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MAY 27, 2021
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, Sylvia from Singapore worked with her Crimson team to identify her best-fit colleges and submit stand-out applications that landed her a place at the University of Chicago, ranked #6 in the US and #9 in the world!
Sylvia was a recent guest on Crimson’s Top of the Class podcast, where she discussed her UChicago application journey, from building her academics and extracurriculars all throughout high school to building her application, complete with stellar essays, test scores and activities — and how Crimson’s strategists and mentors helped her along the way.
Below is the transcript of the Top of the Class interview between Sylvia 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.
Hey Sylvia, welcome to the Top of the Class podcast. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Hi, everyone! My name is Sylvia and I'm currently studying in Singapore. I'm not from Singapore — I'm Korean American actually — but I've been attending school here for the past five years. And in the fall, I'll be attending the University of Chicago.
It's awesome to be chatting all about the application, how you chose UChicago, the essays you wrote and the extracurriculars you did. But take us back a couple of years: when did you know you wanted to attend a top US college?
I think there isn't really anyone out there that would decline a spot at a good university if they were offered one. But when I really started thinking about university and what I wanted to get out of university was quite recently.
When I was approaching the application process, I had to look at things beyond the “name value” or the prestige, because our school has a limit of 10 universities that I could apply to. So for me to narrow down my list to 10, I had to think about whether I would really want to go to a school if I were to be admitted, instead of thinking, ‘I'll just try and send an application’.
I think the reason I first chose the US in general is because I was never sure of what I wanted to do. And then I thought about the people I wanted to be around, and I decided that I wanted to be a part of a student body that was motivated not only in terms of work but really intellectually motivated in terms of wanting to learn and gain new knowledge. Instead of thinking, ‘I want this out of this college’, I know that I want to get connections, I want something really genuine. And I think that's when I really started looking at, what kind of schools tend to have these genuinely intellectually motivated students. That's one of the reasons I started considering top universities in the US.
And UChicago certainly fits a lot of those factors that you listed just there. When you were doing that research, how did you land on UChicago as a good opportunity for you? Did you know anybody who had been to UChicago or is currently there?
Actually, I've known about UChicago for a long time — it's a famous school, but it never had a place in my heart until the beginning of the application season. When I was researching schools and thinking about which ones would fit me, the first thing that really stood out was the essay prompts, and with UChicago, I came across essay prompts that were unlike any others that I've ever seen! So when I looked at the questions, that's when I felt like, ‘Who could have ever thought of these questions?’ and ‘Who are the people that are willing to go the lengths to answer these questions?’ So I think the essay questions already gave me a feel of what the student body and the community would be like at the school. I would say that's what really kick started my love for the college.
Well, I'm sure UChicago would love to hear that they're partly doing their marketing through their essay prompts, because you're right — it’s an unusual set of questions that they pose to students through the supplementary essays. Which essay did you end up answering?
Well, I was looking through the prompts, and I like to go the unconventional way with anything. If a group of people does something, I'd purposely do the alternative, just so I could experience what everyone else is not doing. So I was looking at the prompts and I was like, ‘Okay, I don't like any of the prompts from this year. And I feel like everyone else is going to answer it. So I'm going to go backtrack and do something else from another year.’
I ended up choosing this question about comparing oranges and apples. And when I started writing the essay, I wanted to go creative. I read through so many of the “uncommon essays” before I started writing mine, and I was just amazed by everyone, because they were so unimaginable! They wrote about things that I've never come across before. So I was like, ‘Okay, this is the creativity that the college wants, so I'm going to do that too.’
But I realized, kind of midway, that my essay was not going very well. I was out of words, almost every paragraph, so I had to stop, think, stop, think. And on top of that, I felt like I was trying to be someone or talk about something in a certain way that wasn't really me — I was trying to present myself as this unique, quirky candidate, as people like to say about UChicago students.
Then I was like, ‘Okay, this prompt is not for me, I'm trying to squeeze out something from my brain that isn't me.’ So I looked at the prompts again, and thought first about a topic I want to write about, instead of trying to find an essay topic I liked, and then try to fit whatever I wanted to talk about within it. I ended up choosing ‘Find X’ — but I took it from a non-mathematical angle, because I wanted to talk about my personal story, and I wanted to talk about psychology specifically.
