The essay that got me into Harvard – Part 2: Extracurriculars

The essay that got me into Harvard – Part 2: Extracurriculars

Continue our college essay review series, where our founders – Tony Ngo and Don Le – share their own essays that got them into Harvard and Stanford, this week, we introduce to you the essay written by Mr Tony Ngo, in answer to this question of Harvard MBA Admissions Board: “Discuss a defining experience in your development as a leader.”

Believe that many students are facing the same problem, this video will highlight how you can really talk about your extracurricular activities in a story-like format, how to tie your experiences across different areas, and share some key learning points that Tony draw from his own experience when applying to Harvard.

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Read the full transcript

Don: Hi, my name is Don and I graduated from Stanford.

Tony: And my name is Tony, I graduated from Harvard and Stanford.

Don: We’re the co-founders of Everest Education.

Tony: Over the years, we’ve helped many students get into the college of their dreams.  A big part of that is writing your personal essay. And today we found we could do something deeply personal by sharing our own essays that got us into Harvard and Stanford.  

Tony: In this essay here, they’ve asked me discuss a defining experience in my development as a leader.  I’ve chosen to highlight a community extracurricular experience which was super important in my personal development. But I also hope that this will highlight how any student can really talk about their extracurricular activities in a story-like format.  So I’ll read through it and Don will do some Q&A after every paragraph.  

My defining leadership development experience has been the turnaround of the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations (uNAVSA), an umbrella group promoting youth activism and supporting regional Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) chapters.  This nascent non-profit was formed by young professionals and students in 2004 but remained dormant its first year because the executive board failed to execute on promised initiatives. As a result, support from constituent chapters and uNAVSA’s financial sponsor, the Union of VSAs of Southern California (UVSA), waned.  Eventually, UVSA withdrew its funding commitment for uNAVSA’s 2005 conference in Chicago, endangering uNAVSA’s viability and leaving the conference hosts feeling abandoned. 

Don: So let me ask you, I guess you chose to pick a very specific challenging experience as your point for your essay, is that right Tony?

Tony: Yeah, so again, I feel like, rather than talk about how I really care about community development.  Jumping into one specific, very stressful experience or story is actually a better way to showcase it.  And through the telling of that story, hopefully I showcase my leadership learnings, the impact I had on the community, and the way I’ve thought about running an organization.  

Don: Yeah, I feel like a lot of Vietnam students who write about their experiences, but in a very general way.  So they tend to bounce around a lot. I think what’s nice about this is that when you’re very  specific,  it’s actually easier for you to want to tell the story and it’s easier from the reader’s perspective as well.

Tony: Totally true.  Although, to be honest, I feel like I dive into too many acronyms here.  Where even reading this now, I’m getting caught up and tongue tied on the many acronyms I have such as uNAVSA, VSA and UVSA.   

Don: Right.

Tony: I think I would take out at least the less important ones here and just generalize it there because that’s probably a detail that ultimately is not all that critical to the whole story.  

Don: Yeah, I think that’s one big thing.  We often see with students in writing is that as they come back and read through it.  When you write it the first time, you have a lot of details, but as you go through it towards the end, you have to question, “at the end of the day, does this really add to overall story?”  Then you end up pulling some and removing those details.

Tony: Exactly, I tell students now that every single word, every single phrase and every single sentence has to add something very specific to your essay or else you should cut it.   And actually by that same standard, I should cut at least 10-15 words out of this paragraph right here.  Alright, second paragraph….

To begin uNAVSA’s turnaround, I persuaded UVSA to renew support for the conference.  I reminded UVSA’s leadership how uNAVSA’s vision remained attainable while expressing the frustrations of the Illinois organizers without assigning blame.  Ultimately, the conference was a success, drawing 150 young leaders. During the conference, recognizing I could help uNAVSA realize its vision, I ran for and was elected president.

Tony: In this paragraph here, I kind of jumped straight into the actions that I did in order to solve some of the problems that I talked about in that introductory paragraph.  But I actually don’t talk about organizing the conference itself other than that one financial support. I decided to skip over all the other important things, but ultimately they weren’t tied strongly enough to my message. So, all the problems with organizing the logistics or motivating volunteers to put in late nights and weekends to run it.  I skipped over all of that 

Don: Do you agree that that was the right decision to do that?  Because obviously, I think for many people, the organization would be something quite significant.  I think there is this temptation to want to include that as part of their essay. To be able to showcase that you have these other skills as well.  

Tony: Yeah, I think it’s really key to pick your priorities.  I decided that that specific challenge was not the most meaningful one that I wanted to focus on.  I actually wanted to focus on what happened after I took over leadership of the organization as president and talk about the actual turnaround, not the conference itself.  If I spend too long on the conference, it would drag the essay way too long.

Don:  Let me ask you this, did you include that in the early drafts as you were working on this essay.  Did you actually include those things?

Tony: I did.  I did, and so it’s one of those things where reading through it over and over, and having one or two people give me feedback and ask me those questions.  As a writer, it’s tough.  You write all these words and get attached to them.  I know it was really hard for me to actually delete.  Deleting words was easy for me, but deleting a whole paragraph was actually super hard.   But, I think one of the most important things is to be able to let go.

Don: Yeah, and I think looking at your whole essay, being able to remove that action gives the essay much better focus.  It’s about this turnaround, your role and this participation in it. While yes, there’s these other skills, but with this limited amount of space that you actually have here, that it makes for a much stronger story.  It also resonates much better as opposed to having another story in this case.  Yeah, it’s nice and it adds to who you are, but ultimately, it distracts from the overall point of this story.

