Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Applying to college in the weirdest year

In the weirdest year ever, I'm graduating high school a year early. And I'm doing it on purpose. 

Before I continue, I'd like to acknowledge the privilege that I have had growing up:

1) I live in the 21st century in a good community in a developed country.

2) I was raised by two parents who invested in my future and helped me develop as a person.

3) According to many, I enjoy certain social advantages due to my physical makeup/identity.

Despite these things, I have found it difficult to feel happy, productive, and successful receiving the education I am getting at the public high school I attend. Specifically, I am deeply uncomfortable with the pressure that competitive high schools make. Ambitious students in the New York-DC-San Francisco metropolitan areas face ever growing zero sum games that end up helping nobody and which make everybody feel worse off. 

I felt an intense malaise as I progressed through high school. I may have done well in my courses, made friends, and joined clubs that I was interested in-- but the way I was going about things made me very unhappy. In my school, all the most motivated students have the ephemeral urge to "look the best"-- meaning to do what's best for college. Such actions include:

1) maxing out on AP, honors classes to the point where many students don't have lunch periods during the day

2) joining/founding clubs that disintegrate as soon as key members graduate

3) making interesting classes genuinely unenjoyable by asking questions about upcoming exams; kissing up to those teachers to waste class time

4) forming toxic cliques who taunt/shun away outsiders; cutting corners/cheating with said cliques

5) taking the SAT/ACT an inordinate amount of times, reinforcing a culture around standardized testing everyone secretly hates

I've found that teachers in competitive high schools also indulge in many seriously selfish, lazy, and hypocritical behaviors-- whether it be by synchronously planning exams with other courses in the same week, calling out students on late work when they grade work at a snail's pace, or flat out refusing to answer questions by students.

With all of this in mind, I found myself incredibly disillusioned by mid sophomore year. I had done all I could to go above and beyond-- skipping requirements to enroll in classes, auditing classes for fun, and even changing foreign languages after freshman year (something rarely done in my school apparently). Still, I felt unsatisfied and my future seemed aimless... what was all this scholastic pressure building up to? Why did I feel like I couldn't do anything I was really interested in when I got home? What was I interested in anyway?!

Right after my 16th birthday, the coronavirus flicked off the light switch of the world... and with that, my life changed completely. In the chaos of early online learning, I had little to no schoolwork and no exams. and as a result, I woke up at a healthy hour, sometimes even earlier when I did for school; I had free time that organically became time used for passion projects; I began to have a somewhat normal social life that didn't intertwine with school. 

It was really like night and day. In 2020, I felt so much happier, healthier, and more productive. And naturally, it made me think... could it always be like this?


COVID-19 has drastically changed the playing field for college admissions. It has been turned upside down in many ways-- most notably with how most schools chose to be "test optional" for the 2020-2021 year. This shucking of the SAT and ACT caused a shift in epic proportions of who did and didn't apply to college-- wealthier kids with worse scores felt more confident to take on the best schools, while many poorer kids didn't apply at all this season due to pandemic financial stresses. At scale, most elite schools faced upwards of orders of magnitude the amount of applicants, while less regarded state schools struggled to find new students.

When I saw that this year was going to be test optional, the gears started to whir in my head. Perhaps it was possible that I could graduate early, and save a whole year of my life from high school suffering?

It was a quick thought process, one that soon calcified into an affirmation, chanting loudly in my head. I could graduate this year. I could leave by next June.

From there, I leapt into action. I created a Common App account, wrote essay supplements, and researched schools. It came so naturally. 

With the time I had, I knew I could exercise the best practices I had learned online-- polishing my essays, extracurricular descriptions, and finding the best people to write recommendation letters. All I had to to was make it official!

When I called my guidance counselor, I prepared myself for hesitancy. In my school, nobody ever graduates early, no less a STEM kid. It's conventionally known to be suicide for any chance at the elite schools. In the heat of the moment, I didn't care about that. And so, after a few awkward phone calls, I became a senior instead of a junior. Magic!


I took the application process from a very utilitarian perspective. Any schools that provided a great education in computer science were on the table. Already, that dwindled down my options from ~4,000 to 50. 

Next, I looked at how well I had a shot at each of those schools. I aimed to choose around 4 I had a good chance of being accepted at, several I could possibly get into, and a few private school moonshots. My list ended up being:

-My 3 flagship state schools (SUNYs)

-University of Colorado- Boulder

-University of Wisconsin- Madison

-University of Maryland- College Park

-University of Michigan

-University of Massachusetts Amherst

-Georgia Tech

-Columbia University


-Carnegie Mellon University

-Harvey Mudd College

-Carleton College (never wanted to go, but the application was free!!)

All in all, it was a pretty solid list. Notice how many of the schools initially listed have rather high acceptance rates-- despite excellent CS programs (some in the top 30 in the country!) 

When looking at which colleges my classmates apply to, I am unimpressed by how few of these types of schools they give regard to. Instead, they have sole focus for the top-- without even knowing where to go after that. It's perfectly ironic to me that many of these kids exert Herculean efforts to get into schools like Harvard and Caltech, but have no idea what they want to do with their lives. Many of them fail in their effort too. Competition is truly for losers.

In the end, as expected, I was laughed at by all the elite privates-- rejection, rejection, rejection. However, as you snake up the list, things started to look more optimistic. Many great public schools, to my delight, accepted me! I was taken in with open arms by the schools that truly mattered to me.

The reason I wrote this post was to show how it doesn't matter how much selectivity your school has. I committed to a school with a 60%+ acceptance rate, and one that accepted around a 1/3 of CS applicants. That's a far cry from "elite", but in the end that doesn't matter.

Nobody at elite colleges treads around, resting on their laurels that they got into a good school at 17. Instead, the rat race for fewer and fewer prestigious spots becomes rattier. The point is: Look into yourself and see what you really want. If it truly is to get into an elite college, you need to do some soul searching. If it is not, you're on the right track-- find which colleges can help you pursue that the best. You'll be shocked at how many don't have a glittery Ivy League label attached to it.

TL;DR: When I saw how this year was going to play out, I took initiative to make the best of it. And it worked out great!

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