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My Journey to Ivy Leagues and $700K Scholarships Revealed

So… Based on my previous post, I promised the story of my own college admissions process. And let me tell you, it has been quite the chaotic journey. I wanted to do this post because while you can read online about all the instructions for what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do everything, you don’t truly get the full, emotional journey unless you have friends or siblings that went through it before you. Because of this, I wanted to share my journey, including all the ups, downs, and lessons I’ve learned through this entire crazy, chaotic four years!

Before High School: How Do I Prepare for Extracurriculars?

Don’t panic yet! If you saw the words “before high school” and began panicking that you haven’t yet created a four-year high school plan and an extracurricular list for your unborn child, the only reason why I included this was because of just that parents ask me all the time what I did to plan my extracurriculars before high school. And I’m going to be honest, I did pretty much absolutely nothing. Literally, like I-watched-hamster-YouTube-videos-all-day type of nothing for most of my life pre-high school. To be fair, I was a pretty quirky child. I had obsessive interests in the most random, unrelated subjects (anything from doing extensive research on schizophrenia to memorizing a German dictionary), and I was also very crafty and hands-on, where I loved making anything from scratch, from lip balm, hamster wheels, to paper mache bowls. As much as they were just interests for me during that time, I will say that they eventually grew to become one of my strongest skills during high school that allowed me to succeed in what I did. My obsessive research skills allowed me to succeed in science fairs and research, while my hands-on creativity allowed me to create all sorts of projects that grew to become some of my most major extracurriculars.

This is a picture of 5-years old me doing my first-ever science fair project on growing beans!

Naturally, the next question parents ask me is, what did your parents do to foster these traits? And while I’ll let my mom answer this as well, to me, I think there are a couple factors that contributed to my development. Firstly, curiosity is a core value in my family. This wasn’t something that was intentionally planted when raising me – my parents are both genuinely curious people who love asking questions, and this just carried on to me, both through genetics and being around them all the time. This meant that I was always taught to ask questions and find out the answer to my own questions through research and experiments. When I was little, my mom bought me a giant encyclopedia for my birthday and started weekly project-based learning activities, where every week for several years, she had me do all sorts of wacky projects and science experiments at home. 

Secondly, my parents allowed me to have freedom and independence. I know this is pretty controversial with a lot of parents, where parents like to exert tight control on their kids to make sure that they’re doing something useful at all times, but for me, my parents pretty much just trusted me to do what I was supposed to and didn’t intrude their opinions on my activities. I was allowed to quit what I wanted and decide what I wanted to do, so in eighth grade, I decided to quit pretty much all of my extracurricular activities, including piano. While many parents are afraid that free time turns into video games all day, to me, this gave a sense of urgency to my own life. Because my parents didn’t control what I did, I saw that I was responsible for my own life, and if I became successful or unsuccessful in life, it would be my own doing. I felt like I had a responsibility to myself to actually do something with my life, because no one else was going to do it for me.

Finally, as a first-generation immigrant family, I was raised pretty frugally. I was taught that I couldn’t just get everything that I wanted and I had to work hard for it, so because of this, I learned significant creativity and innovation skills in order to make things from scratch on a low budget. I learned to sew, cook, and make weird concoctions in my DIYs, which later on translated into some of my pretty marketable skills for my projects. It also gave me a feeling of urgency, where I desperately felt like I needed to do something with my life or I would have nothing. However, while I’m thankful for these experiences now, I have to acknowledge that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this or purposefully do this to another kid, as growing up frugally had some really significant detrimental effects to my self-esteem that I would say still has lasting impacts on my views towards money and my self-worth now. It’s a double-edged sword, but I realize the benefit that this experience ultimately had on me.

I probably didn’t need to take that cooking class in high school since I learned on my own anyways… Check out my post on ChatGPT-generated recipes here!

Freshman Year: High School Classes and PSAT

I didn’t plan my courses whatsoever, which I now say is a bad decision. I took any course that interested me, which resulted in a lot of fun art, cooking, and psychology classes that probably did not have many contributions course-rigor and GPA-wise. I only took two honors classes because it was required by my counselors for the IB diploma program. However, while this was definitely a bad decision, I wouldn’t say that I regret it, because ultimately, it didn’t hurt my college chances that much in any way, as being in the full-IB diploma program later on in high school already meant I cleared the academic threshold for course rigor. I also took the PSAT for the first time without any preparation during my freshman year, and I got a 1290.