Tony: Exactly.  Lets go to the next paragraph……

My first objective as president was to motivate key constituents, many of whom had become disinterested due to uNAVSA’s prior inactivity.  This was challenging because I manage peers who are young professionals volunteering their time. To re-establish our credibility, I solicited feedback from chapter leaders on ideas for improvement, and I began sending out monthly newsletters.

I think this is a pretty straightforward paragraph, where I’m just walking through the actions I took to solve this turnaround. So everybody’s disengaged and what are the few things that I did to re-establish our engagement, their engagement.

Most importantly, I am guiding uNAVSA to realize its vision through action.  As president, I conceived and initiated the Collective Philanthropy Project (CPP), a nationwide effort to marshal disparate chapters behind one charitable cause: combating human trafficking.  Our staff recruited regional representatives to manage “Relays Against Trafficking” across six regions this coming Spring that will build awareness and raise funds benefiting survivors. uNAVSA’s staff is centrally providing marketing, fundraising, and other resources.  In fulfilling uNAVSA’s vision of empowering regional chapters through collaboration, corporate planning, and scale, turning around uNAVSA has taught me how to rally and channel the community’s passion behind daunting goals.

Don: So this feels like a pretty important paragraph.  It seems like, if I believe, this is probably the biggest actions and contributions that you made to the organization.

Tony: Absolutely.  I think what’s really interesting here, that some of our students may relate to, is that this was something that was not completed yet at the time I wrote this essay. It was actually still a project that was in motion, we’re only halfway through it. Yet, I felt it was still important enough to talk about it and project on what it was headed towards.  Because I know many of our students, especially those in 12th grade are so very very involved in their club activities. So, just because you haven’t finished it doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it.  For me, this was definitely a central part of my role as president and central to this entire essay.  And then, the last paragraph…… 

Lacking precedent as a guide, I have adapted business judgment and analytical skills to community applications as I assess opportunities to utilize uNAVSA’s resources.  Doing so has highlighted distinctions between boardroom and community leadership. Because corporate objectives are generally well-defined (deliver shareholder returns, increase profits, etc.), business leadership focuses on execution.  In contrast, community leadership requires rallying constituents behind common objectives before planning can even begin. The scale, complexity, and lack of precedent have made this my most valuable leadership development experience, while the social impact has made it personally gratifying.

Don: So, I really like how you tied a lot of your experiences across different areas into this last paragraph.  And then tie it back up to visit the purpose of the main problem itself.

Tony: Yeah, I definitely tried to do that.  If you looked at my overall profile, I was a person who had done business for 5 years already as an investment banker on Wall Street and then working at an investment fund.  So, I had a lot of the business side of it, but actually to distinguish myself from everyone who was so similar to that background.  I intentionally focused on this leadership experience that was in my extracurricular, running this nonprofit organization. So here, I also try to make this contrast between corporate versus community leadership as something that I thought was really central to my learning process. This was also a key differentiator that would help me stand out.

Don: So Tony, if you step back and take a look at the essay as a whole in terms of the overall structure and how it flows.  Can you comment on that, do you notice. if there’s a certain pattern here to what you’re doing and that may be helpful for others to understand.

Tony: Sure. So, I think this is pretty similar to what we now call our SOAR framework, using to tell a story about an experience. SOAR is Situation, Obstacle, Action and then Result.  In the situation part of it, I’m trying to give the context of what the organization is, my role and what’s going on. Obstacle is what’s the key challenge that I’m facing in this experience and why is it important.  Here, it’s about turning around this organization that is really struggling at this time. Then the Actions are listing out all the things that you do and then finally the Results are what happens as a result of all of that activity, of all those actions. Here, it’s not just the numbers that matter, but it’s actually the internalization, the reflection and the learning that you have as a student, as a leader or whatever it is. I find many many students spend way too much on setting up the situation of the obstacle. They spend maybe 3/4 of the entire essay on that, and then don’t leave enough room for the actions and the results.  So we work really hard with students to make sure that they balance that and trim it down. So many students in fact, leave out the key learning on the results and so it’s really important to make sure you put that in there.

Don: Yeah, I feel like your essay.  The majority of the time is really for those last two pieces, the Actions you took and the Result.  As opposed to, the Situation and the Obstacle.  You go and gave that part of it pretty quickly in order to leave more space for the Actions and Results.

Tony: The majority of it is actually of Situation and Obstacle,, I cover in the first paragraph.  Which as a result, is a little too dense. Maybe I could have made it a little bit more clear and a little bit more spread out with less acronyms.   But in general, I think I did do a good job to save myself a lot of space.

So hopefully, you guys found that helpful.  We are trying to share our actual essays here.  I’ll be honest, it was a little nerve-wracking to expose what I wrote so publicly, but if it helps you guys, I’m really glad that we had this opportunity to do this.  If you guys have any essays that you’d like us to review, please go ahead and send it to us and maybe we’ll pick a couple to actually do a review as well.

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The essay that got me into Harvard – Part 1: Academic experience

The essay that got me into Harvard – Part 1: Academic experience

The essays that got me into Harvard – written by Tony Ngo, an MBA graduate from Harvard Business School, Chairman and Co-founder of Everest Education.

Over the years, we’ve helped many students get into top universities and earn millions of scholarships.  A big part to achieve that is having a good essay. That’s why we always ask our students to share with us their writing.  We even ask them to share with each other.  

So to be fair, our founders of College Compass, Tony Ngo and Don Le, will do something deeply personal: we will do an essay review series where Don and Tony share their own essay that got them into Harvard and Stanford. 

In this series, Don and Tony will critique their essays live using the framework we use with our students today to give you a better sense of what we liked and what we could’ve done better. We hope that this detailed review will be useful and help you craft more compelling essays that stand out during the admissions process.

The first episode will review Tony’s essay for Harvard Business School on his undergraduate academic experiences. 

