Personal Narrative: My Second Year Volunteering
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In particular, having an above average GPA and test scores goes the majority of the way toward getting you admission to those schools. The higher the admission rate, the more emphasis will be placed on your scores. The other pieces I'll present below—personal statements, extracurriculars, recommendations—will matter less. Still, it doesn't hurt to aim for a stronger application. To state the obvious, an application strong enough to get you Columbia will get you into UCLA handily.
In my application, I've redacted pieces of my application for privacy reasons, and one supplementary recommendation letter at the request of the letter writer. Everything else is unaltered. Throughout my application, we can see marks made by the admissions officer highlighting and circling things of note you'll see the first example on the very first page. I don't have any other applications to compare these to, so I'm going to interpret these marks as best I can. For the most part, I assume that whatever he underlines or circles is especially important and noteworthy —points that he'll bring up later in committee discussions. It could also be that the reader got bored and just started highlighting things, but I doubt this.
Finally, I co-founded and run a company called PrepScholar. I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a prep program to get a great score , and the advice in this guide has little to do with my company. If you stepped into an elevator with Yale's Dean of Admissions and you had ten seconds to describe yourself and why you're interesting, what would you say? These are the three main points that represent who you are and what you're about. This is the story that you tell through your application, over and over again. This is how an admissions officer should understand you after just glancing through your application.
This is how your admissions officer will present you to the admissions committee to advocate for why they should accept you. The more unique and noteworthy your Personal Narrative is, the better. This is how you'll stand apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants to your top choice school. This is why I recommend so strongly that you develop a Spike to show deep interest and achievement. A compelling Spike is the core of your Personal Narrative. Well-rounded applications do NOT form compelling Personal Narratives, because "I'm a well-rounded person who's decent at everything" is the exact same thing every other well-rounded person tries to say. Everything in your application should support your Personal Narrative , from your course selection and extracurricular activities to your personal statements and recommendation letters.
You are a movie director, and your application is your way to tell a compelling, cohesive story through supporting evidence. Yes, this is overly simplistic and reductionist. It does not represent all your complexities and your 17 years of existence. But admissions offices don't have the time to understand this for all their applicants. Here's what I would consider my Personal Narrative humor me since I'm peacocking here :. These three elements were the core to my application. Together they tell a relatively unique Personal Narrative that distinguishes me from many other strong applicants.
You get a surprisingly clear picture of what I'm about. There's no question that my work in science was my "Spike" and was the strongest piece of my application, but my Personal Narrative included other supporting elements, especially a description of my personality. This might be what you're picturing as you read this Personal Narrative, which is good, because it's distinctive. A good test of a strong Personal Narrative: if you swap out one item in the Personal Narrative, you'll get a feeling of a completely different person. It's far easier to grasp onto three strong points about a person than ten different thin threads. This, again, is why being well-rounded is so deadly —mix ten different paint colors together and you end up with an unappealing, indistinguishable mess.
Note also that point 2 is probably the weakest, least unique part of the Personal Narrative. Most people applying to top colleges have great test scores and grades, so this is rarely distinguishing by itself. Throughout the rest of my guide, I will keep referring back to my Personal Narrative so that you'll see how strongly each piece of my application reinforces it , from my extracurriculars to personal statements and recommendation letters. You should get a very strong flavor of who I am, which is the hallmark of a memorable, effective application. I'll end this guide with strategies and questions for you to ponder for yourself. The major question for you to ponder as you read is— what is YOUR Personal Narrative, and how are you going to show it through every component of your application?
We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools , from state colleges to the Ivy League. Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in. To set the stage, I applied Early Action to Harvard early in senior year, and this is the application I used to get in early. Let's start with the Common Application, which will form the bulk of the application.
Then we'll go into the Harvard supplemental application. Both applications have changed in format a bit since , so I'll be indicating what each section is now known as in the latest Common Application. This is a straightforward section where you list your basic information. But as I point out below, a lot is conveyed about you through just a few questions. There are a few notable points about how simple questions can actually help build a first impression around what your Personal Narrative is. First, notice the circle around my email address. This is the first of many marks the admissions officer made on my application. The reason I think he circled this was that the email address I used is a joke pun on my name. I knew it was risky to use this vs something like allencheng15 gmail.
Don't be afraid to show who you really are, rather than your perception of what they want. What you think UChicago or Stanford wants is probably VERY wrong, because of how little information you have, both as an year-old and as someone who hasn't read thousands of applications. It's also entirely possible that it's a formality to circle email addresses, so I don't want to read too much into it, but I think I'm right.