Sophomore Year: IB/AP Courses and Starting Extracurriculars

Similarly, I also didn’t plan any of my courses. However, I ended up with a decent course rigor in my schedule because of the accelerated tracks I was in, so I had two IB courses and one honors course. For the rest of my classes, I just chose whatever I found interesting. I actually dropped honors history to take an introductory marketing class simply because it sounded interesting, which I definitely find as a questionable decision now for the sake of my transcript. 

Do you hate the SAT? Well, you’re in luck! I have a post about how to study for the SAT, all using free resources.

Junior Year: IB/AP Courses, PSAT/SAT, and Extracurriculars

Honestly, I’m glad that I was then put into a rigorous, structured program called the full-IB diploma program where I had all of my courses selected for me, because otherwise, I would’ve ended up with all sorts of random courses all over the place. In IB, we’re pretty much prescribed a set of courses with few variations that we can do, so thankfully, I didn’t have much course planning to do. I find that the number of AP/IBs and course schedules are actually pretty dependent on your school, so what the “standard” is changes depending on the school you go to. I also took my second PSAT during October of my junior year and got a 1450, and my SAT in December of my junior year, where I got a 1550. I only took the SAT once, and I have a post here about how I was able to study for the SAT all for free.

I also did the most extracurriculars during my junior year. While I didn’t plan out my extracurriculars, my philosophy when it came to extracurriculars was basically: take every opportunity you get and do your best to do the most. I tried to do my best in everything that I did, and I was also proactive about finding opportunities for myself. Eventually, the path for my extracurriculars became pretty spontaneous and natural. I never found a need to plan things out beforehand, as there are many opportunities to apply for and try out that spontaneously arise. I also asked my teachers for letters of recommendations during the last few months of junior year.

Finally, I started applying for scholarships during this time. “Spring of junior year?!,” you ask. Yup, there are some scholarships with some very early deadlines, starting junior year or even earlier. In particular, many large scholarships have deadlines around this time, so it’s important to be vigilant about watching out for scholarship deadlines, because it’s a bummer when you’ve missed a deadline. I only applied to a few during this time.

This is what the Common App looks like! You will be spending a lot of time on this website in the upcoming months…

Senior Year Summer: College List and Setting Up Common App

Naturally, despite the advice of everyone else, I did not start my Common App essay during the summer. If you know what you want to write and have figured out your life, I’d say, go for it. It will save you A TON of stress. However, if you still have no clue what you’re doing with your life and what you want to write about, the beginning of senior year can change a lot and lead to new inspirations in your essay, so it’s totally fine if it’s the beginning of senior year and you haven’t begun your essay yet. During the summer of senior year, I created my Common App account and filled in my information. To be honest, the information section on Common App really doesn’t take that much time. It’s just basic paperwork, like your name, address, race, and information about your high school. Most of that takes like an hour at most. However, the actual time-consuming sections are the activities section, the Common App essay and other writing sections, and each individual school’s application section.

While you might think that the activities section is fairly straightforward, it’s actually one of the more complicated sections with lots of tips and tricks behind it. There are certain tricks to ordering your activities, how to list the number of hours (especially when your activity is difficult to estimate the number of hours), abbreviations to use to save characters, and the language to use when describing your extracurriculars. It actually makes a pretty big difference, and I noticed a huge change between my first draft of my activities section and my final version. Let me know if you want a post on my tips and tricks to the activities section!

I also tried to finalize my college list by this point. Let’s be honest, I didn’t ACTUALLY finalize my college list until like midnight of January 5th after I had finished panic-applying to as many schools as possible (HIGHLY do not recommend), but I had sort of a rough idea of the schools I wanted to apply to. I don’t recommend my own strategy – I basically shotgunned all the top schools, plus the most competitive program for my state school. So, the school with the highest acceptance rate on my list had a 27% acceptance rate. Yeah, not great. I do not recommend this at all. However, the reason I did this was because I was perfectly fine with going to community college and transferring to my state school after a year or two in the case that I actually got rejected everywhere, as my state school has a high community college transfer rate and community college would save me a lot of money. Because of this, my primary thought process when deciding whether or not I would apply to the school was, “would I go to this school over my state school, given all factors, including cost?,” and that eliminated pretty much all other schools except the top private schools. I barely applied to any public schools, because I decided it wasn’t worth the out-of-state tuition since my state school is my top choice public school in the country.

