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What does it really take to be accepted to Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge or UPenn?

MAY 29, 2020 • 20 min read

Hear from Crimson students who were admitted to their dream universities!

Recently Crimson held a popular student success event which both celebrated our recent admits, and saw some of our current university students share insights about life on an Ivy League campus and more!

Want to know what it takes to get accepted to some of the best universities in the world?

Check out the below Q&A featuring Sandhya (Oxford), Fresh (Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge), and Nathan (currently a student at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business), to learn how these Crimson students paved a path to admissions success!

Sandhya - Oxford

University Of Oxford

What was the hardest thing about studying the IB?

The IB is a challenging program in many aspects, but I think what sets it apart from other curriculums is the responsibility it places on students to initiate their own learning through independent research. Extended research projects constitute a substantial proportion of assessment in the program, and these pose new challenges to students in the way that they require careful planning and execution over many months. This committed effort and real depth of knowledge is quite different to what is required by more traditional styles of assessment, exams and tests, and it’s not always apparent what the process will look like.

I think the key to approaching self-initiated research is get started as early as possible, focusing on acquiring the depth of knowledge required first, and only then beginning to construct the body of work. Planning is also critical to your success, and understanding the various stages you will need to go through will prevent you from getting lost in the magnitude of the assignment.

What was your IB score?


How do you get motivation to study?

Having a clear idea of my aims and end goals, and regularly reminding myself of these, worked well as a motivator as it allowed me to see beyond the slog of study to the outcome that would make it all worth it. In my case, this involved setting a particularly pretty photo of Oxford as my phone’s lock screen in the hope that upon seeing this, my renewed sense of motivation would have me put it down, and refocus, rather than embark on the endless Instagram scroll I had planned.

It’s also important to recognise that you’re not going to be 100% motivated all of the time, and that this is perfectly alright. Endeavour to strike a balance between pushing through bouts of distraction and knowing when to ‘write-off’ an unproductive evening, knowing that you’ll return in the morning feeling rested and ready to get things done.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

There were two ‘strategies’ that I employed to try and maintain a decent work/life balance over the course of the program, although I can’t say that I was always able to achieve this. The first of these was to try and shake myself of perfectionist tendencies I’d developed, which is a lot easier said than done.

There tends to be a negatively proportional relationship between marginal time spent studying, and productivity, which means that every additional hour you spend working on something will typically be less beneficial than the last. For instance, it might take you 10 hours to construct an 18/20 scoring essay, and a further 5 to bring this up to a 20/20 essay. Recognising that those 5 hours could be better spent either on other work, or on rest, and contenting yourself with ‘great’ and not ‘perfect’ might enable you to make more valuable use of your time.

My second ‘strategy’ was to actively set aside time for ‘life’. When planning out my week ahead, if I was able to, for example, block out 3 hours on a Friday night for dinner, I found that I’d be more productive in the lead up to this time, both motivated by the fun to be had, and feeling like I had to get more done in a shorter period of time in order to make up for this time.

How were you able to handle academic work and extracurriculars?

There’s only so much activity and study you can fit into a given period of time which makes it particularly important that you spend your time carefully – only pursue extracurriculars that will be of value either to your personal wellbeing or application, and ensure that you study ‘smart’.

Reflect regularly on what you’re doing to get a sense of how you might be able to spend your time more effectively. At the end of Year 11, I made a list of everything I was currently involved in, and ended up stopping certain engagements: school committee memberships that might’ve looked impressive on paper but didn’t allow for much personal or academic growth, and music lessons that were time consuming but neither enjoyable nor relevant to my academic interests. I also realised that I was spending a lot of time writing essays, when I could probably get the same value from making essay plans and reciting the essay out loud without actually writing any of it down which, strange as it sounds, ended up saving me a fair bit of time.

If you are looking to attend Oxford University Crimson Students are 2-4x more likely to gain admission.

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How did you choose Harvard over Stanford?

I went for Harvard because I thought the interdisciplinary and truly diverse environment would give me a more inspiring and wise outlook on my subject. The Harvard liberal arts philosophy of education truly emphasized the breadth that I wanted in an undergraduate experience. I also want to pursue Computational Neuroscience and the Harvard Applied Mathematics and Neuroscience programs are truly the best there is!

Did you study the full IB curriculum? If so, could you share how it was?

Yes, I did! I thought that it was a fantastic experience. I love how well-rounded the diploma made us. I'm someone who really appreciates language and I'm glad I got to continue studying it. The depth in my higher-level subjects allowed me to really dive deep into the subjects I loved while still retaining some breadth as mentioned before. Although the different deadlines such as EE and IAs made the IB more demanding, that also meant I got to hone in on pre-professional research skills and academic writing — a great experience!

What IB subjects did you take?

Further Math, Math, Physics, CS, Economics (HL); Thai, English (SL).

Did you ever feel overwhelmed with the whole US and UK applications?

Absolutely! For the UK, I felt most overwhelmed preparing for my Cambridge interview because I was warned about how difficult it would be! For the US, I felt most overwhelmed writing the Stanford essays because there were so many of them and I was scared that I couldn't convey everything there is about me into the essays. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, just breathe in, out and trust the process!

How did Crimson help you succeed?

Crimson helped me by giving me feedback and reassurance on my application and helping me select the right universities to apply to. Of course, you will have to work hard whether you work with Crimson or not! In fact, I think I worked even harder because I worked with Crimson since they always motivated me and pushed me to do even better! The amazing thing about Crimson is that they won't write your essays or tell you which activities to do — this means you will have to work hard for yourself but this is also more rewarding since you will 100% be your authentic self in the application process.

