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From Puerto Rico to MIT: How Sophie Got Into a STEM Student’s Paradise

16 JUN 2021

From the tropics of Puerto Rico, Sophie dreamed of heading north to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her love for STEM was always there; but it was her passion for meditation and dance that created a unique narrative throughout her university application.

As with many US universities in the latest admissions cycle, applications to MIT skyrocketed after a year of COVID-induced changes like test optional policies, remote learning and virtual campus tours. The #1 ranked university in the world, MIT reported a massive 66% increase in applications to the Class of 2025 compared to the previous year — meaning its already notoriously low acceptance rate was cut nearly in half, dropping down to just 4%!

Despite these challenges, Sophie beat record-low odds to gain admission to her dream university and will be heading to MIT this fall. Sophie was a recent guest on Crimson’s Top of the Class podcast, where she discussed her journey to MIT and how her Crimson team helped her find a compelling personal narrative and weave it into her application to truly stand out from the crowd.

Below is the transcript of the Top of the Class interview between Alex and Sophie. The transcript is edited for clarity and to remove vocal filler. Click the following links to download the full episode or stream it on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.


Alex:

Hi, Sophie. Welcome to the Top of the Class podcast. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Sophie:

Hi, everybody. My name is Sophie Lou and I'm looking forward to doing my undergraduate studies at MIT.

Alex:

What was your original ambition to go to MIT?

Sophie:

Ever since I was in middle school, I've heard about all these amazing universities and how they're fermenting these talented people. In my case, when I was in sixth grade, there was this graduating senior that got into MIT from my school. And we both did Math Olympiad, and my parents talked to his parents, and they shared how he really liked MIT — particularly because of its emphasis on things like science and technology, but also the collaboration in the university. From that point on, I was really interested.

Alex:

And when did the reality of how hard it is to get in to MIT really hit home?

Sophie:

I would say when I was in 10th grade, because I knew about MIT, but I was never like, ‘Oh, I have to focus on undergraduate admissions’. Up until that time, I just wanted to have fun discovering myself and doing all the things that I was passionate about. And then in 10th grade, I moved schools and everybody was really motivated and I heard about their experiences applying and how much effort they had to put into.

So that’s when I did a little bit more research, and I saw how hard it was to get in because the percentages are really, really low — like 6%. So seeing that and how many people were applying just kind of registered in my mind.

Alex:

Then you were like, ‘Okay, this needs a lot of work, what work am I going to put in to help me put my best foot forward through the application?’ Right?

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Sophie’s Extracurriculars

Sophie:

Well, I didn't really think that much about applying to colleges early on. However, I always did activities that I was really interested in. So whether that be Math Olympiads or anything like that, I just wanted to pursue my interests.

In 10th grade, since I moved to a new school, they had a lot of opportunities to do scientific research; and so in that year, I decided to take advantage of the things that I really liked and try to do really well on them so I could maximize my chances of gaining admission into MIT or any other good school.

In September, I started reaching out to Crimson. I heard about how they would guide students so I really wanted to take that chance and see with the help of the Crimson community, and of course, my parents and my school, how that could help me reach my goal.

Alex:

So you've had a long history of being involved in the sciences. What was your particular area of focus?

Sophie:

I really like to do research in machine learning. So the project that I took to ISEF (Intel Science and Engineering Fair) was on machine learning and learning recommendation systems with matrix completion. If I put it into simple terms, imagine that you're on Netflix and you want to find movies you like. So you scroll to see what’s there, and the algorithm kind of picks up your likings. It’s similar to Tik Tok and Amazon, all these big brands have these recommendation systems — my product kind of focused on the machine learning process behind that.

Alex:

How did you even start the journey into machine learning?

Sophie:

My dad is a professor at our local university, and he teaches computer science, so I feel like he brought a lot of the concepts that I know today. And then after searching up online and seeing what things interested me, I put them all together.

Alex:

Fantastic. So when you applied to MIT, what did your Activities List look like? Was that ISEF machine learning project at the top?

Sophie:

I definitely put that there because it was something I was really proud of and humbled to be able to have that achievement.

I also did a little bit of research with agriculture in 10th grade, when one of my teachers chose me to be part of this team where we got to cultivate lettuce plants and grow them in a microgravity environment. So, we had to find new organic fertilizers to be able to cultivate them in the International Space Station and then send all that data. It was a really pivotal moment for me, and I learned more about the scientific process during that experience. The other parts that I focused on were my Math Olympiad and my research.