Senior Year Fall: Early Action (EA) Applications, Essay Writing, Letters of Recommendations

This was when sh*t got real. Fall of senior year is pretty much the busiest time of year for college applications, as this is when early action (EA) applications are due, and the time when you should be getting your regular decision (RD) applications done. I had to decide on a school to apply early. When choosing an EA school, choose a school that you would be thrilled to get into, but not one that you would be absolutely devastated if you got rejected from. This is because your application will most likely improve by the RD round after you gain experience writing about 50 billion college essays, so if your dream school is a REA/EA school, you might want to wait until then if you want time to polish your essays. I decided to apply to Harvard University (REA) for the above reasons. It fit what I was looking for in a school, but I wouldn’t be too devastated if I didn’t get in. I also applied to Georgia Tech (EA), because it was a public school so I was allowed to apply early under REA, and University of Southern California (USC) for merit scholarship consideration.

My Harvard supplemental essay was absolutely my favorite essay. I don’t care if other essays have been more successful – that one was the most personal, impactful, and real story that I had ever written. As a very gen-z problem, I struggled with striking a balance between being personal in my essays and oversharing, so this process was a lot of emotional turmoil as I tried to figure out my story on the spot. But, I ended up submitting my applications in time for the deadline.

Since I asked for letters of recommendations in the spring of my junior year, I followed up with my teachers in fall and made sure that they submitted the letters on time. This was so much more stressful than I expected, from chasing down recommenders last minute, mistakes with the names of the schools, and deciding which teachers to assign to which schools. Ultimately, there are two important tips that I’ve learned. Firstly, make sure your teacher knows that they can’t put the name of one school onto their letter – one letter gets sent to all of your schools, so if Princeton sees that your teacher wrote that Harvard is your first-choice, it’s not an automatic deal-breaker because they know it’s an honest mistake and not your fault, but it’s not a good look. Secondly, you can pick and choose which teachers to assign to which school. Once a teacher submits their letter to one school, you can assign them to other schools. Because of this, you can choose your recommendations to balance out your different personal qualities, and you can edit this up until the moment you submit your application to the school.

Senior Year Winter: Early Results, Regular Decision (RD) Supplementals, Scholarships

Around mid-December, this was when I heard back from my early schools. And here were my results…

  • Harvard University (REA) – Deferred
  • Georgia Tech (EA) – Accepted for Computer Science in the College of Computing
  • University of Southern California (EA, merit scholarship) – Deferred

Slightly disappointing results, but I was pretty happy with an acceptance to Georgia Tech. However, because I had procrastinated all my college essays until after mid-December, I then spent the next two weeks not going outdoors at all in order to finish my college essays. Let me tell you, that was so. Freaking. Miserable. I literally did not touch grass or see sunlight at all for two weeks. It was bad for my health overall, and I totally would not recommend it. By the end of it, I started panic-applying to schools, so I applied last-minute to schools like Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and Colby College, not because I wanted to go, but because I panicked and began applying randomly. Many of these essay prompts could be reused, so even though I submitted a total of around 80 supplemental essays, I was only using around 6-7 unique stories and essay structures. Most college interviews were also happening during late winter and early spring, so I had a couple in-person and virtual interviews here and there. They varied all across the board, where I had some that went super well, like my Yale interview, where I still keep in touch with my interviewer and chat with her regularly, to my MIT interview, that was the most horrible, disastrous, sh*tshow that I ever could have imagined possible. It was so bad that I burst into tears immediately after the interview, and I was like, “I am FOR SURE not getting in here. Even if the interview is worth only 5% of my application, this interview is SO BAD that it basically nullifies everything else.” (Disclaimer: My self-deprecating comments while crying and panicking are not professional advice. Please do not take that as how college interviews work.)

I also applied to the bulk of my scholarships during this time. By this time, I had a lot of essays to reuse, so I mostly just copied and pasted my college essays and made a few videos here and there. Scholarships have simultaneously such a high and a low return rate. I applied to 67 scholarships, and only won around 8 total, which amounted to nearly $60,000. Yet, applying to those 67 were a ton of work, so somehow it’s worth it but not worth it at the same time.

If you’re curious what a likely letter looks like, this is the likely letter I received from Cornell University before Ivy Day.

Senior Year Spring: College Results, College Visits, Merit Scholarships

By the spring, I was slowly starting to get my college decision results back. Here were my decisions, mostly in the order that I received them in.

