Tony: Hi Johnny, I want to cover a couple of topics related to your personal experience, a little bit on the application process itself, and what it’s like to be at school in the US. Academically, you’re a strong student, but you did not have the highest scores. Yet you ended up in one of the most elite, hardest universities to get into in the US. What worked for you to overcome what on paper might be considered a shortfall?
Johnny: I realized at the very beginning that some of my credentials were not the strongest. E2 and I understood that perfectly, so we were realistic. How college applications work in the US is that your grades and your credentials serve as a benchmark, and admissions officers look for other things that you might bring to their community. So, apart from having an okay GPA and an okay SAT score, I was committed to extracurricular activities. I did everything I could to show that on the college applications.
Tony: You want to tell about your experiences. Admission officers want to see from your essays and from your letters of recommendation what you are going to be like as a student in that school. Those things are super, super important, and most essays don’t bring out those attributes clearly enough.
Walk us through the application essays and how you thought of different topics to write about, because I feel so many students get really stressed out and overwhelmed. These schools are asking you really big questions, like: “What do you want to do with your life?” and “What are you most passionate about?” Many students I talk to don’t feel like they have a lot to write about. How did you handle that stress?
Johnny: On stress management, on managing time, and on budgeting a specific timeline to write my essay, I received a lot of guidance from both high school counselors and Everest. I explored a lot of ideas starting in the second semester of my junior year.
We ended up with 40 or 50 different essay ideas and approaches that we could take. I don’t think that as a really young student, we understand this enough. We often don’t sit back and just reflect on who we are. Through the 40 or 50 ideas that I ended up brainstorming about, I was able to reflect and learn so much about myself. I began to understand my personality and who I am.
My advice to students right now is if you’re around that time period, don’t really be stressed out on getting an essay done. Instead, focus on finding yourself, talking to a lot of people who are more accomplished than you, and who would be willing to give you honest advice.
Tony: Let’s be a little bit more specific there. Who did you contact?
Johnny: It was a mixture of Everest and my guidance counselor. You guided me through much of the process. But apart from that, I reached out to a lot of my Everest teachers. I reached out to my high school counselor. And I reached out to people who I really looked up to in my high school as well.
Tony: Some of the parents here and some of our students may not really know the differences between Early Action and Early Decision. Can you talk about what Early Action/Early Decision is and how you decided which one to go for?
Johnny: Of course! So Early Decision is mostly a November 1st deadline. It is about 2 months before you apply to the regular pool. Basically, Early Decision means that you tell the admission officers how much you want to get into that school. And if they give you an offer, you are obligated to take that offer. Personally, I really like Northwestern. It is my absolute favorite school, so that was where I put my Early Decision application.
Early Action is sort of simpler, but you’re not obligated to go to that school if they give you an offer. You’re just putting your application in there early so that they have a chance to read your application before more and more applications come in. And regular is simply a Regular Decision.
Therefore, on deciding which schools to apply to for Early Action/Early Decision, you should take your personal interest as well as your admissions chances into account.
Tony: So tell me about the schools that you applied to for Early Action or Early Decision, and how you chose those.
Johnny: I just start with my absolute and still favorite choice, Northwestern. I felt lucky to be given the opportunity to do the college tour in the summer before my senior year in high school. I had a chance to go to information sessions and talk to students from 13 different colleges. It was quite eye-opening. Just from my conversations with Northwestern students, I had a feeling that they were very professional and passionate. They worked hard and played hard. That’s exactly the type of people who I would like to be around. Additionally, Northwestern provides a very liberal academic program. And the architecture there was also very beautiful. That’s why I picked Northwestern.
On the other hand, I looked into similar schools that had a similar environment to Northwestern. Those were very good options as well. I really liked the city of Chicago, so I applied to the University of Chicago. The other schools that I reached out to were Boston University, Northeastern University, and Boston College. Those are relatively easier options to get in.
Tony: In terms of the college process, I always talk a lot about how schools are actually very different from one another. Those differences determine a lot about what your day-to-day life becomes and who you hang out with. Those things are very important to consider.
You mentioned a lot how your friends at Northwestern worked hard and played hard. I don’t know if you have ever heard this: “You become the average of your five closest friends.”
Johnny: Yes, I have heard that before.
Tony: So if you’re spending time with your five closest friends in a different kind of environment, they all work hard and play hard, you can have a very different experience in Northwestern community. As a matter of fact, people don’t usually consider those things. However, I believe that they are definitely important.
The type of activities you want to do is super important too. By virtue of you being a tutor to those athletes, you’re spending a lot of time around some really cool people who you probably wouldn’t hang out with that much normally. And then same thing on soccer. You now have this extra interest where you’re going to meet people who are passionate about lots of different topics. And your common interest just happens to be soccer.
