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From Australia to Wharton: How Languages Were Key to Oscar’s Ivy League Results

JUL 01, 2021

Australian student, Oscar, wanted to attend a top US college even before he knew anything about the application process. With the guidance of a former admissions officer and now Crimson Strategist, Mason, Oscar realized his potential, gaining admission to UPenn’s Wharton School, Yale, Cornell, and NYU.

Oscar was joined by Mason on Crimson’s Top of the Class podcast to discuss his application journey, including leveling up extracurriculars and making the tough decision between Yale and UPenn.

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Below is the transcript of the Top of the Class interview between Oscar, Mason, and podcast co-host, Alex Cork. 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:

I am delighted to be joined by Oscar and his Crimson Strategist, Mason, a duo who successfully gained admission into UPenn and Yale. Oscar, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Oscar:

Hi, Alex, thanks so much for having me. I'm a recent graduate from high school in Sydney, Australia and I'm heading to the US in August or September this year.

Alex:

Which university have you committed to?

Oscar:

I ended up committing to UPenn, specifically the Wharton School.

Alex:

For you, Mason, what made you think Oscar was going to get a lot of offers?

Mason:

I get a pretty good sense of somebody's ambition and drive early on. The Ivy League's are competitive institutions for obvious reasons. Many students need a lot of direction, so they’re typically not a good match. With Oscar, I would say, ‘I want to see one more leadership opportunity.’ During our next meeting, he would say, ‘Okay, well, I did this, this and this.’ And he just really went above and beyond with a little nudge. He went the extra mile. It was great.

Alex:

Fantastic. So for you, Oscar, what was the driving motivation to get to some of these top colleges in the US?

Oscar:

In terms of ambition and drive, I'd say I try not to let myself do anything half pie. I like to push as far as I can. Knowing there was a possibility of going to such prestigious institutions just made me want it even more. I set myself a goal to push through that extra level.

Alex:

What's the experience of an international student looking at US colleges as a possibility? Where do you even start with that idea?

Oscar:

That's a great question. I think before I started talking with Crimson, I had very little idea or direction about it. Of course, I'd heard about institutions like Yale and Harvard and Wharton. But to actually understand the application process was something quite foreign. Understanding there were essays and standardized testing and that you needed to demonstrate leadership ability through extracurriculars, all that was very novel. So it was definitely a strange process. Mason just made it a lot clearer.

Alex:

Mason, when you're working with a student who has ambition, but not much knowledge about the US college application process, where do you usually start?

Mason:

Generally speaking, I start in the first meeting. I ask the student, ‘What are your target institutions? What's the end goal for you and your family?’ Oscar said he wanted to study business ‘maybe’. He was not sure if he wanted to go for business or economics. He was also really interested in humanities as well. And so we had a discussion. First we discovered his major and then saw what types of institutions fit. When talking about the overall US process, I started that in the very first call explaining what actually goes on applications because it is so different from country to country. And then from there, I normally show students applications of successful students who had gotten offers from these top schools. I normally find that there's two outcomes of showing a student successful applications to the Ivy League's. The first is someone gets really fired up and is like, ‘Okay, this is going to be competitive, but I want to rise to the challenge and make it happen.’ Or, ‘actually, this is not quite what I thought was going to be the amount of work required so let's go ahead and reassess.’ For Oscar, it was more, let's rise to the challenge and keep going full throttle.

Alex:

Fantastic. And when Oscar was assigned to you, what did you see as some of his strengths, particularly in that holistic aspect of the application? And what did you say are some of the areas that needed a little bit of work?

Mason:

When we first started working together, I knew he had really good foundations for his extracurricular profile. I wanted to see how much he could level those up. With a little nudge, he would level up an extracurricular activity to something that I would not be really expecting from call to call. He wrote a Latin resource guide. He started his own business. One area that I thought we needed to work on was testing. That’s something most students need to work on. And so we strategized what his testing timeline was going to look like. Then during our next call, Oscar, being Oscar, had registered for the exam, had his study books, and was doing practice exams on his own accord.

Alex:

Well, that's fantastic to have a student who understands what needs to be done. Oscar, what was it like to take on more extracurriculars and more responsibilities in that final 12 to 18 months of high school?

Oscar:

I think a lot of it came down to forward planning. As Mason said, it was about having a really formal and rigid time timeline, which meant that I was getting testing done in Year 11, or in some cases in Year 10. It meant that I was leveling up different extracurriculars before Year 12, which meant that come Year 12, even though COVID disrupted us so much, it meant that I could just focus on studies. I think to some extent being at home made it easier. It meant I could easily switch from being on a zoom call with my teachers to working a bit further on communicating with online booksellers. But at the same time, I'd say being at home so much did make it a bit monotonous. I think motivation came down to knowing there was a goal and if I kept pushing, I would be able to reach it.