Second, I knew in high school that I wanted to go into the medical sciences, either as a physician or as a scientist. I was also really into studying the brain. In the long run, both predictions turned out to be wrong. Colleges don't expect you to stick to career goals you stated at the age of Figuring out what you want to do is the point of college! But this doesn't give you an excuse to avoid showing a preference. This early question is still a chance to build that Personal Narrative. From your high school work thus far, you should at least be leaning to something, even if that's likely to change in the future. Finally, in the demographic section there is a big red A, possibly for Asian American.
I'm not going to read too much into this. If you're a notable minority, this is where you'd indicate it. This section was straightforward for me. I didn't take college courses, and I took a summer chemistry class at a nearby high school because I didn't get into the lottery at my school that year I refer to this briefly in my 4. The most notable point of this section: the admissions officer circled Principal here. This is notable because our school Principal only wrote letters for fewer than 10 students each year.
Counselors wrote letters for the other hundreds of students in my class, which made my application stand out just a little. We'll be covering each of those below. Back then AP scores weren't part of this section, but I'll take them from another part of my application here. It's true that colleges want you to take a very demanding courseload and to excel academically. After all, schools like Harvard have the pick of the litter, and there are plenty of students who get super high test scores AND have amazing achievements. Remember, over 40, students fit in the top 1 percentile of students nationwide.
Top schools are generally looking to see that you fit in the top 1 percentile of the country. But within that 1 percentile, your score does NOT make a big difference in your chances of admission. Just a sanity check: the average SAT score at Harvard is a The 75 th percentile is a , and the 25 th percentile is a For the ACT, that's an average of 34 , and a 75 th percentile of 35 and a 25 th percentile of In their eyes, you've already proven yourself academically. They know that there is some amount of chance every time you take a test, so a is more or less equivalent to a However, their standards are still very high.
You really do want to be in that top 1 percentile to pass the filter. A on the SAT IS going to put you at a disadvantage because there are so many students scoring higher than you. You'll really have to dig yourself out of the hole with an amazing application. I talk about this a lot more in my Get into Harvard guide sorry to keep linking this, but I really do think it's an important guide for you to read. We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:. Even though math and science were easy for me, I had to put in serious effort to get an on the Reading section of the SAT.
As much as I wish I could say it was trivial for me, it wasn't. I learned a bunch of strategies and dissected the test to get to a point where I understood the test super well and reliably earned perfect scores. The tests were so similar that I scored a 36 Composite without much studying. Having two test scores is completely unnecessary —you get pretty much zero additional credit. Again, with one test score, you have already passed their filter.
Finally, class finals or state-required exams are a breeze if you get a 5 on the corresponding AP tests. This section asks for your parent information and family situation. There's not much you can do here besides report the facts. The reader made a number of marks here for occupation and education. There's likely a standard code for different types of occupations and schools. If I were to guess, I'd say that the numbers add to form some metric of "family prestige. So it seems higher numbers are given for less prestigious educations by your parents.
I'd expect that if both my parents went to schools like Caltech and Dartmouth, there would be even lower numbers here. This makes me think that the less prepared your family is, the more points you get, and this might give your application an extra boost. If you were the first one in your family to go to college, for example, you'd be excused for having lower test scores and fewer AP classes. Schools really do care about your background and how you performed relative to expectations. In the end, schools like Harvard say pretty adamantly they don't use formulas to determine admissions decisions, so I wouldn't read too much into this.
But this can be shorthand to help orient an applicant's family background. For most applicants, your Extracurriculars and your Academic Honors will be where you develop your Spike and where your Personal Narrative shines through. This was how my application worked. Just below I'll describe the activities in more detail, but first I want to reflect on this list. As instructed, my extracurriculars were listed in the order of their interest to me.
The current Common App doesn't seem to ask for this, but I would still recommend it to focus your reader's attention. The most important point I have to make about my extracurriculars: as you go down the list, there is a HUGE drop in the importance of each additional activity to the overall application. If I were to guess, I assign the following weights to how much each activity contributed to the strength of my activities section:.
In other words, participating in the Research Science Institute RSI was far more important than all of my other extracurriculars, combined. You can see that this was the only activity my admissions reader circled. The reason for this is the prestige of RSI. Because the program was so prestigious and selective, getting in served as a big confirmation signal of my academic quality.
In other words, the Harvard admissions reader would likely think, "OK, if this very selective program has already validated Allen as a top student, I'm inclined to believe that Allen is a top student and should pay special attention to him. Now, it took a lot of prior work to even get into RSI because it's so selective. I had already ranked nationally in the Chemistry Olympiad more below , and I had done a lot of prior research work in computer science at Jisan Research Institute—more about this later. But getting into RSI really propelled my application to another level. Because RSI was so important and was such a big Spike, all my other extracurriculars paled in importance. The admissions officer at Princeton or MIT probably didn't care at all that I volunteered at a hospital or founded a high school club.