And how many schools did you apply to in total?
Johnny: I applied to five schools in the November Early Action process. And I also had plans to apply to other ten to fifteen schools if I didn’t end up getting into Northwestern or any of the schools that I really liked for Early Action.
Johnny: My parents took me to the U.S. to go on college tours. It was very important for us to understand the culture and the personality of each school. I tried really hard to convince my parents to let me apply to my favorite school – Northwestern. Particularly, I had to persuade them that the social aspect matters just as much as the academic aspect does. However, it was a smart strategy that I decided to enroll in Northwestern – a very good school which not a lot of Vietnamese applicants know.
Tony: It was very clever of you to intentionally avoid schools that lots of Vietnamese students applied. Instead, you chose a school that is great but underrepresented to enhance the chances of success. Are there other schools that you think should be on that list?
Johnny: I can only recommend the business-related schools. I believe Boston College should be on that list. It not only has a very different environment but also opens up a lot of opportunities. Besides, the University of Southern California (USC) is another example.
Tony: Did your parents recognize the school name – Northwestern, and what were their opinions about the school?
Johnny: They knew that Northwestern is one of the top institutions in the U.S. However, at Northwestern, the social life plays a much bigger role than the academic life. Although there was a lot of disagreement, everything turned out to be fine as they knew that I was heading to a very good school. Besides, the fact that I’m happy is all that matters.
Tony: I believe that the quality of the environment is universally getting better across the top 50 schools in the U.S. In particular, USC is a shining example as they have done a really good job to upgrade their academic standing over the 10 to 20 years. I think Northeastern is another example of that as well. Northeastern is really good at creating real-world work experience. They have cooperated with a lot of companies to provide students with the real-world experience very early on. It really helps set them apart as one of the best places to prepare for the student’s future career while going to college.
As a matter of fact, the big companies all come to top schools in any specific fields to find new recruits for their jobs. And it’s so much easier when you’re already there. However, I have a small tip: If you’re not going to one of the top recruiting schools, you can still make yourself stand out by going to these schools’ career fairs. It’s necessary that you find out when they are to show up and drop your résumé there. But you have to be extra proactive. I have some friends who are from smaller schools but did exactly what I just said. The recruiters were so impressed when a specific student from the small school down the street went through that effort to join the career fair. It showed a lot of organizations.
Johnny: I have something to add to that. When I went to recruitment events, the recruiters talked a lot about the types of students who really stood out. A very common example was students from the smaller schools who took the extra steps to get their name known.
I understand that going to big schools opens up a lot of opportunities. However, you should bear in mind that it’s not the end of the world if you can’t get into somewhere you really want to. Just think of it as an opportunity for you to learn and acquire experience.
Tony: Is there anything that you think you could have done differently?
Johnny: I wish I could have opened up to my parents about who I wanted to be. Back then, I used to be confined to a strictly academic world. My parents didn’t let me be too committed to any extracurricular activities that I really wanted.
As a matter of fact, providing a holistic, well-rounded education has become a key goal for most schools in the U.S. Therefore, apart from the academic performance, the admission officers also look deeper into other aspects of the applicants. As a result, for students who plan to study abroad in America, I suggest that they have fun in learning instead of taking it too seriously. This will help them develop their intellectual, emotional, social, physical and creative potentials at the same time. On the other hand, they can also have more opportunities to reflect and discover themselves, which will be very beneficial for their admission essay. Eventually, their application process will be so much more fulfilling in the future.
Tony: When it comes to extracurricular activities, parents usually consider it as a bonus that their kids can put on the college application. In reality, the value of extracurricular activities is not just that. It’s easy to check the box and everybody does it. However, the value is how you write about the experiences you’ve got from those activities, in a way that helps you grow as a person, as a leader, or as someone who tries something exceptionally hard. I totally agree with you on the value of the extracurricular activities.
Anyway, is there any advice you would leave for students who aspire to study abroad for college?
Johnny: I suggest that they try to wrap up the school work and take the standardized tests as soon as possible. It opens up an entire summer for them to work on their extracurriculars, something that they are very passionate about. Besides, it’s crucial that they brainstorm some ideas for their college essays. Besides, I recommend that they reach out to as many people as possible and surround themselves with people who are willing to bring the best out of them. Additionally, self-confidence and self-belief are necessary at this stage. Those will eventually reflect in their college application.
Tony: Thank you very much, Johnny, for all of your help. It’s been awesome to get a chance to chat with you on a really personal level on all of these things.
To our audience here, if you guys have any questions, in particular for Johnny, or any other topics that you’d like us to cover, please feel free to leave them in the comment section. We’ll try to find suitable speakers for those topics. Also, if you need any help in education, Everest Education would be very happy to step in and support.