Alex:

Yeah, fantastic. Can you sum up a few of the main things that you focused on when you heard that you had to work on your extracurriculars?

Green Chameleon S 9 Cc 2 Skysjm Unsplash

Oscar’s Extracurriculars

Oscar:

Sure. One of the key ones was founding my school's linguistics club. I'd always had an interest there but founding a club in Year 10 wasn't much of a thing at my school. So once I got to Year 11, I put in the work to get a solid group of kids who would come each week to not only participate in linguistic teaching from a teacher who had actually done a linguistics degree, but to participate in linguistics problems, which was interesting. That involved being given problems in languages you'd never heard of and having to use information you get to decipher them. In terms of leveling that up, I ended up using the linguistics club to create a linguistics festival at school. I involved members in the club, running mini lectures, and running a food event and flag display. So that was really taking the foundations that I had already had and with Mason's advice, working out how to push it a step further.

Alex:

So are you going to be doing some kind of linguistics or a version of that at university?

Oscar:

I'm definitely intending to. While Wharton is specifically a business school, a big draw of the US system is its liberal arts approach. That means I'll get to do a lot of different things. Throughout school, I did three different languages and even now, while I'm starting off at university here in Australia, I've been doing languages here as well. So I definitely intend to keep that interest up because it can be more of an intellectual pursuit, while other things can be a bit more practically focused.

Alex:

Now, Mason, I've been at Crimson for five years now and I don't think I've heard of any student doing a linguistics related extracurricular. Is that something that you thought would catch the admissions officers’ attention?

Mason:

It wasn't necessarily the strategy to be different. It was more of just following your gut and your intuition for what you have as interests. Then figuring out how we can package in the applications. That's kind of the route I take. People have so many different interests. So I think, ‘how can we use them to our advantage?’

Alex:

Yeah, absolutely. And for yourself, Oscar, you ended up writing a Latin resource which you sold as a book. Tell me more about that.

Oscar:

Yeah, the Latin resource book actually came out of me making notes for the HSC. I was initially trying to summarize Latin grammar for myself so that at any point I could reference it and go back and check something. What I found was that there was nothing that went straight to the point on grammar. It always had stories or additional superfluous information. So I ended up typing up the notes and looked into the self-publishing process. I found it wasn't actually as challenging as I thought it would be. I ended up ordering 100 copies which sold out in the first three weeks. I've also managed to get it into a language specialty bookstore in the city which is really exciting.

Alex:

Yeah, absolutely. Is that the business side of things or is there something in addition to that?

Oscar:

There was one other thing which actually started more in Year 9 or 10 but then grew a bit more quickly in COVID. It was a strange turn of events. I had started a kids’ party business of sorts and I really enjoyed the process of building it. I think it led to my interest in business and entrepreneurship. It started off with me running small events for friends and family, like Amazing Race style things around the neighborhood, and I ended up running a few parties in person myself. But then I realized that because of school, I wouldn't have time to do that, particularly with the various locations I'd have to go out to. So I started packaging up the boxes to send out to people for them to run themselves. Then of course, COVID came. At first, I thought that the business was going to be over because in person events couldn’t be run. Then I realized I could still use those same events or activities but shape them such that they could be done at homes. People could use them as a quarantine entertainment kit. What surprised me was that after packaging them up, they ended up selling better than the other ones. So it was an interesting process and I really enjoyed the idea that I could grow something like that. It definitely led me to want to pursue business and entrepreneurship on a greater level.

Alex:

Mason, as a strategist looking at Oscar's profile and seeing that he's had a long involvement in these extracurriculars, does that make you feel as though he's got a better chance than other students who might start an organization when they're in Year 11 or 12?

Mason:

When I first started working with Oscar, he had a lot of really good foundational activities that I knew that we could scale. It was a matter of how much time, effort, and capacity Oscar had to actually scale everything. The way that I always explain priorities is that academics are always number one. If your extracurriculars are taking too much time and your academics are going to suffer, that is not the way to go. That's the first round of review from admissions officers. So to answer your question, yes, longevity is important but it's not everything. You can still have a successful extracurricular profile focusing on the last year or last two years. But capacity becomes difficult. If you're doing standardized testing in your final year, and you're needing to organize a TED talk, found your own business, and do all of these extracurricular things, it's not possible. We're human. We need to sleep. So yes, longevity is important, but it's more a matter of how much capacity you have for everything.

Library Books

Oscar’s Academics

Alex:

Now, Oscar, let's talk about academics. Some of the listeners from around the world might not be familiar with the HSC. Basically, it's one of the various state run curriculums here in Australia. But give us a rundown of the subjects you did.