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Read the full transcript

Don: Hi, my name is Don and I graduated from Stanford.

Tony: And my name is Tony, I graduated from Harvard and Stanford.

Don: We’re the co-founders of Everest Education.

Tony: Over the years, we’ve helped many students get into the college of their dreams.  A big part of that is writing your personal essay. And today we found we could do something deeply personal by sharing our own essays that got us into Harvard and Stanford.  

So Don and I have talked about this for quite some time, you know, if we should even be sharing our actual essays.  If you think about it, this is a super personal thing where we’re sharing our desires, our hopes, our fears, and our failures.  But we know that we ask the same of our students, we ask them to share with us what they bring.  We even ask them to share with each other. So, it’s just fair that we push ourselves and share our own work.

Don: So yeah, I actually haven’t looked at these essays since I was 18 and applying into school.  So it’s actually been a really long time. It’ll be interesting for me to see what I wrote at that age and how I thought about the world.

Don: Hope you guys enjoy!

Tony: Alright!  Let’s jump right into it.  So this is my essay for Harvard Business School on my undergraduate academic experiences.  I’ll read each paragraph out loud and then Don and I will have a discussion about it and then see if anything interesting pops up.  So the prompt is….. 

What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? 

I thought this was relevant, not just for folks applying to graduate school, but anyone applying to undergrad.  You really want to showcase how you think as a student and talk about your academic achievements and your academic journey.  Whether or not it’s your college or your high school time, you want to find distinct stories, distinct examples that showcase it here.  we’ll go and comment paragraph by paragraph.  

“It was 6:00 AM on a brisk March morning in Hong Kong.   For the past quarter in “Global Project Coordination,” I   had been part of a team of eight industrial engineering  graduate students from Stanford University and Hong Kong University of  Science & Technology assessing the feasibility of a China-U.S.distribution network   for hospitality supplies in a company-sponsored project. Together, we   formulated theoretical optimization models, created distribution schematics, and tested  our assumptions through field interviews, all while collaborating across the Pacific. That March morning our team would work face-to-face for the first time preparing a presentation to update our sponsor company.  Having worked together to solve the combination of analytical, team management, and cultural challenges that arose over the past quarter, we had come to appreciate the value of fusing conceptual and experiential learning.  Applying academic lessons to real problems has always exhilarated me. Despite the early hour, I felt keenly alert as I eagerly prepared for our work session.”

Don: Tony, if I’m looking at this correctly.  What you’ve done here is allowed the reader to step into that first morning, right?  I think one of the things that we’ve seen, often times that works pretty well is starting your story, part-way into the story already.  Why did you decide that?

Tony: Yeah!  That’s a great point!  I think it’s much more effective to jump right into the action, where there’s the most extreme emotion that you might have during a specific experience.  I remember the feeling I had when we were working that 6AM morning when I woke up in Hong Kong and how I felt about this work project Most times we have this habit of starting the story right at the very beginning, but for a reader, especially an ad-com committee person who’s going to just jump right into it, that build up often takes too long.  If you think about a good movie, they often jump right into the middle of an action scene.  We want to do the same thing in some of our essays as well.  Although it’s not an action scene, I try to make it a bit more interesting by bringing the reader into that experience with me.  

Don: Got it! The other part I noticed is that after you talked about that particular morning, you provided some of the context, or basically the background of what you’re doing.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tony: Yeah, I think it’s super important that you make sure that you help the reader understand what you’re doing and why it’s important, like the overall context of any situation.  Even when I jumped right into the moment, I quickly stepped back and said, “Hey, this past quarter I was in this project coordination class, I was part of this team.” We’re working and doing different types of analyses.  It’s important to showcase what you did and how it fits into the overall project or problem.  At the end, I try to actually even transition out of the details of this context.  I bring it back to the moment with the last two sentences.  

Applying academic lessons to real problems has always exhilarated me.  Despite the early hour, I felt keenly alert as I eagerly prepared for our work session.

We tell our students often times to show, not tell.  So instead of saying, “I like to work hard on interesting problems and I’m really motivated.”  Actually show it through this experience and summarize it at the end. In this next paragraph here, I try to transition over.

I shaped the rest of my Stanford education in a similar fashion.  I sought to develop a well-rounded, rigorous foundation of theoretical and practical knowledge, while learning leadership through contributions to the university community.

Essentially, here is the summary of my overall positioning statement with regards to my academics.  I’m a well-rounded person who is combining theory with practical knowledge and is trying to apply leadership lessons into the community.  I’m basically putting my positioning statement right into the second paragraph here.  

Don: Can you explain exactly what our positioning statement is?

Tony: Yeah, I think it’s very important that all students have a clear idea.  It’s important that all applicants have a clear idea of what you want to convey to anyone who’s reading your application.  You’re only going to have a few minutes to grab their attention.  It needs to be super obvious what you are compared to everyone else in the pool.  So, the next paragraph…

I studied economic theory to understand how incentives and systems influence societal development. Beyond  micro- and macro-economics, I explored a variety of topics, including the economics of health care, developmental   economics, and venture capital investment. Meanwhile, my graduate studies in industrial engineering equipped   me with practical, analytical frameworks. In classes like “Strategy in Technology-Based Companies,” I reviewed numerous case studies.  Examining actual business dilemmas appealed to my results-driven personality, and I eagerly seized each opportunity to discuss with classmates various decisions protagonists should consider.   Together, these economic and industrial engineering courses sowed in me the seeds of a vision to effect large-scale, social change through business. 

Don: Can you help me explain the purpose of this paragraph?  So you’ve introduced your overall philosophy around who you are as a student, but what does this paragraph serve to do?