Basically, my essay was about my parents and how, when I was younger, whenever I noticed conflicts between them, I would feel a certain way about how they would talk to each other. There was a point where my family dynamic was terribly bad, and even a younger me would easily be able to tell that something wasn't going well in my parents’ relationship. Every time I've noticed that, I thought about how I can help resolve it, instead of just being sad about it. So I actually ended up presenting to them a speech about some research I did on human communication, and sharing what I thought they were doing wrong and what I thought they should do instead. I referred to actual psychology research done by Professor Gottman, who’s a really famous social psychologist.
Through this presentation to my parents, I actually think I helped them solve some conflicts in their relationships! And I think they love each other a little more than before. In my essay I talked about that process of how I applied my learning to help them and what it taught me about their role. I related the variable X to something I realized along the process in a human relationship that I didn't know before, and that I would have never known if it wasn't for my parents. By writing that essay I learned that it's really important to be authentic and genuinely feel like you want to write about the prompt you choose.
I think your example gives students a bit of an insight into where they can go with an essay like that, and how flexible the essays can be. When you first started tackling that ‘Find X’ prompt, was that the first idea that came to mind? Or was it a long process of thinking things through to land on that idea of psychology and exploring your parents relationship?
I kind of decided first what I wanted to discuss and then chose the prompt afterwards to fit. I think that was the biggest part that I had to really overcome — that was one of the biggest obstacles.
I think with any other topic, the prompts are set and very, very specific in terms of what kind of vibe the university gives off. With UChicago, I could tell that it's very creative and you could take it in any any direction like. With ‘Find X’, if you take a step back and look at the prompt, you can approach it in so many different ways. And I think that's one of the easiest and hardest parts about it, because you want it to be your own thing, and you want to distinguish yourself and present yourself to the committee that ‘this is me, and this is my story.’
I think with regard to the essay topics, especially the uncommon essay, the most important thing is to reflect, reflect, reflect. That's honestly the most helpful advice that I'd like to give to anyone applying to the University of Chicago: take a step back, think about who you really are. They don't necessarily want to hear about your accomplishments, they want to hear about who you are. If your extracurriculars or your awards indicate your passion for something, then sure, go ahead — but they want to learn about you as a person, you as a character and what your identity is composed of. Instead of you talking about something external, it has to come from you.
Yeah, I think that's a challenge for a lot of students who for the majority of their life may have identified themselves by their accomplishments. I think a lot of people would be fighting with that and say, ‘Oh, I could just talk about this achievement. That’s safe, and it feels great to just talk about something that I'm proud of.’ But realistically, they should be talking about a more personal side of their story, so the admissions officer reading it can get to know you a little bit better, right?
Yeah! And on that, I just want to add on something. I think really reflecting upon who I am truly inside, intrinsically, instead of the things that make up who I am on the outside, also helped me realize that the name of the university is really, really sincerely not as important as I thought it was.
Of course, UChicago's a really prestigious name in itself — but that isn't the reason I chose the college. And the more I've experienced this process, the more I've realized that at the end of the day, the thing that really matters most is what kind of person you’ll become out of that university instead of what it could do for you in terms of your identity, or how you feel about yourself.
What an amazing process — and thank you for sharing it so openly! Let's get into the other side of things, which is the academics and extracurriculars, because I know that a lot of students are interested. Did you do the national Singapore curriculum? Or which curriculum did you end up doing?
I currently take the IB curriculum. I've been doing the IB through my junior and senior year, and before that, I took what's called the IGCSE, which is a British curriculum.
I'm not going to push you to flex your score, but out of 45, do we have a rough estimate as to what you got for the IB?
I haven't taken the exams yet, but I've received my predicted scores. I was predicted 44 points out of 45. I don't know what the baseline is for the IB score to be considered in range or anything, but I would say a 44 at my school is probably top five-ish of the class.
Yeah, it's a very good score! Did you end up sitting the SAT or ACT?
