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From Australia to Stanford: How Maggie's Authentic Interests Got Her Into Her Dream University

JUN 09, 2021

Having seen her older sister thrive as a student in the US, Maggie was excited to follow in her footsteps. But it wasn’t until she saw a video on Crimson’s YouTube channel that her dream of studying at Stanford became clear — and with relentless support from her Crimson team, she turned that dream into a reality.

Getting into a world-leading university in the US is no easy feat — but every year, hundreds of Crimson students do exactly that! This year, Maggie from Australia worked with her Crimson team to navigate the daunting US application process and submit her strongest possible application to Stanford University, ranked #6 in the US and #2 in the world

Maggie and her Crimson Strategist, George, were recent guests on Crimson’s Top of the Class podcast, where they discussed her application journey including zeroing in on her extracurriculars, writing a meaningful Common App essay, and highlighting her authentic self in every part of her application.

Below is the transcript of the Top of the Class interview between Maggie, George 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: 

Hello, and welcome to a very special episode of the Top of the Class podcast. I am delighted to be joined by Maggie and her Crimson Strategist, George. Maggie, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Maggie: 

Hi everyone! My name is Maggie and I’m from Melbourne, Australia and I just graduated from high school. I applied to some US colleges and I was obviously guided by my wonderful strategist, George, and I was accepted into Stanford University, which is my dream school. So I’m very excited for that and to see what might happen in the future.

Alex: 

Absolutely. That's the story that is to be written over the next four years for you. And George, over to you — give us a little background as to your story and how you helped Maggie through her application.

George:

I’ll start way back from the beginning, which is that I'm from the UK. I studied at Harvard for my undergraduate and then knew that I wanted to come to work for Crimson, and work with students like Maggie, because I had such an incredible experience. I wanted to be able to help students who found themselves in similar positions to me where they knew that maybe their home education wasn't quite fitting for them, and that the US or the UK was going to offer a new experience.

Alex:  

For you, Maggie, is that a story that you gel with?

Maggie:

Well, my introduction to higher education in the US came from my sister, who applied before me. I was able to be a bystander to see how the whole thing worked and now that she is in uni, I see how many opportunities are being offered to her. So it was definitely motivated to see my sister go to university overseas, but I also really wanted to experience a different culture and to meet different people from all around the world.

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Alex:

And why was Stanford your dream school?

Maggie: 

Well, it's  funny, because I think the moment I decided that Stanford was my dream school was actually when I watched a video on Crimson’s YouTube channel. It was this vlog of a Stanford student who took theater and performance studies. She guided us through the school, and I was like, ‘wow, this is exactly the place where I envision myself.’ 

In one particular instance, I remember her describing the Simps, which is the improvisation theatre group at Stanford, and the production that was on that season. It was basically a play that took place in the toilets of the Memorial Church at Stanford. I've never ever seen a theatre production that was so unconventional, so out of the box, and to me, I feel like that really represented Stanford's deep rooted culture of innovation and that encouragement of the students to push themselves creatively. I think that's what really appealed to me about Stanford.

Alex: 

From your perspective, George, when a student like Maggie comes to you and says, ‘I really want to apply to Stanford’, what's your first reaction?

George:

I mean, given the acceptance rates were even lower than they've ever been, it's always my first response to any student — no matter how incredibly well positioned they are — to say that this is a big test, and the likelihood is that we won't get in. And that's not to deter them whatsoever, that's to add reality to the situation. 

So when Maggie approached me and said Stanford, we spent a little bit of time going back and forth on whether it was the right choice. But ultimately, Maggie was able to convince me beyond any convincing I needed to do myself that she was a good fit for that place. And I think, ultimately, Maggie writes with such authenticity, and what she does, she does from the heart. For these top universities, it was very clear for me that what she was writing about, she meant, and it was really who she was.

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Maggie’s Common App Essay

Alex: 

That's awesome. Well, you also gave me a natural segue into the essays. Maggie, can you take us through your process in writing your essays?