Tony: So, in this paragraph here, I wrote a little bit of details on what I studied, but more importantly, I tried to connect it back to why that’s relevant for me as a student.  Why was I curious about this thing or how did I take this knowledge and apply it? Especially for business schools, it’s important to be practitioner, to take theoretical knowledge and apply it.  So I highlight that point here, but then I showcase here how I think I’m a good fit for the Harvard Business School environment which really emphasizes discussing case studies and how I’m already very familiar discussing with classmates these types of situations. 

Don: That’s actually pretty interesting.  I think for many students, especially at the undergraduate level, you’re applying to many different number of programs.  You end up writing, a lot of times, general essays that you can use across different schools. Do you find that strategy to be effective? I think here, in this case, you clearly tailored this essay to fit specifically for Harvard.  Obviously, that takes more time, can you talk a little bit about that?

Tony: Yeah, that’s actually a great point.  I think, although you have your general essays that you may use with multiple schools, wherever applicable, you should try and customize it.  What is that school really known for or what is that program really known for?  Specifically for Harvard Business School, it’s famous for its case study methodology.  There’s very little lecturing, it’s all about students talking to one another and arguing with one another.  I highlight some of those skill sets that I already developed in my other studies at Stanford. Lastly, I would say, this final sentence here….

Together, these economic and industrial engineering courses sowed in me the seeds of a vision to effect large-scale, social change through business. 

Here, I’m again taking the academic knowledge that I’ve already worked through and tied it back to my positioning statement.  Again, I’m someone who’s trying to take the theoretical and make it practical, then apply it to the communities that I’m in. I’m expanding on that a little bit here to talk about how I’m actually a very ambitious person, I actually want to effect large scale social change through business.  That also happens to align with the Harvard Business School mission, to educate leaders who are going to make a difference. Again, when you’re trying to do your school research, you want to make sure and understand the mission, and what makes each program or each school special. So, second to last paragraph…

I complemented academics with practical and leadership experiences.   As a sophomore selected to join Stanford Consulting, a not-for-profit student group, I applied classroom theory to advise Silicon Valley companies in solving strategic marketing problems.   In serving as president of Lambda Phi Epsilon, I drew from classroom lessons in organizational behavior to build consensus as we organized charity auctions and bone marrow typing drives.

Don: Okay, can you walk me through a little bit, it looks like your paragraph above is really about academics, and here you’re talking more about your extracurricular activities.  

Tony: It was a little bit of a tricky balance for me here, how do I talk about enough of my experiences in a meaningful way?  Not just listing it out like the extracurricular list of activities, which is already in the application itself and on my resume.  Again, I think the key is tying it to the context of why it’s important to my overall position. So here, the first sentence talks about why it is…

I complemented academics with practical and leadership experiences.   

So, the activity we did.  Actually, you did Stanford consulting too, right?  We both had fun doing that for several years. But the reason that’s important is, it’s taking theory in the classroom and then applying to work with a real company and do real consulting projects for them.  So it’s the application, which is highly aligned with my positioning statement. Even my extracurriculars in a fraternity here, I was president of my fraternity. It’s not just about the fun stuff that the fraternity does, but actually, the lessons in organizational behavior, the leadership management that I applied to the various activities that we were doing.  Notice, I don’t go into a ton of detail to either of these activities. One, because we have a word-count limit, but also, it’s not necessarily crucial to the overall essay prompt. In this context, it’s not asking about all the extra-curriculars, it’s just asking about my academics. So I really only mention it as a quick supporting point back to the overall academic experience.  

At the very end, it’s a pretty standard conclusion, I would say.  It basically talks about how I’ve tried to take advantage of all the opportunities that I’ve had and contributing to the overall community.  I try to make one phrase to tie it back to the overall theme of me waking up at 6AM in Hong Kong. Not by saying it explicitly, but using the last sentence…

Fusing theory and application, I approached each problem, case, and project like the dawn of a new day – eagerly.

This kind of echoes the waking up that I had in the very beginning at 6AM there.

Don: So you’ve chosen to highlight a different number of attributes about your academic experience.  For some people, they might focus on maybe a couple of key experiences and go deeper, do you have a perspective on which strategy works better on which circumstances?

Tony: I think it’s really dependent on each person and what you’re trying to accomplish out of the positioning statement.  I think it’s perfectly fine to take either approach provided you have enough meat to it. In this case, I think for Harvard Business School, which is a general management program. I think it was better for me to organize my thoughts and show that I can talk about a number of different experiences in a coherent fashion and tie it together.  If this was an application for a liberal arts undergraduate experience, or something where I want to show that I’m really geeking out, getting really nerdy about one specific concept, I think that’s totally fine. It’s really more of a personal choice than something you have to do one way or the other.  

Don: Looking at this essay now, obviously it’s been a number of years and you applied into business school in 2005-2006, right Tony? 

Tony: Yeah.  

Don: Reading this now, obviously having gone through a lot of different work with students.  Is there anything about this you would change or tweak, or generally, do you feel like, “this was pretty good?”  

Tony: I tweaked this so many times throughout the process.  I had two or three people give me detailed feedback on multiple drafts who were very experienced.  They helped me change a lot of this to be much more organized and clearly communicating this. I don’t think I realized how important it was, things like positioning statement in my early drafts.  So, some of the feedback I got then was, “hey, I’m hearing about this project that you’re doing, but I’m not understanding how it relates to who you are as a person?” In terms of the actual phrasing of the examples, I don’t think I would do much differently.  I did probably 20-30 drafts of this essay through a 6-month period, so I feel pretty good about it. 

Don: Okay, great!

Tony: Thanks for watching all the way to the end.  We hope that you guys find that detailed review useful for yourselves.  If you like the content, please help us out by liking, sharing, and subscribing to our content.  We’ll post a bunch of additional content below. And if you guys have any questions, comments or other topics you like us to address, please let us know.