Yes, I took the SAT three times. Oh my gosh, three times! I got an 800 for math, a 750 for the English section, and a 21 on the essay section.
Wow, smashed the SAT! Next let's chat about your extracurricular profile. It's like the card that you're playing throughout the admissions process, like the person that you are trying to convey to the admissions office. What kind of profile was that for you?
Generally speaking, I was involved in a lot of different strands — but the main things were probably journalism and service. And the third one was sports, to an extent.
I'll start off with the journalism part. I was involved in my school newspaper as the vice editor, and I'd say that even though it wasn't the main part of my extracurriculars it was listed at the top because I had the leadership role. But I would say service was the main thing.
I was involved in a lot of groups related to refugees and education in school and outside of school. I volunteered at the Refugee Education Center in Seoul, where I’d teach English during the summer, and I did a lot of projects within that center like launching an English curriculum and gathering people for a cultural immersion trip and. And then I also had service related activities with regards to education and refugee activism at school as well. The main focus of that was delivering a more equitable education experience to socially marginalized groups of people like refugees, which I felt was more important to the community.
My other service strand was related to mental health — I did something called peer support for four years at my school. I didn’t really list any activities that I've done for less than that. Peer support was a group of students that was selected to help new students settle in, and we also helped advocate for mental health by partnering with nonprofit organizations.
So journalism, education for refugees, and mental health activism were the three main strands on my application. In addition to that, I was on my school’s soccer team for all four years of high school, but I wouldn't say that was ranked highly.
One thing I want to mention with regards to extracurriculars is that they don't really care about exactly what it is that you've done — they care more about what kind of person they think you are as a result of pursuing these extracurriculars, and what they say about you. So I hope students keep that in mind and choose things that they really want to do, instead of choosing things they think will look nice on their application.
That is fantastic advice, and authenticity comes up a lot in the conversations I’ve had with Crimson Strategists. One thing I want to dive into a little bit further was your work in Seoul and the “why” you were doing it, as opposed to the “what”, and how you convey that in your application.
When I first stepped into the center in person, I just saw this massive group of refugees sitting around in a room — and it seemed like they were leading such different lives to who I am. And because I was hearing their stories in real life, and it wasn't something I was reading from a textbook or watching in a documentary, I realized that they have experienced a lot, and they have gone through a lot. So I wanted to offer something more than just temporary condolence; I wanted to give them some kind of practical help.
I thought that the first step towards that was learning something, and kind of giving them the motivation to learn. I understand that they've had very different lives than me and for them, their main priority might not be school like it is for any ordinary student like me. But the reason I wanted to give them the motivation to learn was because some of them were repeating years in high school, because the curriculum they've done before they moved to Korea is different, and they had to learn with local Korean high schoolers that were much younger than them.
Also, they weren’t used to the culture or the people or anything like that. They had settled in a couple years ago, but that doesn't mean they're completely integrated and feel like a part of the community. So I thought the first step towards that was to give them joy and to allow them to feel the purpose of what learning is, and not just view education as something that they need to complete, because they're in this new country. On the practical side of things, for the older women, like the mothers who are in their mid 20s, or 30s, it was much easier for them if they had some kind of proficiency in English. So that's why I decided to do an English curriculum.
They've actually gotten a lot better at English, and just seeing that growth, because I contributed something, meant a lot to me. I wanted to give them some kind of help, and leave them some sort of change in their lives — and there are a lot of ways one can do that — but for me, at least, it was helping them realize the joy of going to school or learning something new, or even getting a job and helping them financially to an extent.
So yeah, I think really seeing a group of people grow because of what I've done has been the most meaningful thing to me. The connection from that simple act of teaching has been much more than the act of teaching itself. I take a lot of meaning and pride in the small group of people I still teach.
Fantastic. The organization that you are a part of in Seoul, that is an existing organization? You didn't start that from scratch, right?
No, it was founded by a group of pastors, I believe so it was a very minimal thing. It's not some grand organization, and I really grew with them from starting small to being registered officially and receiving funding and so on.
That’s a great example for students of how they don't need to go out and start their own club or organization or charity — sometimes joining something small and then staying with it for a number of years and being there for the growth shows a lot of commitment and dedication that admission officers really like to see.
