Admissions Advice From Students Who Have Overcome the Odds

Some of the best college admissions advice you will ever get will come from students who were recently in the trenches and made it out alive. Fresh and up-to-date with current college admissions practices, their experiences are invaluable in helping you learn what to expect and what to do differently.

Although finding top students you can talk to can be tough, youtube has quite a few videos featuring students who were accepted into elite schools and now want to impart their wisdom to younger students. I scoured the site for insightful advice and while I didn’t find anything too surprising given my experience, I did take quite a few notes and highlighted a few commonalities that turned out to be much more important than I had previously thought.

My notes follow each video, and my overall key takeaways from all the interviews are at the very end.

My favorite interview is the UChicago one.

How I Got into Stanford

  • Start the application as soon as possible.
  • Scores aren’t everything.
  • Have peers review your application.
  • In your essay, be honest about who you are and the struggles you’ve faced. Don’t write about how perfect you are. Don’t be shallow; dig deep within yourself.
  • Colleges are looking for what makes you unique and what you can bring to the school. A good example is a classmate of hers, who turned out to be a professional traditional indian dancer.

How to Get into Harvard

  • In your essay, try to show you have a passion without actually using the word “passion.”
  • Focus on 1-2 major extracurricular activities you dive deep into, and spend the rest of your time more minor ones.
  • On your application as a whole, try to be impressive while still being authentic.

How I got into Berkeley with 1880 on my SAT

  • Scores aren’t everything.
  • A unique essay about being “Miss Nutritionist” (she’s vegan) in high school is what got her in.

MIT (Bruno Faviero)

  • You don’t need to follow the standard high school curriculum. Bruno took AP Statistics his sophomore year not because he was a math genius but because AP Statistics does not build off of any other math classes (really no prerequisites despite what your school might say). Taking that his sophomore year allowed him to stand out, especially since schools look for students who challenge themselves.
  • Stopped theater after freshman year for a range of other extracurriculars: science olympiad, cross country, camera man for local TV station, after-school counselor for local elementary school, secretary for school advisory council, steering committee of local YMCA. His extracurriculars are definitely what made him stand out.
  • Practice makes perfect (2320 on SAT, 800 on the math section).
  • Make sure you try both the SAT and the ACT. On the ACT, he did much worse, scoring in the low 30’s and even below that on certain sections.
  • Give your college essays to a lot of people for review, especially your English teachers.
  • Two things make up a great extracurricular. First, you’re passionate about it. Second, it has an impact on others. So you might be passionate about collecting cards, but that doesn’t make for a great EC because it doesn’t have an impact.

Harvard (Olivia Plana)

  • Took the SATs in January and the ACTs in February of junior year. (COLLEGE PANDA: This is the best time to take these tests.)
  • Have the mindset that you’re only going to take the SATs once. Don’t prepare with the aim of taking it multiple times. (COLLEGE PANDA: I completely agree.)
  • Take 1 practice test per week to build up stamina.
  • Loading up on AP classes is overwhelming. Try to have 1-2 classes in your schedule that don’t require too much work.
  • Extracurriculars included karate (taught classes), Spanish honor society, and science olympiad.
  • Try to take at least 3 SAT subject tests.
  • Give your college essays to a lot of people, even if it’s personal.
  • College admissions is like rolling the dice. Her sister got into Harvard, but not Georgetown.

Princeton (Emily Knott)

  • Started taking APs her sophomore year.
  • Extracurriculars included the international relations club (debate current events) and art-related community service.
  • Her advice: apply to fewer schools (six at most).

Stanford (Eric Iwashita)

  • On the SAT reading/writing, read the short answers first to see if you can eliminate them before reading the long answers.
  • Practice the SAT the old-fashioned way—pencil and paper—but use online tools and software for learning vocabulary. (COLLEGE PANDA: Completely agree.)
  • Do things you love; don’t do things for the resume.
  • Extracurriculars included student government, district office meetings, congressman’s student advisory council, national honor society. (COLLEGE PANDA: Notice how all his activities align with his passion for politics.)
  • Final advice: start early.