How did you come up with startup ideas? Make it unique?

I always did something that I was passionate about. I would carefully inspect the problem I wanted to tackle and come up with creative solutions for them based on my unique experiences and knowledge. To make an idea unique, you must put your personal spin into it. Dig into the most essential parts of your interests and identity and channel it into your project!

How do you find different prestigious opportunities to participate in?

After initiating my high-impact projects, I would often receive recognition from other people (usually an investor) who would then invite my startup for an opportunity they've seen. For other opportunities, I really had to actively find them by looking online and on social media. Also, networking is a great way to go — start by connecting with people on LinkedIn and, if appropriate, ask them for opportunities.

How did you handle both your school work and extracurriculars?

I handled school work and extracurriculars by making sure that they were linked somehow. For example, my extracurriculars often contained an aspect of Computer Science or Engineering and this was a fantastic way for me to train my academic skills while developing my extracurricular projects. I also just made an organized timetable to divide my time carefully between the two when I needed to!

How did you balance school work and social life?

I think I was always very mindful of when to work and when to take a break. So when I feel tired of school work, I wouldn't hesitate to watch a movie with friends or play a game with my brother! My best tip would be to be mindful of when you need to take a break and don't feel guilty for it because it's normal to work hard and play hard too! Another way to have a good social life while doing school work is to form study groups and attend communal studying sessions! I loved studying with friends and helping people with math homework or proofreading their essays also allowed me to make new friends!

When did you start preparing for university entrance exams?

I prepared for the SAT about 3 weeks before the testing date. For the first two weeks, I did one past paper a week. For the last week, I did another past paper and followed by select questions on the topics I needed most work on. Keep in mind that this is much less preparation than most people do because this was my first try and I didn't expect to do so well! For the SAT Subject tests, I gave myself more time to prepare. I started maybe 2 months before the testing date since there were a lot of topics I had never learnt before in the subject tests. I taught myself using those big books (they're very helpful!) and just used the Internet when I didn't understand something. For my Cambridge Engineering entrance exam, there wasn't so much preparation I could do so I just did some reading on physics the night before and some textbook questions!

How did you choose between studying in the US or the UK?

I always knew I liked the US better because I took a genuine interest in so many different things and I knew that I didn't want to commit to one pathway at such a young age. I also think the US college experience is richer than the UK — I always felt the UK was a bit drier. I like how the US seemed more laidback and exploratory. The US also provided more interdisciplinary pathways and the subject choices just seemed more vibrant to me.

What is the harder application process, the US or UK? Does one system suit some students over others?

Great question! The top US universities are much harder to get into than the top UK universities — that's for sure! I think that Oxford and Cambridge massively prioritize your academic rigor and just how intelligent you are in your subject. This works really well for students who are just super dedicated in their area of speciality. However, the US top colleges (Ivy Leagues, Stanford, MIT, etc) also look for other more subjective qualities in addition to academic strength. This makes them harder to get admitted to since you need to be strong in SO MANY departments!

However, this also means that those colleges may be possible to get in for those who aren't super academically strong but can make up for that with other personal or extracurricular qualities. The US is just so much more complex and multifaceted than the UK admissions system in my opinion. There are so many factors that come into play in the US — you either find this challenging and exciting or a headache to deal with!

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Nathan - UPenn

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Why did you choose economics as a major over something like finance or business analytics, and how is the social life at Penn?

All Wharton students actually receive a Bachelor of Science in Economics, and from there you can choose one or two concentrations (which include the specific areas you mentioned). For example, my concentrations are Finance and Management. Concentrations are similar to Majors but require much less credits.

In terms of social life, I would say Penn is a bit more active than most other Ivy League schools. Since the campus is relatively small and close to Center City, social life is quite balanced between frat parties and relaxed nights with friends.

What are the internship opportunities like coming out of Wharton undergrad?

Wharton undergrads are generally known to be very hard working and technically adept, so there are usually no issues at all pursuing internships in all industries. However, Wharton is particularly strong in Finance since our program is probably the most robust in the country. For example, we are #1 in terms of total hires in the investment banking industry (Source) with many students also going into private equity and hedge funds.

Did you find it difficult to apply to US universities as an Australian high school student?

I think it was difficult in two ways. Firstly, the process can be a little confusing and I didn't have many friends I could ask for help (since no one I knew was also applying). Secondly, it is hard to find motivation when all your peers are focusing on something else, and I often questioned if I was spending my time wisely. However, partnering with Crimson was critical in these two aspects, as they are experts in the process and had mentors that constantly reassured me that I was making the right decision.

How did you choose your major? What subjects did Nathan take to prepare him for his Economics major?

In the American education system there is plenty of time to choose your major since you don't have to declare until your 3rd year. Essentially, you have two years to try everything out before you make the big choice. Personally, I just tried out a wide range of subject areas before choosing Finance and Management.

The subjects I took in highschool are actually completely different to what I am currently studying. Unlike Finance and Management, my VCE subjects were mainly sciences or maths. There is not much pre-college preparation that is required since the classes progress very naturally and don't throw you immediately in the deep end.

What is the housing like at Penn and do you think the social aspect changes based on what house you live in for freshman year? Also, what's the upperclassmen housing like?

Things may have changed since I moved off-campus, but you are required to stay in campus dorms for the first year. I think outside of the Quad, college houses are not too different in the social aspect, but there are certainly trade offs in terms of room size and quality. Most upperclassmen I know move off-campus because the rent is cheaper and you can coordinate with friends, etc. Moving off-campus definitely changes the social aspect because your interactions revolve around your housemates and people that live close to you, so it's definitely more "slow" than living in freshman dorms.

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