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CMU Student Interview w/ S. Zafar | Part 6: Getting Started

S. Zafar, who attended Carnegie Mellon University, earned a 35 on her ACT, took 13 AP classes in high school, events' chair for FORGE (refugee empowerment club), the president of high school Amnesty International Chapter, and the president of Undergraduate Economics Journal at Carnegie Mellon.


Key points S. Zafar shares:

  • "I was not matched to any schools; however, applying early action enabled me to start writing my college essays early."

  • "While college admissions are somewhat of a numbers game, it isn’t the end of the world if you are “weak” in one regard."

Q: What key factors did you take into consideration when deciding which colleges to apply to?

A: The academic resources available to students, the overall culture, and the location of the school were three initial factors I considered when applying to colleges. I wanted to choose an institution in which I would be able to pursue cutting edge research in the subjects I was interested in alongside leading academics in the field. Furthermore, I wanted to immerse myself in an academically rigorous yet collaborative and supportive environment, which is something I admire most about CMU. Location was also crucial for me, as I wanted a relatively urban environment in which I can explore outside of my college campus. Although the cost of tuition was a momentous factor as someone from a lower income background, I decided to wait until financial aid packages came out before factoring cost into the equation. While some colleges have a high price tag, they have a significant number of financial aid programs available for students, and in my case were more affordable than state school options. Furthermore, if you do receive a financial aid package from a school and it is currently unaffordable, call or email the financial aid office. There is a significant chance that they will send you a more affordable package after explaining your financial situation. CMU was not the only institution that met all my criteria, making the decision of where to go to college was an immensely difficult one. However, after weighing all of my priorities, I am ultimately happy I chose CMU as my home.

Q: Did you apply early action or early decision to any colleges? How did you decide which colleges to apply like that for?

A: I applied early to a host of schools through a student program called QuestBridge. QuestBridge is an organization which offers full ride scholarships to partner schools through their match program, in which one application is sent to numerous schools. I was not matched to any schools; however, applying early action enabled me to start writing my college essays early.

Q: How did you determine which teachers to ask for teacher recommendations? Did you ask the teachers you had built a good relationship with or the teachers of subjects pertaining to your interests?

A: I chose my AP Physics teacher and my AP US History teacher because I had built significant relationships with them outside of the classroom. I often spoke after class about history with my AP US History teacher and I served as the Secretary of the Rocketry Team run by my AP Physics teacher. I remember colleges specifically asked for one recommendation from a teacher in a STEM subject and one from a Humanities subject, so it worked out very well in my case. I would suggest choosing two teachers from different subjects you excel in to showcase how well rounded you are.

Q: Out of all the things on your application (extracurriculars, transcript, standardized test scores, essays, recommendations, etc.) which one do you believe played the biggest role and was the most important in your application?

A: Colleges definitely weigh multiple factors when deciding to admit an applicant. While a student’s GPA may not be high, their standardized test scores and essays may cause them to be accepted. I did not have a very high unweighted GPA due to my Freshman and Sophomore years of high school; however, the fact my GPA was much stronger my last two years of high school while taking more rigorous courses offset my lower GPA. Although I had high standardized test scores and I spent a significant amount of time crafting essays that reflected my personality, I don’t know for certain if there was a standout factor that enabled me to be accepted into CMU. While college admissions are somewhat of a numbers game, it isn’t the end of the world if you are “weak” in one regard.

Q: What was the biggest difficulty you had with writing your college essays?

A: I wanted to authentically portray my story as the daughter of a single mother and a first generation American; however, I had trouble striking the balance between conveying an accurate image of my life and coming across as someone playing the “sympathy card”. Writing about dark periods of your life (such as the death of your father) is often discouraged; however, I find the way in which you represent material through your prose sometimes has a more significant impact on how it is perceived than the subject matter itself. I ultimately decided I was not going to shy away from mentioning aspects of myself that have ultimately shaped my character. I tried to represent myself as someone who is a strong applicant because of their past experiences, not in spite of them. College admissions officers do read student’s essays (I received personalized letters from William and Mary as well as Notre Dame), and they essentially want to read about you- not a rehash of an essay from a college application handbook.

Thanks for reading!

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