Don: So one of the things that we want to do, we want to do this for you as well.  If you are open to having your essay reviewed publicly, let us know! Send a copy of your essay to the email in the link below and we’ll be happy to do a similar session for you.

Tony: Thanks guys!

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How I got into Stanford?

How I got into Stanford?

One of our students, Linda Tong, has been admitted to Stanford University, Class of 2020 and several other elite schools, including Columbia, Berkeley, Wellesley, Georgetown and Barnard.

We had a great conversation with her where she shared many interesting tips on the college application process, drawing from her own experience.

This video will dissect Linda’s strategy, including how to succeed as a well-rounded (giỏi toàn diện) student, what really attracted her to “The Farm” (the nickname for Stanford), and how she applied our SOAR technique to conquer the dreaded interview.

Scroll down to see the transcript below.


See full transcript

Tony: Oh hi everybody, I’m here with Linda.

Linda: Hi!

Tony: And I’m super excited today to have this conversation with you.

Linda: I’m really excited to be with you as well.  [Shakes hand]

Tony: [laughs] Linda is here to talk about her experience.

Linda: Mm-hmmm!

Tony: Getting into Stanford.  And I’m super super excited; she’s got the right gear on.

Linda: [laughs]

Tony: I wish I brought my Stanford shirt in today too!  So can I ask, what got you excited about applying to Stanford in the first place?

Linda: I think for me it was definitely the interdisciplinary focus that Stanford.  So in high school, I was a very well-rounded student. I never had one single spike or defining interest, but what I did really enjoy doing was exploring a lot of things.  So I was really into coding, but at the same time, I also liked classics a lot. So I’ve been taking Latin and Greek.  

Linda: I love the language, I love the culture, and I love the history. I think Stanford really encouraged that and they have a huge focus on finding intersections between different fields and finding the connection between them.  So, I think that’s what stood out to me the most about Stanford. 

Tony: Hmmmm………Does Stanford talk about a specific program that ties coding and classics together?

Linda: I think Stanford still has a lot of different majors that combine different subjects.  For instance, if you’re doing Symbolic Systems.

Tony: Yeah!

Linda: That’s Computer Science with Linguistics, Psychology, and just a lot of different things.  Or if we’re doing MCS, that’s Math and Computer Science. Or even a Human Biology major.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: That’s very unique to Stanford, we cannot find that anywhere else.

Tony: Oh really? I did not know that.

Linda: Well, you can fact check if you’d like. [laughs]

Tony: [laughs] Well, when I was there, they had the element of the BioX department, which was a huge deal, combining Biology and Engineering fields together.  

Linda: Right.

Tony: And I think they were one of the first.

Linda: Yeah.

Tony: You’ve mentioned that you’ve had a variety of interests in high school, but I feel like when students apply, they have a big challenge.  You are generally given this advice, “Hey, being a well-rounded student doesn’t actually help you in this application.”

Linda: Exactly.

Tony: So can you talk about that conflict?  Were you a well-rounded applicant, or were you a “pointy” applicant?

Linda: So, I think for me, it was a combination of both.  I think it’s really good that you bring up that point because it was definitely one of my insecurities in the college admission cycle.  I was very scared that if I did not have one defining interest, I would not stand out in such a competitive applicant pool.

Tony: Uh-huh.

Linda: Especially, I think this year Stanford had…………well, last year, Stanford’s acceptance rate was around 4.3% and they stopped publishing it. [laughs] 

Tony: [laughs] I’m sure it’s not higher than 4%.

Linda: Exactly, so, I actually thought a lot about that. At boarding school, you’re encouraged to pursue a lot of interests and you’re given the opportunity and resources to do just that.  So, I definitely took advantage of a lot of the resources at my boarding school, advice that you gave me that Stanford is actually intellectual vitality-focused.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: So, for me, I’ve always considered myself a very intellectually curious person.  I love learning. I really enjoy exploring the subjects and because I think I had well-rounded interests, that was what Stanford was looking for. 

Tony: I see, so step me back, when you look at the application, I often tell students to try to make sure that their position as an applicant is very clear.

Linda: Right!

Tony: So we actually form, what we call, a positioning statement.  

Linda: Sure.

Tony: We didn’t talk about this, but when you submitted your application, could you try to summarize, “Who is Linda?”

Linda: Right, I think for me, it was my diversity of experiences and my diversity of interests.  But also with the classics bent. [Laughs] So, for my main essay, I wrote about how I grew up exploring languages.  So, I came to the U.S. as a second language English learner. So, for me, that was really difficult process, but it taught me perseverance and it made me love the language learning process.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: In middle school, I started taking Latin and French.  Now, I’m doing ancient Greek and Python. [Laughs]

Tony: [laughs] All sorts of languages.

Linda: Exactly, and I also started Vietnamese this summer.

Tony: Nice!

Linda: Yeah!  So, I love learning languages.  But at the same time, I think that because I enjoy navigating different situations, that was another big part of my upbringing.  So I’ve been to public school, private school, boarding school, international school, in the U.S. and in China. So, for me, getting to meet people who come from a really wide variety of backgrounds and learning how to connect with them was a huge part of my experience as well.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!  I see, so if I can try to summarize.  It sounds like, it’s not only that you had all these different experiences, I’m sure there are other students out there that have learned 2, 3 or 4 different languages.

Linda: Right sure, absolutely!

Tony: But it sounds like you were able to tie it with a very clear theme about navigating different new environment and cultures.

Linda: And I think, for me, the main essay, I put it in there because I’m a classics nerd, I’m not going to lie. [Laughs]

Tony: [laughs]

Linda: But the theme that I chose was about wandering.  So in Latin, the word for wander is erraverunt, which is where we get the English word, “error” from.  