This is a good sign of developing a strong Spike. You want to do something so important that everything else you do pales in comparison to it. A strong Spike becomes impossible to ignore. In contrast, if you're well-rounded, all your activities hold equal weight—which likely means none of them are really that impressive unless you're a combination of Olympic athlete, internationally-ranked science researcher, and New York Times bestselling author, but then I'd call you unicorn because you don't exist. Apply this concept to your own interests—what can be so impressive and such a big Spike that it completely overshadows all your other achievements?
This might be worth spending a disproportionate amount of time on. As I recommend in my Harvard guide and 4. In retrospect, one "mistake" I made was spending a lot of time on the violin. Each week I spent eight hours on practice and a lesson and four hours of orchestra rehearsals. This amounted to over 1, hours from freshman to junior year. The result? I was pretty good, but definitely nowhere near world-class. Remember, there are thousands of orchestras and bands in the country, each with their own concertmasters, drum majors, and section 1 st chairs. If I were to optimize purely for college applications, I should have spent that time on pushing my spike even further —working on more Olympiad competitions, or doing even more hardcore research.
Looking back I don't mind this much because I generally enjoyed my musical training and had a mostly fun time in orchestra and I had a strong Spike anyway. But this problem can be a lot worse for well-rounded students who are stretched too thin. First, developing a Spike requires continuous, increasingly ambitious foundational work. It's like climbing a staircase. From the beginning of high school, each step was more and more ambitious—my first academic team, my first research experience, leading up to state and national competitions and more serious research work. So when I suggest devoting a lot of time to developing your Spike, it's not necessarily the Spike in itself—it's also spending time on foundational work leading up to what will be your major achievement.
That's why I don't see my time with academic teams or volunteering as wasted, even though in the end they didn't contribute as much to my application. Second, it is important to do things you enjoy. I still enjoyed playing the violin and being part of an orchestra, and I really enjoyed my school's academic teams, even though we never went beyond state level. Even if some activities don't contribute as much to your application, it's still fine to spend some time on them—just don't delude yourself into thinking they're stronger than they really are and overspend time on them. Finally, note that most of my activities were pursued over multiple years.
This is a good sign of commitment—rather than hopping from activity year to year, it's better to show sustained commitment, as this is a better signal of genuine passion. In a future article, I'll break down these activities in more detail. But this guide is already super long, so I want to focus our attention on the main points. Please describe which of your activities extracurricular and personal activities or work experience has been most meaningful and why.
I chose RSI as my most significant activity for two reasons—one based on the meaning of the work, and another on the social aspect. Reading the second paragraph now, it's a bit cringe-y in its enthusiasm, but I really did have an amazing experience and am still good friends with some of my classmates from RSI, over a decade later. In my application and in the Common Application, there's an Additional Information section, where you can write about anything else.
I chose to spend this clarifying my extracurriculars even further. My main motive in this section was to add more detail around my most significant activities : what I did, why they should be noteworthy to the reader, and what I personally gained from them. The only parts the reader underlined were the name of my research supervisor, and the fact that my research was then a Siemens-Westinghouse Semi-Finalist. Both of these legitimate my research.
I highly recommend you take the time to write an Additional Information section. You have so little space in your Yale application or Duke application to express yourself—this is purposely designed so everyone doesn't submit pages of drivel. Here you have an extra words to add more color around your life and accomplishments—DO IT. Along with Activities, Academic Honors is the other major area where you can really shine and develop a big Spike. The higher the level of competition and the more prestigious the award, the more the honor is worth.
This has an exponential relationship, because of how quickly the field is narrowed at each stage of competition. A state ranking is probably worth 10x that of a regional ranking; a national ranking 10x that of a state ranking; and an international ranking even more. This can also mean an international ranking is worth x that of a regional ranking—again, why a big Spike is so impressive. It's obvious that schools like Yale and UChicago want the best students in the world that they can get their hands on. Academic honors and awards are a great, quantifiable way to show that.
Here's the complete list of Academic Honors I submitted. By far, the biggest academic honor I had was competing in the US National Chemistry Olympiad , where I ranked 6 in the country in junior year, out of roughly 11, students who took the first round test. If you don't know about these academic Olympiads, they're like the Olympics for math and science geeks. At the highest international level of competition, countries send their top students to wage battle against each other, just like the sports Olympics.