Maggie: 

Definitely. I think both George and I, we brainstormed a lot as to the most authentic ideas that we can present to the college. So I basically started off by going back to my childhood and thinking about the times and the experiences that made me who I am. So I wrote about my family's progression from a family with quite a lot of conflict, into ultimately a family that is living very harmoniously and with a lot of love for each other. 

I think all of these experiences really bring out the genuineness that you want to convey to the admission officers, because at the end of the day, I think that's what really will touch their hearts and convince them that perhaps you are the right person for the uni.

Alex: 

Yeah, exactly. Well, for you, George, when you're brainstorming these topics, how do you know which one could be the one you end up going with?

George: 

That's a great question. You're going to find many different ‘How To’ guides, and ‘What are good essay topics,’ and they’ll say you want to wow them, you want to make them cry, you want to do this, you want to do that. But ultimately, when you write something that is telling us a lot about you, that gives us great insight into what you would bring to a community. 

Remember, in the USA, they're all about wanting to have a community built of diverse people that will all learn and grow from each other. And they want to see that you're writing an essay that illustrates the complexities of who you are — they don't want to see an essay in which you are singing from the rooftops your achievements, because Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and any other university in the USA could accept four or five times more students if it were based on grades and achievements alone. 

In addition, they also don't want somebody who's trying too hard or writing what you think they want to hear. If the most impactful thing that’s ever happened to you was a day trip that you took to the theme park, where your experience on one particular ride changed your life — fine! That actually sounds like an entertaining story. If it was one single conversation that you shared with a grandparent, that's not necessarily this huge, exciting story that's going to have a big entertaining story arc. But if that is really what has defined you and has made you who you are today, chances are you're going to write about that in a way that's going to be far more compelling than anything that is written for the sake of entertainment. Right?

I think, Maggie, that's what you were able to do with your common app essay. You're a fantastic writer, and it was entertaining to read — but ultimately, the most important thing that you take from that essay is, ‘Oh, I know much more about Maggie than I did before. And I really firmly believe that Maggie will be somebody that fits very well in a community where she will learn from others and others will learn from her.’ 

Alex: 

Maggie, I'm interested in your experience of when you were putting pen to paper and writing something very personal. And then it's George's job in this instance, to give you feedback and tell you how to improve that writing that is very personal to you. What's that relationship like between student and strategist?

Maggie:

I personally think my relationship with George is a very comfortable and very safe one. I never felt judged by him for whatever experiences I've had, so working with him has always been a very smooth ride. Sometimes I feel the need to defend myself but at the end of the day, I think George has the experience to help guide me through this process and in everything he does, he doesn't force the ideas; he suggests. I think as a student working with him, it was just a lot easier to accept the criticism. It was a very comfortable journey.

George:

Thank you for sharing that, Maggie, I really appreciate that. As a Crimson Strategist, it's not our birthright to give criticism — we have to earn that trust. And I would say in response to that question, Alex, that learning how to receive criticism and have that humility is something that will shine through in an application.

I think it's so important for us as strategists and as mentors to understand that it is our responsibility to work with our students and make them feel that they can share things that they would maybe not want to share otherwise, so I'm really glad to hear that, Maggie, and I’m delighted we could strike that tone. 

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Maggie’s Journey with Crimson

Alex: 

How long have you guys been working together on this application?

George: 

It was 18 months we had together.

Alex: 

So from your perspective, George, what did you see as some of Maggie’s strengths and what did you see as some of the areas for improvement?

George:

Maggie already came to Crimson with a strong resume, especially in her achievements at school, and that showed me that Maggie was somebody who, with the right direction, would be able to change the world. Her grades were fantastic and there's always time to keep building these things up, even with 18 months ago. 

I think the thing that Maggie showed room for improvement in is something that a lot of Australian students and many international students have a challenge with — which is to look for ways in which they can engage with activities outside of school. I went to school in the UK, and the culture of activities and extracurricular activities in the UK is the same as Australia — where the strongest students are the ones that are president of a club, captain of a team, head girl, head boy. But unfortunately, the US is not the same thing, right? 