Oscar:

I did English Advanced, Extension Maths, Extension Latin, Ancient Greek and Continuous French. I definitely focused more on the languages at the end. I actually picked up French again in Term 1 because I just felt like I wanted to do a bit more. What I benefited from in terms of my subject choices was that a lot of it was built on the same content. When you do extension subjects, although it might be three or four units, it doesn't always feel like you're studying three or four units, because it's using the same skills and just applying them in novel contexts or applying them to new sorts of problems. I found that while I took on a fair number of units, it was manageable because I could build upon what I already had. In terms of standardized testing, I did two AP courses in Year 10. That was part of getting through activities earlier on. I did psychology and computer science. Then I did the general LSAT. I sat it twice in Year 11. Then I also submitted two subject tests, which were math level two and Latin.

Alex:

Fantastic. Is there any indication of a score range that you're going to be able to provide in that?

Oscar:

Sure. So SAT I got a 1570.

Alex:

Wow, you smashed it out of the park. But that is a very interesting subject choice to be so heavily related to languages. For you Mason, did that place more importance on his performance in the math component of the SAT?

Mason:

When I am approving a subject selection, my very first thought is, ‘What's the overall academic profile going to look like?’ There are some universities that will require a certain number of years for certain subjects. As long as the student has ticked all of those boxes then we can be strategic in choosing the subjects that the student will succeed in the most. The most important part of their application is their success in these particular subjects. Oscar had an interest in language. And I said, ‘Okay, you're going to do well on these subjects and if you are going down the business route, your math components are going to be even more important because we don't have any other types of computational factor in your application.’ We ended up choosing that later on. He did well in all of his humanities subjects so it didn't make me nervous that we chose those subjects. He got a perfect sub score for the LSAT in mathematics and for math level two, he also got a perfect score. So I wasn't really concerned with how his application was going to be reviewed for business because we were able to supplement his subject selection in class with his really strong standardized testing.

Writing

Oscar’s Essays

Alex:

Okay. Now let's talk about essays. What was that process like for you?

Oscar:

I don't think I'd ever written a personal essay before so it was definitely novel. I think that came down to Mason and Katherine, who helped me out with my essays. It was being strategic with what we wanted to communicate and how to do it as concisely and clearly as possible. When we were drafting ideas, I did one of Mason's activities, which was 30 things about me. It helped map out key points. From there, it was a matter of building them into actual essay ideas. So, breaking them down into a narrative, a message to convey. While I'm not going to obviously lie or change anything about myself for the essay, it's about shaping the content we have to what the university is looking for. Whether it was UPenn looking at that entrepreneurial spirit or Yale looking more to the humanities and social action, trying to shape the essay to the college while still maintaining the integrity of the content was key.

Alex:

Right. And could you give us an insight into the moment or the message that you were trying to convey?

Oscar:

The Common Application essay was sent to all the colleges. I wrote about a holiday I had back in Switzerland, which is where my family's from, and it was centered around one night where I was at dinner with family members who only spoke French. None of my family spoke French and I was the only one who spoke something in both languages. So it ended up being about experiencing new cultures and understanding one another even when communication wasn't always possible. From that, a message about openness and the value of diving into new experiences came about for me.

Alex:

Fantastic. And for you, Mason, what makes you confident that was the angle the universities would want to see?

Mason:

There are so many different iterations of a successful asset. The personal statement is meant to be personal. The ‘30 things about me’ assignment is not part of the typical Crimson process for essays but I like that particular exercise because it makes students really self-reflect on who they are. When we were looking through Oscar’s 30 things, we were looking for different trends. Overall, it kept coming back to, ‘Why do you have this big interest in linguistics?’ His mentor, Katherine, helped him come up with three topic proposals. This was the one I thought had the biggest potential to, first of all, explain why he chose his subject selection, because it is uncommon to have three languages in your HSC, but also that self reflection piece of why he’s so interested in languages. It's the connection piece. That was key. For the personal statement, I always advise students to not talk about extracurriculars and to not talk about academics. But with Oscar's, it seemed to just fit. It was like that missing puzzle piece. I knew that it was going to resonate well and give a lot more context to his overall application.

Alex:

You also had to do some supplementary essays. Were there any curveballs in that at all?

Oscar:

I was fortunate that some of the questions were quite similar so I could reuse some essays or reshape similar ideas. Some of them were more simple than I expected. I thought some of the questions would give you a bit more direction on where to go. But a lot of them were just very open-ended. I think there was one that said, ‘Describe a challenge from your life’ or something to that end. It was about taking that challenge and expanding it out to what you learned and what you gained from it, which isn't the most obvious thing to do. It's a matter of finding that balance between writing personally but also showing genuine growth from that moment.