Let's get into what the future holds for you. What are you looking forward to most at UChicago and what do you aim to study there?
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I was attracted to the US because I was not sure of what I wanted to do — but my current academic interests lie in the avenues of the social sciences. I wrote down psycholog as my intended major for my application.
But I realized over the past couple months that I'm not set on just one thing. And I just have an area-ish of interest. I like learning about people, I like learning about how society works, from a people's point of view. But I'm still unsure of what I want to do in the future.
So trying to look ahead, if I were to experience UChicago's Core Curriculum for the next two years, while I might be forced to take classes I don't want to, it will allow me to try out a lot of different things and allow me to discover what I really want to do and what I really want to study for the following two years. I want to learn skills, like critical thinking, creativity, or writing or whatever foundational skill it may be.
So I think the combination of me being unsure but still interested in some things, and attending a school that makes me do a lot of things that I might not otherwise do, is the perfect combination.
What an awesome opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. Now talk to us a little bit about your Crimson support team. Was there any particular person that stands out as someone who really helped you through this application process? And if so, what exactly did they do?
My strategist is Kelly, and my Education Coordinator is Violet — and I genuinely want to give an honorable mention to both of them, because early in the application process, I never considered UChicago at all; but they really pushed me to think about it, because it was their gut feeling that I should apply there and I would be a good fit there based on their professional knowledge. They really helped me choose the right college that I'll be ending up at, so really big shout out to them.
Also, in terms of being organized, I'm not a super organized person — so I forget things and I lack detail at times. That's the part where Crimson really came in for me, because they literally helped me schedule and plan my application timeline, which gave me a lot of time to focus on my essays and not feel like I was being rushed.
They really helped me to have an open mind towards which college or university will fit me, because there are things out there that I don't know as a high school senior. There are really limited resources, especially as a student who lives abroad and not in the States, and you get less attention when you're just being taken care of by your high school college counselor. So with Crimson it’s about really getting that personal attention and your team finding out what kind of person you are and then assigning you to a group of colleges or universities that you'd really fit into.
And again, they've played a big role in terms of organizing and giving me enough time to do things and really helping me stay on top of my workload throughout this application process. I would never wish for anything else.
That's a fantastic shout out to both Kelly and Violet! I'm sure they’d love to hear that. When did you join Crimson?
I joined in the middle of my junior year, which probably isn't like the best time to join. I know people who joined from the beginning of high school or the beginning of sophomore year, or at least in the beginning of their junior year — and I strongly recommend doing that. I think the earlier, the better. I don't think there's any situation that this quote applies to more than the college application process. I recommend anyone to join Crimson and get their support as fast as they can.
That is something that I've heard quite a few times. People don't realize how much there is to do on top of school, and the application is like another full time job — and that’s exactly what Crimson does, so your team is looking at this with a lot more intensity than most students have time to do, which is super helpful for you.
Now, what final advice would you give to students looking at either UChicago, or any type of university abroad, if they were to go through this process?
I would say specifically to UChicago applicants, I think there isn't any other college that would require you to be more yourself, than UChicago. So please do not be afraid to be yourself in your application, and to express original ideas, even if they sound outrageous to you. Keep that in mind when you're writing your essays.
I would also like to emphasize the importance of essays — they really take a lot of weight, especially at the more competitive universities where it's more difficult to distinguish one application from another because everyone is already so qualified. So the essays help you really stand out and say, ‘This is who I am’.
And finally, I’ll say that for everyone, the application process really does work out. And even if you end up with your “safeties” as your only options. I think the fact that you even received those options is something to be grateful for. I think an acceptance for college is meaningful in any way, and genuinely, you’ll end up at a place where you really do fit in and the admission committee sees you as a match.
Those are the things that you should really keep in mind and try to stay positive throughout the process. Although it is really difficult, at the end of the day you'll be very proud of yourself, and you'll be happy with the outcome.
What a great summary and amazing advice. Have an amazing time at UChicago, and thanks again for sharing all your amazing insights!
Want to follow in Sylvia’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.