So I think it was a matter of working with what Maggie already had and knowing that she has the potential to be this change maker. We see that from the podcast that she has put together, which is an incredible achievement. So it was just about making sure that she knew what was expected of her; and I think the best thing that I could do was serve as a sort of mouthpiece for the university where she may not have had if she was working solo.

Alex:

So it's like saying, ‘Okay, looking from the perspective of how an admissions officer might view your CV, they would probably say, you're not doing enough outside of school at this stage. And so let's get to work on that.’

George: 

Exactly. And specifically, you have to think of US admissions officers because they're a different breed of admissions officers to what we see in any other country.

Alex: 

Now, Maggie, from your side: when you joined Crimson, you obviously had a strong CV. Is that a shared view that you thought your extracurriculars were an area that you needed more work on? 

Maggie:  

Yeah, definitely. When I first joined Crimson, I wasn't too sure of the entire process. So coming to Crimson and getting more exposure to this journey made me realize, ‘Wow, there's a lot I need to prepare for and a lot I need to do.’ 

But I think what's really great is that I have a whole team of people who are just so supportive of me. For example, in terms of extracurriculars, I worked directly with Lily. I was working with her on an almost weekly basis, just trying to brainstorm ideas and think about what activities I could go for. She was able to push me to understand that sometimes you can’t stay satisfied with what you’ve got, you have to really push yourself to achieve the best. And I was very lucky to have her by my side, because she was also a very supportive friend as well. 

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Maggie’s Extracurriculars

Alex: 

I know it's always a bit tricky when students hear that they need to be doing more on top of an already stressful final year of high school. So what activities did you end up rounding out your application with in the limited time that you had?

Maggie: 

I was quite lucky in the sense that I knew where my passions lied. I knew that I was passionate about theater, and was very passionate about children’s education rights. So I had two very clear ideas of where I wanted to center my extracurricular activities and in the process of deciding what capstone project to focus on, it became very clear to me.

One of my most central projects was this podcast that I created, where I was reading stories for immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. I related my own experience as an immigrant to it, and I was just doing it wholeheartedly and poured my everything into it. It wasn't engineered, it just came very naturally to me.

Alex: 

George, I'm going to guess as a strategist, you're super happy to hear that, that she wasn't engineering her extracurriculars to fit the application and it came naturally. Does that make your job easier?

George: 

It definitely does make my job easier because one of the big challenges that we have when working with students is knowing what their main interests are. I hesitate using the word passion, because passion is very overused — and we don't need to know our passion at 17 or 18 years old. But we all have things that we really enjoy and we have influential experiences. 

I think a really good test of whether your leadership project is authentic is to ask: once you've submitted your applications and you've gotten in, is it something that you will sustain? Is it something that you continue with? Admissions officers read thousands of applications and somewhere, somehow they will pick up what your motivation is, and they'll see somebody who was driven, passionate and really wanted to actually make a difference. 

Alex: 

When it comes to extracurriculars, there's often this thought that there’s a formula for what extracurriculars you need to do. I'm sure students have come to you and tried to engineer their extracurriculars to fit in with what they think the formula is, when in fact, it's more about the reason you're doing these things, not just what you're doing. 

Maggie, did you have any anxiety or doubts about your application at any point? Did you ever think, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is this enough?’

Maggie:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, there are so many people advocating many different things! So nearing the end of the application, when I did experience anxiety in terms of fearing whether I did enough, I always just reminded myself that it's okay to be different and sometimes you don't need to do so much. I just realized that there really is no formula, there's no secret sauce in that sense. And yeah, just reassured myself everything was going to be okay.

George: 

It’s about having the courage to commit to what you're working on. The admissions committees aren't going to say, ‘Oh, Maggie's podcast was better than x person's podcast, because Maggie's podcast got 10,000 views and this person got 9500 views!’ They're not going to compare in that way — they're going to see how you fit within the larger profile of the students that you're up against. They want to see that you've left an impact, and it's in that courage to actually commit to something and continue on.

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Maggie’s Academics

Alex: 

One thing that we need to go over are your scores. You did the local VCE curriculum, right? 