The best known subjects are Math , Physics , Chemistry , and Biology in order of descending prestige, among nerds. I ranked at the national level, before the US selected their final team—a study camp of 20 students. In junior year, I didn't make it onto the international team to compete I did in senior year, too late for college apps. But this was still a national level honor, in a well-known competition. If you are nationally or internationally ranked for something meaningful, you really stand out in the reader's mind , because most applicants only have regional and state honors, if even that.
This is why I say a big Spike makes you stand out clearly among a bin of well-rounded applicants. Note that even though I had a strong application, I clearly didn't have the strongest application possible. At Harvard in my class, I knew International Math and Physics Olympiad gold medalists, people who were on their national teams for the hardest subjects AND ranked in the top percentiles worldwide.
And there were students with similar level accomplishments in other arenas, from music performance to writing. Earning this kind of honor was nearly a golden ticket to getting into schools like Harvard , because you literally are the best in the world at what you care about. So you don't need anywhere near a "perfect" application to get in. I know this is intimidating if you don't already have a prestigious honor. But remember there are thousands of nationally-ranked people in a multitude of honor types, from science competitions to essay contests to athletics to weird talents.
And I strongly believe the 1 differentiator of high school students who achieve things is work ethic, NOT intelligence or talent. Yes, you need a baseline level of competence to get places, but people far undervalue the progress they can make if they work hard and persevere. Far too many people give up too quickly or fatigue without putting in serious effort. If you're stuck thinking, "well I'm just an average person, and there's no way I'm going to become world-class in anything," then you've already lost before you've begun. The truth is everyone who achieves something of note puts in an incredible amount of hard work.
Because this is invisible to you, it looks like talent is what distinguishes the two of you, when really it's much more often diligence. Just like extracurriculars, there's a quick dropoff in value of each item after that. My research work took up the next two honors, one a presentation at an academic conference, and the other Siemens a research competition for high school researchers. At the risk of beating a dead horse, think about how many state medalists there are in the country, in the hundreds of competitions that exist. The number of state to national rankers is probably at least less than because of variation in state size , so if there are 2, nationally ranked students, there are 40, state-ranked students in something!
So state honors really don't help you stand out on your Princeton application. There are just too many of them around. On the other hand, if you can get to be nationally ranked in something, you will have an amazing Spike that distinguishes you. I didn't grow up as a refugee, wrenched from my war-torn home! I didn't have a sibling with a debilitating illness! How could anything I write compare to these tales of personal strength? The trite truth is that colleges want to know who you really are. Clearly they don't expect everyone to have had immense personal struggle. But they do want students who are:. In retrospect, in the context of MY application, the personal statement really wasn't what got me into Harvard.
I do think my Spike was nearly sufficient to get me admitted to every school in the country. I say "nearly" because, even if you're world-class, schools do want to know you're not a jerk and that you're an interesting person which is conveyed through your personal essay and letters of recommendation. Back then, we had a set of different prompts :. I chose to write on a topic of my choice. After thorough brainstorming, I didn't really identify with any of the other topics. I couldn't think of a topic that wasn't trite and that I cared about enough. I also felt a need to be distinctive and thought that a free essay topic might give me more freedom. The way I saw it, the personal statement was a vehicle to convey my personality and my interests.
To build my Personal Narrative, I wanted to showcase my personality and reveal a bit about my life experiences. Even though the life experiences I'd had weren't distinctive in themselves, I thought I could package them from an interesting perspective. The idea I used was to talk about my battle against the snooze alarm. I really did love sleep and still do and I thought it'd be interesting to frame my personality, interests, and life experiences from this perspective.
Frankly this personal statement is really embarrassing. Each time I read it, I cringe a bit. I think I sound too smug and self-satisfied. But again in the interest of transparency, here goes:. I'm still cringing a bit. I want to as well. We'll get to areas of improvement later, but first, let's talk about what this personal essay did well. I showed this through mentioning different interests Rubik's cube, chemistry, Nietzsche and iterating through a few designs for an alarm clock electric shocks, explosions, Shakespearean sonnet recitation. I don't take life too seriously. The theme of the essay—battling an alarm clock—shows this well, in comparison to the gravitas of the typical student essay.
I also found individual lines funny, like "All right, so I had violated the divine honor of the family and the tenets of Confucius. The frank admission of a realistic lazy habit—pushing the Snooze button—served as a nice foil to my academic honors and shows that I can be down-to-earth. So you see how the snooze button acts as a vehicle to carry these major points and a lot of details, tied together to the same theme. Packaging my points together under the snooze button theme makes it a lot more interesting than just outright saying "I'm such an interesting guy. So overall, I believe the essay accomplishes my goals and the main points of what I wanted to convey about myself.