Tony: Hmmm!

Linda: So usually, in English, when we would talk about error, it does have a negative connotation because you’re failing and making a mistake.  But for me, I learned to love that process. I learned to love wandering, to love failing and to learn how to cope. 

Tony: That is fantastic!  So, I also feel like so many students feel this pressure. 

Linda: Sure.

Tony: That you have to talk about these huge achievements in order to get into Stanford. 

Linda: [chuckles]

Tony: But the reality is, as an interviewer myself or advising other students.  I know it’s not about having that, “I won the Olympics” or “I won first place in this competition.”

Linda: Right.

Tony: But it’s about the learning process. 

Linda: Absolutely!  I think that in such a competitive applicant pool, I think so many kids are qualified.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: For me, I also won National AP Scholar, where I got summa cum laude on the National Latin Exam and the National Greek Exam.

Tony: But you don’t need to write an essay about it!

Linda: Exactly!  I don’ t think those metrics are what set you apart, I think  growing up in Asia and living in a very Asian environment , we do put a lot of emphasis on numbers.  

Tony: Yep!

Linda: We talk about SAT scores, GPA and exam scores.  That’s what we’re heavily focused on because we value those metrics so much.  But again, having the boarding school experience and talking to you as well, I learned that there are things that schools look for that we cannot reflect through those metrics.

Tony: Right.  So, is it fair to say though, that to be considered, you do need to have the exceptional metrics like GPA and SAT scores.  

Linda: Right.

Tony: But to differentiate yourself, you need all those credits.

Linda: Right, I think it’s absolutely helpful to have them, but it’s not enough.

Tony: Fantastic.  So again, lots of kids with perfect scores don’t get in; it’s all about that extra step.  

Linda: Right.

Tony: So, on the interview process itself, you and I spoke about how to communicate your story clearly and persuasively, especially in this interview format.  What was it like to interview at Stanford? 

Linda: I actually really enjoyed my experience, so my interviewer, he did his undergrad at Stanford, he studied Chemistry.  So for me, I was applying as a Classics and Computer Science major, but I think the techniques that you taught me helped me connect more with my interviewer.  

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: Being a reflective listener, asking the right questions, and if I’m talking about something, my experience, how does that relate to you?  So you would ask them about their experience and find the common ground.

Tony: So sorry, just to summarize that.

Linda: Okay!  [Laughs]

Tony: Being a good listener and reflecting back to what you’re hearing in terms of the feedback, right? 

Linda: Yes!

Tony: Okay.

Linda: And something else, the storytelling technique that you taught me,  S.O.A.R. Situation, Obstacles, Actions, and Results.

Tony: Mm-hmmm!

Linda: So for me, it’s really important to have a story because again, as an applicant, you want to appear as a whole person and really humanize yourself by having a story.  I think that’s why it’s so important to be a good storyteller.

Tony: Totally!  So, we work with a ton of students and we find that they have a tendency to either have a very bland list, they list out all the accomplishments they’ve done, resume style.  And that’s what the rest of the application is for.  

Linda: Sure.

Tony: Or they may want to tell a story, but it’s just not clear where it’s going.

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: So, we have a framework, S.O.A.R, that you and I discussed.

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: “Situation,” to describe what the environment is like, that you’re in.  And then, what’s the conflict? What’s the conflict and “Obstacle” that you had to deal with in order to succeed and overcome this challenge? 

Linda: Right. Mm-hmmm.

Tony: “A” is the Action.  So what “actions” did you take in order to resolve that obstacle or that conflict?  

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: Sometimes students make the mistake of identifying stories that are too passive.  Things happen to them and they just think about it. But I think that it’s critical to actually have something where they take thought and describe that process.

Linda: Mm-hmmm.

Tony: And then finally, the Result, “R.”  The result here, again, does not have to be that superstar championship, but actually the key learning.  What the insight? How did you grow as a person? Why was that a meaningful experience to you, right?  

Linda: Mm-hmmm. 

Tony: What was one story that you talked about, either in the essays or in the interview if you don’t mind sharing?

Linda: Sure, actually one story that I talked about was teaching a seminar at my school for Martin Luther King Day.  So, for me, I really like ancient history, but I’m also passionate about the way it relates back to social justice issues.

Tony: Hmmm!

Linda: So I think, it’s really interesting to be seeing classics in the 21st century because it feels so distant, but it’s also so relevant.  

Tony: Totally.

Linda: In my classes, we were discussing Ovid and how the men in these stories relate to the modern Me Too movement.

Tony: Wow! That is deep, in the essay?

Tony: Actually, I have some students go through it and it becomes too mechanical.  “This happened, then I did this and that was the result.” But actually, they want to see those insights of where you were in the moment, what you were thinking, and what you were feeling.

Tony: Any last words of advice for someone who wants to apply to have the best chance to get into Stanford?

Linda: I think a really important aspect is to know why you’re applying.  So, almost every school has an essay and their supplement. It might be, “What are you looking forward to the most when you’re here?” or “Why are you applying to X school?” I think at the same time, you should know why you want to go here.  I think as an Asian applicant, part of it was getting wrapped up in the peer pressure of going to a name-brand school.

Tony: Totally.

Linda: Also doing it for the prestige.  I have a lot of friends who took a shotgun approach to the college process, where they applied to all the top schools, even though they’re so different from each other.  So I think, it’s about really knowing what you want and also knowing what you want to get out of your experience.

Tony: Yeah, Stanford and Harvard were totally different! 

Linda: Right.

Tony: In terms of the day to day experience for me.  I feel like, certainly, when I was in high school, I had no idea that there are these huge differences.  So we work very closely with students to make sure they do their research.

