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A Cornell student on how he got in.

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

We had the opportunity of interviewing Mathew Lin,

  • a student at Ivy League university, Cornell in New York and

  • an alum of North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM),

about Getting into Cornell

Here are some points he stresses:

  • "You don’t need to use “thus” and “notwithstanding” a million times to get into Harvard"

  • “Research, research, research. You absolutely will not get into the colleges you are aiming for if you don’t know their values and curriculum.”

Q: What is one thing that you believed made you stand out and get into a top university??

A: " Probably my essays; everything else I had was not super outstanding or underwhelming."

Q: How did you spend your summers, if you could give a percentage of how much you had down time, and how much you worked (Ex: 90% study, 10% play)?

A: "To be honest, I can’t really remember. I did a lot of music summer programs before going to NCSSM, and my junior year summer I spent doing research at Duke. I would say it was 70% work 30% play."

Q: How many leadership positions did you handle while in high school, what kind, and how did you manage to maintain without dropping expectations?

A: "I did around two to three each year, I was a chair member on a couple cultural committees. I definitely was aware of my own limits and did not overwhelm myself with too many commitments; a lot of people think you need tons of leadership positions to get into a good college, when in reality you just need a couple things you are passionate about and really develop those passions."

Q: How was your college essay structured?

A: "It was anecdotal; I wrote a story and wove in a message that I wanted the reader to get.".

Q: How did you get inspiration to write your college essay in such a way that you made sure it stood out?

A: I talked to a lot of people who went on to “good” colleges (Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, etc.) and gathered a sense of what worked and what didn’t. What I learned was many people make the mistake of turning their personal essays into a dry list talking about all their accomplishments. College admission readers have little interest in reading these types of essays, since they have your resume and various achievements listed on your Common App already. That’s why I took the anecdotal route, engaging the reader in a personal story that had little to do with whatever accomplishments I might have had.

Q: What type of projects did you undertake on your own?

A: "I dd research at Duke in a cellular and developmental biology lab and developed a prototypical system for growing plants on Mars as part of a submission to the Conrad Innovation challenge."

Q: What steps should I take to and when should I take them to begin preparing for college (researching schools, visiting campuses, choosing courses)

Research, research, research. You absolutely will not get into the colleges you are aiming for if you don’t know their values and curricula. Schools are not homogenous in terms of their academics; many high school students I talk to tend to forget this. Knowing exactly what attracts you to a particular college will pay massive dividends in your college applications.

Q: How do I get financial aid and how do I know I am going to a dependable website to do it?

Need-based financial aid is dependent on the college so I can’t say. FAFSA is always the way to go for getting federal student aid, and if you’re looking for merit-based scholarships, ask your counselor for a list of opportunities.

Q: Did you visit any college campuses? Does visiting them really change your choice or decision?

I visited a couple of colleges; it is helpful, but not very much so.

Q: Which teachers should I ask for teacher recommendations and how should I ask them?

Teacher recs seem to get forgotten about by many high school students. Remember that these recommendations describe you as a student, and for many top tier colleges, these can make or break your application. Ask teachers who you know on a personal level and who’s classes you may have even struggled in. Don’t ask teachers just for the sake of asking them, or just simply because they’re your math or science teacher.

Q: Who did you ask to review your essays, and who would you recommend to give the most honest advice?

I asked my English teacher and my friends who were at the colleges I was applying to review my essays. Probably my English teacher gave the most honest advice.

Q: Did you need to fluff your college essays to look more appealing and be smart with your word choice, if so how?

Not really, and I would tell those who do to proceed with caution. Fluffing achievements somewhat gets into the territory of lying to the admissions team. Keep in mind that being smart with your word choice means getting your message across in a succinct and engaging manner. You don’t need to use “thus” and “notwithstanding” a million times to get into Harvard, in fact I would argue that doing so would harm your application as it takes the focus off your message and makes the reader see you as a “try-hard”.

Q: Many choose to show their personality through humor in their essays to hook the college admissions- how did you bring your personality through (word choice, experiences, fluff)?

Humor is a dangerous way to write a college essay. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that many people are not funny, and if one is not self-aware of the fact, the essay will come off as massively “cringe”. I chose stories from my life that I thought reflected the main aspects of my character and let the stories speak for themselves.

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