  • Amherst College – Accepted (w/ Early Acceptance/Likely Letter)
  • Harvey Mudd College – Accepted (w/ Early Acceptance and Full-Tuition Presidential Scholarship)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Waitlisted
  • Cornell University – Accepted (w/ Likely Letter)
  • University of Washington – Accepted for Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science (w/ Interdisciplinary Honors)
  • Johns Hopkins University – Accepted (w/ Hodson Trust Scholarship)
  • Colby College – Accepted (w/ Presidential Scholars Program)
  • Rice University – Accepted (w/ Full-Tuition Presidential Scholarship)
  • Northwestern University – Waitlisted
  • Washington University in St. Louis – Accepted
  • Carnegie Mellon University – Priority Waitlist
  • University of Southern California – Rejected
  • Harvard University – Waitlisted
  • Yale University – Accepted
  • Princeton University – Rejected
  • Brown University – Accepted for Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME)
  • Dartmouth College – Waitlisted
  • Columbia University – Waitlisted
  • Stanford University – Accepted
  • Duke University – Accepted

I ended up getting into 13 schools, waitlisted at 6, and rejected at 2. I got a total of around $770k in merit scholarships, many of which were from schools that I didn’t know gave merit scholarships. In fact, I didn’t realize any of these schools gave merit scholarships, except USC and Georgia Tech. I think I was pretty satisfied with my results. As this was the order that I received my decisions, once I got my first acceptances back, I felt like, “okay, I’m safe, I have a school to go to now.” By Ivy Day, I wasn’t nervous at all, because I had already pretty much decided on going to Rice University. However, Ivy Day ended up changing that. I tried to film my college decisions, but they kept coming out at such inconvenient times that it became impossible to film during class when I was dying to know. I actually opened my Stanford decision when I was waiting in line for TSA at the airport, and I had been so weathered from having to react to all these college decisions that my reaction was, “oh, nice,” and then continued untying my shoes.

So what have I learned? Honestly, schools weirdly actually do seem to have a sense of whether or not you genuinely want to go to that school. As much as I gushed on in my essays about how much I loved a school (even if I didn’t), I think schools somehow seemed to know if I actually wanted to attend. For example, I hate the core curriculum at Columbia. Even though I think I had pretty decent essays for my Columbia application, I ended up getting waitlisted. I also did not want to go to Dartmouth either, because I absolutely could not stand living in a rural ‘liberal arts school’ environment. Naturally, I also got waitlisted. I also did not want to go to USC because I can’t really think of much we have in common, and I got rejected. In general, I think my acceptances were a pretty good representation of my fit for the school, although there were a couple surprises here and there.

How Did I Choose Which College to Attend?

I had a problem that was both a blessing and a curse – I never had a dream school. There were a couple schools that I liked quite a bit and considered as my top choice for a while, but it would always change after a bit. Because of this, I was incredibly indecisive when it came to choosing a college. I ended up visiting a lot of schools after I had gotten my college decisions, so for all of March and April, I was just flying across the country touring different schools.

The first school I officially visited was Harvey Mudd College, where they offered to fly me out and have me stay with a current student. First of all, Harvey Mudd is an absolutely amazing school, and the students that go there are super kind, intelligent, and friendly. However, I can’t lie that this was one of the only schools that I actively decided I didn’t want to go to immediately after I visited. I had originally thought I loved the idea of small class sizes and indivdualized attention at a liberal arts college, but once I visited, I just thought it was so small and had so little going on on-campus that I realized I would be incredibly bored if I went to the school. I decided right away I did not want to go to Harvey Mudd.

A couple schools after that – Johns Hopkins, Rice, and Yale – were okay, but didn’t particularly stand out to me. I had a lot of fun at Yale because I had a friend there, and we ran around the campus at midnight, just messing around. However, the school that stood out the most was Brown. I absolutely, completely fell in love with the school while I was there. I loved the location, the people, the East Coast Ivy League vibes, and even the merch. In particular, because I was considering it for PLME, the people in PLME were doing a great job at advertising the program for me. I was so set on Brown that I told my friends, “I think I’m going to Brown.” 

Of course, Stanford. Ah, Stanford, with their admit weekend just a mere few days before decision day (they know what they’re doing). Stanford was a ton of fun as well – I would pretty much describe it with one word, “hype.” For some reason, everyone at Stanford is SUPER excited and energetic, and they had so much loyalty and dedication to the school. I also absolutely fell in love with their Bioengineering department. I had four different options for studying computational biology, varying from Biomedical Computation to Computer Science (Computational Biology track). While some schools might have one random researcher working on some cool topic in biology (like stem cells), at Stanford, they probably have an entire world-renowned institute on it. The resources and sheer power of Stanford just seemed unbeatable to me, even compared to some other schools that were also top in the nation. However, as much as it’s an unpopular opinion, I actually really dislike Stanford’s campus. I hate the Stanford bubble, the California sun, and the location on the West Coast. Yet, Stanford had the best dining hall food out of all the colleges I toured.

