitions. There may be national, Hong Kong–specific, or even local school district-wide projects that you may find. Consider the subjects that fascinate you the most. (Are you a poet? Start a poetry group in your neighborhood. Start a poetry group that helps underprivileged children!)
Why not ask your teachers whether such local or national opportunities exist in your own best subject areas? Years after graduating from high school, I learned that a teacher recommended a classmate who was a particularly good mathematics student for a citywide scholarship, and the student ended up winning it. (These are the sorts of things that can look good on university applications.) But even if you are not the best calculus student at your school, if you take the initiative to show that you are interested in outside opportunities, and then do you what you can to grab those opportunities, this is something that you can highlight in your own college applications.
Other options include innovative school projects that you may already be working on. Even projects you are working on within your own school with a team of classmates may become useful when you apply to American colleges. Does your project have larger ramifications, beyond the scope of “my senior year project”? Is your own project something you can take to a higher level, outside the boundaries of your own school? For example, can you propose it to organizations outside your school? This too can show initiative and intellectual curiosity on your applications.
So: definitely study hard. Get the best grades you can. Take the hardest classes you can (without driving yourself crazy). But also consider the ways that you can distinguish yourself as an innovative thinker who will add something to the academic communities of the colleges to which you apply.