Duke (Mary Hagan)

  • Took AP classes freshman year.
  • Used the ACT instead of the SAT, even though the ACT science section was a killer.
  • Extracurriculars were all over the map freshman year. They were solidified sophomore year once she got involved in the school newspaper. She started out as a copyeditor and became the editor-in-chief junior and senior years.
  • Attended journalism programs at Columbia University and University of Florida.
  • Captain of the track team.
  • Stopped drama and soccer after freshman year to focus on the newspaper and journalism. She interned with the local paper.
  • Final advice: start early and try to get interviews.

University of Chicago (Twins Emily & Alex)

  • Took two science classes sophomore year, which stood out and aligned with the prospective biology major.
  • Don’t be one-dimensional: be interested in multiple things.
  • For the SAT/ACT, take a lot of practice tests. They prepped for at least 6-7 months.
  • Their SAT & ACT scores were roughly the same.
  • Dropped ice skating to focus on debate and lacrosse.
  • Debate was the predominant extracurricular and the focus of their application. Choose something that you’ll have a lot to talk about rather than spreading your application across many shallow interests.
  • Interviews go much better when you can talk a lot about a few things instead of running down a laundry list of activities you have less involvement with.
  • Start early. They had to deal with a stressful situation in which a teacher’s recommendation wasn’t ready until the day before applications had to be sent out.
  • Try not to reuse college essays, especially ones from UChicago because their topics are so quirky and unique. Other schools easily recognize them.
  • Have other people read your college essays.

Overall Key Points

  • Take both the SATs and the ACTs. Even among the few students above, it’s shocking how some of them did so much better on one than on the other. Eric (Stanford) and Bruno (MIT) did much better on the SATs while Mary (Duke) preferred the ACTs.
  • Try to take AP classes freshman and sophomore years. Most of the students above challenged themselves with AP classes starting in freshman and sophomore year. Even if it’s not typical in your school, ask for flexibility in the curriculum. You don’t have to follow the typical progression. Bruno (MIT) took AP Stats in his sophomore year. Emily & Alex (UChicago) took two science classes their sophomore year.
  • Don’t be afraid to drop extracurriculars during freshman year. Use freshman year to figure out what extracurriculars you like and want to devote your time to. Many of the students above dropped some activities to focus their time on others they were more passionate about. Emily (UChicago) dropped ice skating to focus on debate. Mary (Duke) dropped drama and soccer to focus on journalism. Bruno (MIT) dropped theater for a variety of community leadership positions. Top colleges are looking for a focused application in which your activities outside of school line up with your passions.
  • Align your classes and activities with a passion. This builds off the previous point. Don’t join 20 different activities for the sake of college applications. Load up on classes relevant to your interests. All the students above had a primary focus that they were able to build a portfolio around. For example, Eric (Stanford) participated in activities that all related to politics.
  • Show your application and college essays to other people. This is something that I didn’t do because the essays were so personal to me. Big mistake! You don’t have to accept every critique and suggestion, but you definitely need to get feedback.
  • Go out of your way to find great teachers. Having one great teacher that changed everything was a common theme in the videos. These teachers inspired the students to pursue particular passions, allowed them to take classes they wouldn’t normally be able to take, reviewed their essays, and wrote great recommendations. Sign up for classes with great teachers, even if taking their classes will put you out of your comfort zone. Build relationships with them.
  • Be authentic and different. Colleges are looking for what you can bring to their campus. Emphasize the unique things about you. For example, the UC Berkeley student above was able to impress admissions with her essay on being a vegan, titled “Miss Nutritionist.”
  • Scores aren’t everything. You can compensate for lower-than-average scores with the other parts of your application.
  • Start earlier. Nearly every person above wished that they had.


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