Note that this is just one of many ways to write an essay. It worked for me, but it may be totally inappropriate for you. Looking at it with a more seasoned perspective, some parts of it are WAY too try-hard. I try too hard to show off my breadth of knowledge in a way that seems artificial and embellishing. The entire introduction with the Rubik's cube seems bolted on, just to describe my long-standing desire to be a Renaissance man. Only three paragraphs down do I get to the Snooze button, and I don't refer again to the introduction until the end.
With just words, I could have made the essay more cohesive by keeping the same theme from beginning to end. Some phrases really make me roll my eyes. A key principle of effective writing is to show, not say. You don't say "I'm passionate about X," you describe what extraordinary lengths you took to achieve X. The mention of Nietzsche is over-the-top. I mean, come on. The reader probably thought, "OK, this kid just read it in English class and now he thinks he's a philosopher.
The ending: "with the extra nine minutes, maybe I'll teach myself to cook fried rice" is silly. Where in the world did fried rice come from? I meant it as a nod to my Chinese heritage, but it's too sudden to work. I could have deleted the sentence and wrapped up the essay more cleanly. So I have mixed feelings of my essay. I think it accomplished my major goals and showed the humorous, irreverent side of my personality well. However, it also gave the impression of a kid who thought he knew more than he did, a pseudo-sophisticate bordering on obnoxious.
I still think it was a net positive. At the end of the day, I believe the safest, surefire strategy is to develop a Spike so big that the importance of the Personal Essay pales in comparison to your achievements. You want your Personal Essay to be a supplement to your application, not the only reason you get in. There are probably some cases where a well-rounded student writes an amazing Personal Essay and gets in through the strength of that. As a Hail Mary if you're a senior and can't improve your application further, this might work. But the results are very variable—some readers may love your essay, others may just think it's OK.
Without a strong application to back it up, your mileage may vary. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools. This is a really fun section. I've also reached out to my letter writers to make sure they're ok with my showing this. Teacher recommendations are incredibly important to your application. The average teacher sees thousands of students through a career, and so he or she is very well equipped to position you relative to all other students. Furthermore, your teachers are experienced adults—their impressions of you are much more reliable than your impressions of yourself see my Personal Essay above. Instead of waiting for an event like this, I chose to get involved in the activities that I found most invigorating.
Slowly but surely, my interests, hobbies, and experiences inspired me to pursue medicine. As a medical student, one must possess a solid academic foundation to facilitate an understanding of physical health and illness. Since high school, I found science courses the most appealing and tended to devote most of my time to their exploration. I also enjoyed learning about the music, food, literature, and language of other cultures through Latin and French class. I chose the Medical Sciences program because it allowed for flexibility in course selection.
I have studied several scientific disciplines in depth like physiology and pathology while taking classes in sociology, psychology, and classical studies. Such a diverse academic portfolio has strengthened my ability to consider multiple viewpoints and attack problems from several angles. I hope to relate to patients from all walks of life as a physician and offer them personalized treatment. I was motivated to travel as much as possible by learning about other cultures in school. Exposing myself to different environments offered me perspective on universal traits that render us human.
I want to pursue medicine because I believe that this principle of commonality relates to medical practice in providing objective and compassionate care for all. Combined with my love for travel, this realization took me to Nepal with Volunteer Abroad VA to build a school for a local orphanage 4. Rooted in different backgrounds, we often had conflicting perspectives; even a simple task such as bricklaying could stir up an argument because each person had their own approach. However, we discussed why we came to Nepal and reached the conclusion that all we wanted was to build a place of education for the children.
Our unifying goal allowed us to reach compromises and truly appreciate the value of teamwork. The insight I gained from my Nepal excursion encouraged me to undertake and develop the role of VA campus representative 4. Unfortunately, many students are not equipped with the resources to volunteer abroad; I raised awareness about local initiatives so everyone had a chance to do their part. I tried to avoid pushing solely for international volunteerism for this reason and also because it can undermine the work of local skilled workers and foster dependency. Nevertheless, I took on this position with VA because I felt that the potential benefits were more significant than the disadvantages.
Likewise, doctors must constantly weigh out the pros and cons of a situation to help a patient make the best choice. I tried to dispel fears of traveling abroad by sharing first-hand experiences so that students could make an informed decision. When people approached me regarding unfamiliar placements, I researched their questions and provided them with both answers and a sense of security. I found great fulfillment in addressing the concerns of individuals, and I believe that similar processes could prove invaluable in the practice of medicine.
As part of the Sickkids Summer Research Program, I began to appreciate the value of experimental investigation and evidence-based medicine