Maggie:

Yes. I got a 99.3 for that, which I think is just within the range in terms of being competitive enough for selective schools; but I also do want to mention that honestly, I usually don't buy what people say about scores. You don't need to have the best scores. Having gone through this myself, I really want to say that your scores aren’t everything. For me, I actually received seven B+ marks in my report, and I felt that surely this was going to bring my application down. But it just goes to show that really your grades aren’t everything.

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Maggie’s Nervous Wait

Alex: 

George, let’s go back to Maggie having some doubts. From a strategist’s perspective, did you have any doubts or did you feel reasonably confident?

George: 

Actually, Maggie was originally deferred. But Stanford is known for deferring very, very few students; so if you're deferred by Stanford, it's a good indication that you’ve got the stuff. And then there was a moment in January where Maggie shared with me that her podcast had been picked up by the Red Cross, which is huge and a testament to the work that she put in. So that left me with some hope because we no longer had to convince Stanford of how impactful this was — it was almost like an extra teacher recommendation of sorts, right? 

Up until the moment we got the news, of course, you're like, ‘Oh, no, I don't know what's gonna happen. I'm so nervous.’ And actually, because I'm in the UK, I couldn't stay awake — but the following morning, in my inbox on the Crimson app was an all-caps message from Maggie and I was so excited! So yeah, of course you have doubts but at the same time, I knew that we weren't hitting and getting nothing in return, I knew that there was a great chance that it could be a success.

Alex: 

Well, Maggie, take us through your initial reaction when you opened up the email that said that you had gained admission to Stanford.

Maggie:  

Oh, gosh, okay. So this year, Ivy Day was just right before the day Stanford decisions were released. Now the thing is, on Ivy Day, I got rejected by all of the Ivies I applied to. I'm not gonna sugarcoat it — it was devastating. And with Stanford coming up next, honestly, I was giving up hope. I was preparing myself to see the ‘I'm very sorry’. 

But I think leading up to the moment, I still held on to a little bit of hope. So I had my mom next to me, and the website said ‘status update’ and then I refreshed the page. Oh my goodness, those 10 seconds felt the longest! As soon as I saw the confetti, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it's a dream come true.’ We were just all very happy and ecstatic. And of course, I had to tell George!

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Final Advice

Alex: 

Maggie, are there any final thoughts for people who are about to go through this journey?

Maggie:  

Having gone through this myself, I just want to say that sometimes you’ll feel like there will be moments where you push yourself a bit too hard, or you want things to happen really quickly. But I think my advice to other students on preparing for it is, it's okay to take it slow. 

I actually remember when nearing my final exams, I was reaching out to George, because I was very stressed — I had no idea if I would have the time to complete all my studies and I was sending messages to George, like, ‘What do I do? I feel really stressed’. And his advice to me was that it's okay to sometimes take some time off; and I'm still living that advice every day. 

Alex:

From your side, George, what advice would you give that could sum up some of the things that we've talked about today?

George:  

On top of what Maggie said, I’ll say that when you're a high achieving student, the day does come when you realize that you can't do it all. I feel like when we had that conversation, I breathed a sigh of relief for Maggie, because I was able to say, ‘Take a day off, you're a human being, you need it.’ And I'm glad to hear that she still takes that advice to heart.

That is the advice I'm giving students now as well. We spend so much time in this application process thinking that we need to celebrate how extraordinary we are, but these universities are interested in you as a human being, and they want to bring good people on campus. They want to see on your application what makes you a good kid, what makes you tick, what do you enjoy doing? 

So my advice is when we think about authenticity, celebrate what makes you extraordinary, but also celebrate what makes you ordinary. If you can get that on your application, you're going to be far more compelling than somebody that thought they just needed to impress, impress, impress. When we're working with high achievers, that's a really natural inclination to think they need to impress. So celebrate the ordinary as well as celebrating the extraordinary and I think you're onto a winner.

Alex: 

I think that's such a great way to sign off the podcast and hopefully it gives a bit of hope to students everywhere, that there is no perfect application — it really is just you being authentic.


Want to follow in Maggie’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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