Other than that, I also focused on non-academic extracurriculars. I did a bit of dancing, I did cross country, and all these things — and I feel like for MIT or any other college, they don't want the student to be just solely focused on academics. You have to have some other components specifically tailored to you. I also put meditation, which is really important to me. All of these things just highlighted what I valued.

Alex:

That’s a fantastic tip for students who are listening — it's not just about all your achievements and your science background, it’s about who you are as a person. And if you feel like dance and meditation are things that help to identify you, then that's something you should definitely include.

But it must be a very odd thing when you’re applying to this top STEM university and yet you're mentioning dance and meditation. Was there any hesitation when you were putting that on your application and thinking, ‘is this actually what they want to hear?’

Sophie:

Of course — but I feel like you shouldn't tailor yourself to an expectation that these universities or admissions officers think the perfect package is.

When I approached the application process, I thought to myself, ‘I do not want to create something that isn't true to who I am.’ So with that in mind, I just took the most important parts of my life, and regardless of whether the admissions officers cared or not — it was who I am. And if they couldn't accept that, then that means I obviously belong in someplace else, right?

That was the type of mentality that I went into with this application. So yeah, don't worry what other people might think is good for you; you know yourself better than anybody else.

Alex:

Universities want to know that you've got this raw potential that they can help mold over the next couple of years, right? And that's what you saw with MIT.

Sophie:

Yeah, definitely. I feel like the part of MIT that really captivated me was not only the academic component, but there's this vibrant community of people who are there to help you and guide you and I just really, really love MIT for that.

Alex:

That's a key thing when an admissions officer is looking at an application. They're like, ‘How involved is this person going to be in the wider MIT community?’ They want to see that you're going to be an active member of the campus community and not just a person who's there to do science all day.

Sophie:

Exactly. When I started the application, I read this article written by one of the admissions officers called ‘Applying Sideways’. It’s about how you shouldn’t think of fitting into a specific mold because in reality, everybody is so unique and different that all of these things that make us different are what's special about the community.

It's like climbing a mountain. You want people with a variety of thought processes in order to be able to overcome that challenge — instead of having 1,000 people with the same type of personality.

Alex:

Yeah, you're absolutely right. From your perspective, what was the strongest element or your application?

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Sophie’s Essays

Sophie:

In terms of the essays, I focused less on the academics and instead wrote about all the things that make me, me. Like, if a complete stranger wants to know about me, I took those parts and then put them in my essays. I feel like that part was the strongest point.

There are so few parts where you can really showcase your personality, and I made sure to take in everything about my life, and just put it in there. And I feel like that might have been a strong reason why they considered me. Especially because, before I got accepted, I wasn't really sure if my extracurriculars were on the right level, because everybody is so good at what they do — you never really know where you stand.

Alex:

I'm sure everybody has some doubts when they submit their application. Now, I'm interested in the essays, so talk me through that process.

Sophie:

Okay, so at MIT it does work differently to the Common Application. There were five required essays, and each one focuses on different things. So you would talk about what you do for fun or something that you've done for the community — and in those I was more laid back; I wanted to bring out the fun, creative side.

For one of them I talked about dancing with my sister in the living room, because I go to boarding school, so I don't spend that much time with my family during the week. So every time that I could come home, we would just go to the living room, play some music and dance.

In another essay, I wrote about multiculturalism and how it affects me; and for the community service essay, I wrote about how meditation guided me through this tough year and how I used it to help my classmates and community.

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Sophie’s SAT

Alex:

That does start to paint more of a picture of who you are! And in terms of the standardized tests for the US, did you take either the SAT or ACT?

Sophie:

Yes, I did take the SAT — I took it twice, actually. I self-studied for it and the first time I got a 1380 and then the second time, I got a 1520 and submitted that. I know 1520 is not as high as other people might think, but I feel like there's a cutoff score for each university and once you reach that score, it doesn't really matter that much. Then you focus more on other personal things such as the essays or extracurriculars. So yeah, my goal was to reach 1500 and then I did so I felt really happy.

Alex:

It's interesting you say that, because I remember meeting a student in Sydney who was sitting the SAT for the fourth time. She had a 1540 as her previous score, and she was sitting it again to try and get a higher score — and we were like, ‘Stop! You're good!’ In Australia, we are very exam focused, because that's the main reason you get into universities here — but in the US, as you said, once you reach a certain threshold, they know you're smart, and you can go and do other bits of your application.

Now, talk to me about where Crimson came in for you. What was the main focus that you were working on when you decided to get Crimson’s help?

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How Crimson Helped Sophie

Sophie:

The main goal was to have help with my application — mostly how to format all the extracurriculars in such a way that was presentable and captivating for the admissions officers. I feel like that was where help was most needed and was given. But they also helped me with the essays and advising me on word choice and grammar and everything like that!