Linda: Absolutely!

Tony: Not just on numbers, but what is it like to live there?

Linda: Exactly!

Tony: What kind of environment are you looking for?  What are the activities you hope to be involved in when you hope to be involved in when you’re there?  Can you imagine yourself in that environment?

Linda: Absolutely, I think, even when I was going through the process my senior self, I wasn’t asking myself the right questions.

Tony: Mmmm!

Linda: It’s only after having gone through the college process.

Tony: Yeah!

Linda: Something started clicking and this is what I realized, this is why I wish I knew the right questions.

Tony: [laughs] Hugely valuable, well thank you so much for your time!

Linda: Thank you so much! [Hugs]

Tony: [hugs] Thank you for coming by!

Linda: But I’m really grateful Tony, for all of your help and for your support.  I don’t think I could’ve done it without you.

Tony: I’m super excited to see how your academic and professional career unfolds and I really hope you stay in touch.

Linda: Absolutely!

Tony: Let us know if we can help anymore!

Linda: Thank you! [High-five]

5 Common Mistakes on College Application of Vietnamese Students

5 Common Mistakes on College Application of Vietnamese Students

Do you know important is the college essay?

On average, one application officer has only 8 ~ 12 minutes to read your application, and they start with your essay! As important as it is, however, many Vietnamese students do not know how to craft a good College Admission Essay to get into the college of their dreams.

Through our College Compass program, our co-founders – Tony Ngo (graduated from Harvard Business School and Stanford University), and Don Le (graduated from Stanford University) – have had the chance to work with many Vietnamese students to guide them on College Application, and have seen so many common mistakes that Vietnamese students often makes on their college application.

So to help you all avoid that, we would love to share 5 mistakes Vietnamese students typically make when applying to colleges.

By making this video, we hope you can be aware and avoid these common mistakes, as well as get good pieces of advice to craft the best application essay to apply to the college of your dreams!

Don’t forget to subscribe our Youtube channel to get updated on our newest videos:

Learn more about our College Compass program:


Stanford Psychologist Says Parents Should Do This to Raise Confident Kids

Stanford Psychologist Says Parents Should Do This to Raise Confident Kids

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and a leading researcher in the field of motivation, has emphasized differences between two mindsets that people use to understand themselves, guide their behavior and affect their achievement.

The first is Fixed Mindset, which suggests that your abilities are innate and unchangeable. The second is Growth Mindset, based on the belief that you can improve through practice.

Those with a Fixed Mindset are likely to give up when they face an obstacle. Meanwhile, those with a Growth Mindset will view obstacles as a chance to learn and grow.

Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet?

This video reveals the power of “Growth Mindset”, how it can help students succeed in and out of the classroom, and how you can apply a Growth Mindset at home, at school and in your future career.

See the transcript here

World-renowned Stanford University’s psychologist Carol Dweck, in decades of research on achievement and success, has discovered a truly groundbreaking idea.  The power of our mindset.

In her early research, she studied how people cope with failures by watching how kids grapple with hard problems.  So she gave children in a school a series of puzzles to solve. 

The first ones were very easy, but the next ones were hard.  Confronted with the hard puzzles, one 10-year-old boy yelled out loud: “I love a challenge!!!”.  Another looked up with a pleased expression and said: “I was hoping this would be informative.” 

Carol always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure.  She never thought that anyone LOVED failure. 

Not only weren’t these kids discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing.  They thought they were learning. At that time Carol thought that human qualities were carved in stone.  You were smart or you weren’t, and failure meant you weren’t. If you could arrange successes and avoid failures, you could stay smart.  Struggles, mistakes, and perseverance were just not parts of the whole being smart picture.  

The other hand those children on thought that human qualities such as intellectual skills could be cultivated through effort.  And it wasn’t just a feeling — working through challenges with this effort actually developed the brain. And that’s what they were doing, developing their intellectual skills or simply put, getting smarter.  So what does this mean for you?

It shows us how a mindset can have a profound effect on your life.  And that there are two mindsets: Fixed mindset and Growth mindset. If you believe that your qualities are carved in stone, you are showing a Fixed Mindset.  You believe you only possess a fixed amount of intelligence, a fixed personality, and a fixed moral character. And everything you encounter is a test to measure these traits.  Well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them! That’s why people with a Fixed Mindset shy away from challenges. They are scared their deficiencies could be unmasked through making mistakes. 

The Growth Mindset is the opposite.  Growth Mindset based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort.  Now Growth Mindset doesn’t mean everyone has the same talents and abilities, but it does mean everyone can grow through hard work, mentoring, and perseverance.  So why waste your time trying to look smart when you could actually be getting smarter?

Let’s take a quick look at the world of sports.  Michael Jordan actually wasn’t a natural. But he was the hardest working athlete, perhaps in the history of sport.  It’s well-known that Jordan was cut from the high school varsity team, he wasn’t recruited by the college he wanted to play for, and he wasn’t drafted by the first two NBA teams that could have chosen him.  Weren’t they foolish?

Now we know he was perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, and we think it should have been obvious from the start.  When we look at him he see MICHAEL JORDAN. But at that point he was only Michael Jordan. 

When Jordan was cut from the high school varsity team, he was devastated. So his mother told him “to go discipline himself”. Boy, did he listen?  After that he used to leave the house at 6 in the morning to go practice for 3 hours before school. He had a Growth Mindset. He believed he could improve his skills through hard work, and that’s how he became the Jordan we all know today. 

So what can we do to engrave Growth Mindset into ourselves and others?

Just knowing about the two mindsets can produce incredible results.  The other thing we can do is praise more wisely. When we praise people for the process they engage in, their hard work, their perseverance, they learn to stick to challenges.  