Alex:

Yeah, always a tricky thing to do. Mason, when you were reviewing the final application, how confident were you that this would be a good contender in the Ivy League battlefield?

Mason:

The Ivy Leagues are always a reach, but I had this good feeling that we did everything that we could to best represent everything that Oscar had done on his application. He applied to UPenn in the early decision round. And Oscar, I hope you're okay with me sharing this, but his application was deferred. That to me was a surprise because even though on the Australian calendar for academics, they're on the January to December timeline. Normally, what I find is that for students on that calendar, wherever you are in the world, if your school is January to December, it's pretty common for your application to get deferred. So I was actually surprised that he didn't get an answer. That gave me some context for how his application would be reviewed by other institutions. It made me a little bit nervous. Then seeing the sheer numbers of what happened with the early decision and early action rounds. Then the tidal wave of applications that came in for the regular decision round, that made me really nervous. Once we actually started getting some feedback from other schools that were more in the match or safety ranges of schools, that's when I started to have a little bit more breathing room for Oscar’s application. On Ivy day, I received a good email from Oscar about all of his results. So that was really exciting.

Alex:

Fantastic. Now, Oscar, take us through that whole experience of getting those results back.

Results Crimson S Class Of 2024 Set New Admissions Records

Oscar’s Results

Oscar:

Sure. I ended up applying to eight colleges, but two of them were separate from Crimson, just I reused essays and ideas that I'd already had. And then of those, I got into six of them. The ones with Crimson that I got into were NYU, Cornell and Wharton. I found out from NYU about a week before Ivy day. That was a great first step. A lot of it was just waiting and not knowing where my next four years would be. When we got Cornell and Yale, it was very exciting. I remember the emails and thinking, ‘Whatever happens after I press this button changes the next four years.’ So that was a big moment, definitely.

Alex:

Yeah. When you ended up getting all the results, why did you end up going with Wharton?

Oscar:

In terms of the process of deciding, I will admit I did procrastinate for a while because I didn't want to lock in any sort of future plan. There was definitely a two week period of just not much happening. Then when it came down to actually deciding, I knew that of the four I got into, Yale and UPenn had always been up there. So it was good that I had some natural direction towards those two. Then in terms of the direction between those two, I refreshed the reasons why I wanted to apply to them in the first place, looked at the pros and cons of each in terms of location, degree style, business school's reputation, and their broader social life. I even had the chance to speak with Jamie (Crimson’s CEO) about this because there was an opportunity to interview for the AFR (Australian Financial Review), here in Australia, which was very exciting. After that, he was able to stick around and offer me some advice to the colleges. That was very useful. I think it came down to understanding the college’s core values. Yale seemed to be much more about learning for the sake of learning and perhaps using that more for social action purposes. That sounded very appealing and especially with its focus on the humanities. That sounded great. The reason I ended up going with Wharton was because its website kept focusing on the practical side of what it offered and how to apply the skills we've been learning to actual problems. Jamie said it meant that I would come out with skills rather than just an MBA. I’d learn more practical things that would make me job ready, while also being interesting on an academic level.

Happy Man

Oscar and Mason’s Top Tips

Alex:

Fantastic. And finally, Mason, for students who are about to embark on the application or who are already going through it, what advice would you give to them based on what you saw with Oscar’s application?

Mason:

The way that I view the whole admissions process is to do what makes you happy. That's my advice just from life. In general, there's no formula, but I would say, obviously, academics are important because these are institutions of learning. For extracurriculars, do things that make you happy. The difficult part is leveling those up to have an impact on your application. If you want to get into these elite institutions, there's no set formula prescription of all the things you need to do. But everything you need to do needs to be leveled up to that full throttle degree to get into these really competitive institutions. I hope that makes sense and resonates.

Alex:

And for yourself Oscar, given your experience and how far you've come, from not really knowing a huge amount about the application process to now gaining admission to Cornell, NYU, UPenn and Yale. What advice would you give to students as they embark on the US college application?

Oscar:

I have two key pieces of advice. The first would be to stay with your timeline. Stay organized. I think that really helped me out. No one aspect became too daunting. You had enough time to do all of them. Then the other one was not to just go with what you think you should apply to based on what others are telling you. Listen to yourself, and what colleges actually resonate with you. I didn't apply to every Ivy or every big name college in the US because after doing research, I realized which ones felt like more of a fit to me. Ensure you're applying for the right reasons and not just doing it because the name sounds good or you feel like you're being pressured into doing it. If you do have that desire, it'll make your application that much stronger.

Alex:

Fantastic. This has been another great episode of the How I Got In podcast. I look forward to sharing it far and wide.

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