So yeah, I really, really needed their help — like without their help, I probably wouldn't have gotten in. So I'm really grateful for meeting Crimson and just having their support throughout this whole journey.

Alex:

That's interesting because the Crimson team thinks the world of you as well!

Sophie:

Yeah, if you're listening to this, I love you guys so much. My life just became so much better with you guys.

Alex:

It can be very difficult to look at all those pieces of an application as a student who's never actually put all of these elements together in a way that presents to an admissions officer. So what was that conversation like and how did those sessions go for you?

Sophie:

It went super well — at the beginning, Crimson does this matching process and I feel like they did a wonderful job. The sessions felt like I was just talking to a friend.

Alex:

Fantastic. Well, that's really good to hear! Now let's talk about what you're most looking forward to at MIT.

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Sophie’s Future at MIT

Sophie:

I'm really excited to move in. I was actually accepted to this program called Interface Edge, which is for freshmen to go there in June and start taking classes and getting exposure to the MIT environment early on!

Once freshman year starts, I'm interested in learning more about the neuroscience department or the joint departments of electrical and computer science and neuroscience.

And then obviously, I'm thinking of joining a dance team, and learning how to manage a stressful workload — that's something that I really want to be able to dominate. I want to not only get good grades, but also develop healthy schedules in my life.

Alex:

And what are you hoping to do with the MIT degree or network after you graduate?

Sophie:

I really want to do some internships during my undergraduate years. And then I want to use my degree to help benefit others, like I to become a scientific researcher, and hopefully, a professor.

But before that, I would love to do service in different parts of the world, getting that exposure and learning about all these cultures, and then implementing their thought processes in order to provide our society with the best technologies.

Alex:

Great. And finally, Sophie, any advice you would give to students who are going down this path aiming for these top universities?

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Sophie’s Top Tips

Sophie:

I would say just breathe. I know this process can be very stressful at times, so just be sure to just take a moment for yourself. Truly just reflect on what brings you motivation at this point, or throughout this process, and know that your family or the Crimson community or your school is here to help you.

Specifically for colleges, I did a lot of research before even considering applying. It doesn't matter if your dream school is top five or top 20 or top 50 or top 100! Find a place that you can thrive. For me, personally, I applied to three universities: one was MIT, one was in Florida and one was UT Austin. Whether that means reading their blogs, or just looking at small details, you want to try to find a university that truly speaks to you, and actually tries to get the best out of you.

Then once you have that down, you want to find a supportive community, which I definitely found at Crimson and couldn't have done it without you guys.

Alex:

Excellent. One thing I forgot to ask about was whether you applied Early Decision to MIT?

Sophie:

Yeah, I did since I really wanted to get the application done as soon as possible and maximize my chances of getting in. So if you know that you want to go there, just go for it.

Alex:

And what was it like when you heard the news that you had gotten in?

Sophie:

A few days before, my dad was like, ‘I don't know. Don't have your hopes high.’ Because basically nobody gets into MIT. So a few hours before, I started cleaning the entire house. I was just meditating and cleaning and everything.

When the decisions came out, I was FaceTiming with a friend — and we were just so nervous. But then I opened it, and I was screaming and crying! My dad ran to the living room, and I’ve never seen him so happy. It was just the best day.

Alex:

Yeah, I bet. Sounds like an incredible moment for everybody!

I think one of the things that a lot of students probably don't realize is that it's such a family thing — it's not just a student applying by themselves, it really is everybody on this journey, particularly aiming for these top colleges. So what did your family give you that was irreplaceable through this whole process?

Sophie:

Yeah, I wanted to say that without my family, without my mom or my dad or my sister’s support, I don't think I would have gotten here. My family has always been very open to anything that I do. So during this cycle, they were like, ‘You know, if you want to ask for help, whether it was through the Crimson community or through any other means, we support you.’ I feel like that's really underrated. For example, when I was like writing my essays, mom would come to my room and bring a bowl of fruit. The sentiment was there and I really appreciate her.

Alex:

Sophie, it's been awesome chatting. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your insights and your wisdom — not just for me, but for all of our lovely listeners!

Sophie:

I'm really appreciative that you invited me and I hope that my story inspires other people to pursue their dreams. Remember: just put in the effort and go for it.


Want to follow in Sophie’s footsteps to gain admission to your dream university? Crimson has helped scores of students do the same, beginning with a personalized roadmap of the steps you should take from choosing where to apply to submitting your applications. Learn more about what Crimson can do for you by clicking the link below to schedule a free consultation with an Academic Advisor today.

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