Praising talent, on the other hand, makes them vulnerable.  When we tell someone: “You did that so quickly, I’m impressed.”  They subconsciously hear: “If I didn’t do it quickly, you wouldn’t be impressed.” Or: “You got an A without working, you’re so smart!”.  They actually think: “Oh, if I work, you’re not gonna think I’m smart.”  

Instead when you give praise to other people, you should try something like: “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it. You thought of a lot of different ways to do it and found the one that worked.”  This way you praise hard work and not the so-called “talent”. Also telling people they are “smart” is one of the biggest mindset crimes you can commit. In one study, they even discovered that telling people they are smart lowers their IQ!

Here’s a common question people have about mindsets: Can you have both mindsets?  Many people have elements of both. You can have different mindsets in different areas.  I might think that my personality is fixed, but that my intelligence can be developed. Or that my social skills are fixed, but my creativity can be developed. 

Carol found that whatever mindset people have in a certain area, that mindset will guide them in that region.  You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind and you can change your mind.  So try your best to put yourself in the Growth Mindset every time you face a challenge, that way you will be better than yesterday. 

Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this video, please like and subscribe to see more videos like this.  Leave us comments and questions below, and study with Everest Education to see how we apply these methods in the classroom.

Fun Quiz: What Type Of Learner Are You? Study Tips For Each Learning Style!

Fun Quiz: What Type Of Learner Are You? Study Tips For Each Learning Style!

Have you ever wondered why you can’t learn something super easy that all your friends have mastered?  Or giving someone the same lesson that you once had but it never worked out for them? Do you ever wonder what’s the case behind those myths?

That is because each student has their own way to absorb and store information.  And that’s also why giving everybody the same education can’t guarantee the same result.

As a new school year is approaching, it’s time we gained more insights into our learning styles and tailored a study roadmap.  In this article, we introduce the VARK learning styles model to help you reflect and identify your most suitable approach.

Before rushing into our 3-minute quiz to discover your preferred learning style, let’s take a look at what is VARK model and why is it important.

What is VARK model?

In the 1970s, the idea of individualized learning style became popular and after years of research at Lincoln University, New Zealand, Neil D. Fleming launched the VARK model. 

The VARK is a model suggesting that most students have a preferred learning styles and can be divided into 4 types: Visual, Auditory, Read/Write and Kinesthetic.  Some students find that they are a blend of two, three or even four learning styles. In this case, you have a multimodal learning style in which you will have to adapt different approaches into each stage. 

Why Learning Styles?

Understanding your preferred learning style can help tailor your own study road map and leverage academic achievements.  It is awesome that students know where they want to grow at a young age, and having a tool like VARK can help you get there much faster.  And because each student learns differently, VARK is a great reflection framework as it allows you to take full ownership over the way students absorb knowledge and get ahead at school. 

The 4 Learning Styles

Students can identify their own learning styles through several factors based on study habits as well as everyday activities.  Below are some characteristics and tips that you can use to reflect and design your own study plan.

1. Visual

Do you know that Steve Jobs is a Visual learner?  As a visual learner, he prefers to proceed information in form of pictures, diagrams, demonstrations, displays, handouts, movies, clipart,…  You maybe a Visual learner if you:

  • Process information using charts and graphs
  • Need images to explain concepts & ideas
  • Prefer graphic elements over words

To excel in class, here are some tips for Visual learners:

  • Coloring code important information on your textbooks
  • Making flashcards with pictures or formulas
  • Taking advantage of sticky notes/ post-it notes
  • Drawing on your notes or use mind map

2. Auditory

Do you know Bill Clinton is an Auditory learner?  As an Auditory learner, he prefers to process information in a form of listening: through spoken words, discussions, group debates,…  Auditory learners are happy to attend lectures and receive instructions through phone. You maybe an Auditory learner if you:

  • Learn best when information is spoken
  • Prefer lectures & discussions
  • Process information by talking through things

To excel in class, here are some tips for Auditory learners: 

  • Reading aloud when revise lessons/information
  • Discussing lesson with a group of friends
  • Listening to podcast regularly. Check out the best podcasts from E2 pick here.
  • Recording lessons on your phone and play it to revise

3. Read/Write

Do you know George Orwell (the greatest political writer of the 20th Century – author of the famous 1984) is a Read / Write Learner?  As a Read / Write learner, he prefers information to be displayed in text: report, manual, essay…  People with Read / Write learning style are those who like to read about a subject and rephrase it in their own words.  You maybe a Read / Write learner if you:

  • Prefer to receive written words
  • Enjoy reading and writing assignments
  • Process information by writing their own condensed version

To excel in class, here are some tips for Read/ Write learners :

  • Rephrasing texts using your own words
  • Reviewing textbooks, class printouts before lesson starts
  • Turning diagrams into notes

4. Kinesthetic

Do you know that Lionel Messi is a Kinesthetic learner?  As a Kinesthetic learner, he prefers to process information through physical and hands-on activities: touching, feeling, holding,…  The people with Kinesthetic learning style will be best able to perform new tasks by going ahead and learning as they go. You might be a Kinesthetic learner if you:

  • Learn best through tactile processes
  • Prefer to create concrete personal experiences
  • Process information by recreating & practicing
  • Like hands-on problem solving

To excel in class, here are some  tips for Kinesthetic :

  • Applying the Pomodoro Technique to study in short blocks of time (25 minutes study, 5 minutes rest)
  • Walking or moving while doing revision
  • Keeping your fingers busy while studying (typing notes on your computer, trace words or rewrite sentences to learn key facts)

Now, let’s take this 3-minute quiz to find out what types of learners you are and learn more, achieve more this school year!