In the end, it came down to Stanford vs. Brown. I saw it more as two different paths in life, where at Brown, I would commit to the path of becoming a physician, while at Stanford, I would take the chance to pursue computer science, computational biology, and entrepreneurship. I was so split on which one, because I saw it as two very different life outcomes for me. For Brown, the problem was that I hadn’t even considered becoming a physician a month earlier, and now I was about to commit to 8 years of medical education and being a physician for life. I liked the idea of being a physician, but I also had no clue what it was like. Yet, I was scared about my career outcomes at Stanford. I knew the monetary return probably wasn’t worth it to go to Stanford over all the other schools I would be turning down, especially since I probably wouldn’t be making more than I would if I had gone to Rice University or my state school.

So, in the end, what was my decision?

*drumroll please….*

I decided to attend Stanford University! #GoTrees🌲

Why Did I Make This Choice?

So, what do I feel about my decision? Honestly, I’m hoping I made the right decision. I am scared for college, because throughout this process, I began putting more and more expectations on myself, where I told myself, “You already gave up so many perfect options to go to this expensive name-brand school, you better not screw this up.” I can’t lie to say that there weren’t several bad external reasons that contributed to my decision. It’s pretty hard not to be influenced by it. Firstly, I know I’m a person who cares about what others think of me, and the labels, name brands, and accomplishments I can put on myself to feel like I deserve this spot. I knew I liked the idea of being able to say, “Oh, I go to Stanford.” It’s a horrible reason, but I knew I would be angry and regretful if I went to another school and hated it, whereas if I end up hating Stanford, it would be my own fault.

Secondly, as much as I used to care about finding the right “vibes” of the school, I was talking with another student about how they made their college decision, and they mentioned that they chose a school because they liked the party culture and vibes of the school. After that conversation, I was like, “yeah, teenagers cannot be trusted to make college decisions based on vibes.” So, as much as I love Brown’s merch, I couldn’t make a college decision based off of vibes alone, which was my primary driving factor for Brown. Program-wise, Stanford was stronger in many of the subjects and topics I was interested in.

Because of this, the actual reason I chose Stanford was the “what-ifs.” Stanford is full of “what-ifs” for the potential of topics, ideas, and things that I’ve always dreamed of doing, but was never brave enough to do. I want to study computational biology. I want to try entrepreneurship. I want to study artificial intelligence. I might be terrible at it, and I might not succeed, but I would always feel regretful if I never tried. Stanford is among the best in the world for all of these things that I’ve always wanted to try, and I feel like I wasn’t ready to let go of the idea that I could have this freedom to explore and try out what I had always dreamed of doing. It opened up a lot more possibilities for me, and I could technically still apply to medical school later, but at least I would get the time to figure out what I wanted in life.

In the end, I think lots of people come out of the process with hope, excitement, and spirit for their new school. I’ll be honest, I think I’m scared. I’m scared that I won’t be good enough at Stanford, that I’ll screw things up, that I’ll fail at what I came here to do in the first place. Yet, I took this chance because I wanted to be scared. I wanted to choose a place to purposefully challenge myself, to push myself to the limits, to force myself to adapt to a new environment and learn new skills in the environment that has boundless resources for my greatest dreams and aspirations. The slight feeling that I felt about other schools that I couldn’t shake was that it was comfortable, where I had spent the past four years in high school building this narrative about what I wanted to do in life, and spending all of my time on my extracurriculars to further this image of myself. Brown and Rice were the perfect places to continue this narrative that I had created in high school, but the truth is, I don’t really know what I want to do yet. And I felt slightly eerie towards this path where I chose a school based on a future I created for myself in high school, and while I like the person I am now, it feels a little too comfortable.

I’ve always been a person who loves change, challenges, and unplanned opportunities. So maybe I’ll end up becoming a doctor anyway. Maybe I’ll end up back home, working a dead-end job. But maybe I’ll end up with a future beyond what I ever imagined was possible for myself. And this time, even though I’m scared, I want to give myself the chance to prove that I was worth it.

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