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Elaine's (MIT '26) leaves no stone unturned in her college application process

Hi everyone!

It's Michelle, Co-founder and Co-Executive Director of AlumniAnswers. This is the first time I’m writing an article for AA (check out the Comprehensive Guide to Applying to

Colleges Internationally for more of my work and our podcasts to hear me speak), and I’m so excited to share with you the wonderful experience I had talking to Elaine Liu (MIT ‘26) about her college applications experience. As a disclaimer, this will be more of an article rather than a Q & A-styled interview article like we normally do with.

I first met Elaine when my parents invited her and her family to my house for dinner late in May of 2022, my junior year of high school. Throughout the evening, I learned that Elaine had gone to Charlotte Latin, a local private school. She started a girl's engineering nonprofit, is the debate captain (and has placed in national competitions), is Student Body President, participated in 2 summer programs (for entrepreneurship & research and engineering), and started a nonprofit at the end of middle school that helped allocate and distribute first aid materials. She was accepted into Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Georgia Tech, UPenn, Duke, University of Southern California, and the UNC Honors Program. Last fall, she entered MIT as a freshman pursuing Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

While I had previously assumed students of elite institutions were pretentious and unrelatable, Elaine, like many of the alumni we’ve interviewed before, was chill, easy to talk to, a good listener, open and honest, and more similar to me than different. She enjoys playing video games, watching k-dramas, and longboarding. While she was confident in herself when she talked with us, she never gave off an air of arrogance or superiority.

After dinner, Elaine, Clarisse (our content coordinator for the monthly opportunities), a friend, and I headed upstairs to the guest room to talk. The conversation eventually turned into a Q & A style discussion where the three of us juniors (at the time) asked Elaine questions about everything from essay topics to extracurriculars, covering the entire college application process almost entirely.

Before we jump in, I’d like to share an important piece of advice that I got from this experience:

Don’t be afraid to approach people who have gone through the college application experience to ask about it. They are not intimidating. They want to help you because they know how tricky and convoluted the process can be.

College Application Process

Q: When did you begin the college application process?

A: I began applying late June before senior year.

Q: How many schools did you apply to?

A: I applied to 10 total schools.

Q: Which schools did you apply to EA/ED?

A: MIT, UNC, Duke (interview consideration deadline), UPenn (ED), Georgia Tech, University of Southern California (scholarship consideration deadline)

Q: What did you research about each school?

A: I researched majors, classes, if they had interdisciplinary studies, values/words they use a lot on their websites, professors, clubs/societies/pre-professional/maker spaces, etc.

Q: When did you visit colleges?

A: I visited some colleges during May/June of my junior year.

[Good to Know]: Soft vs Hard Spike

6. Hard spike

a. Definition: A concrete talent or something you’re extraordinarily good at

b. Examples: engineering, science, math, debate, etc.

7. Soft spike

a. Definition: A personality trait that’s influenced a lot of your experiences/values (i.e. Why did you do what you did?)

b. Example: For Elaine, it was “impact” and “hands on” (i.e. She wanted to make a difference and it was a consistent theme across her application.)

​[Sidenote] The vibes of two schools Elaine visited:

  • Swarthmore was in a more natural area and is near Philly.

  • Cornell has a medieval vibe and is in a rural, isolated, mountainous area.

Important Insight from Elaine

  • You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do. If you know what you think you like or what you dislike the least, you could major in that in college and see how it goes.

  • You have the power to negotiate financial aid once you receive offers from other schools.

  • Be prepared for the week when you make the decision on which school to go to. It can be a mental and emotional struggle filled with stress, anxiety, and regret potentially worse than the application process itself.

Essay Tips


Q: How long did you take on your essays?

A: I outlined then wrote. It took about 20 to 45 minutes to write and then edit a short essay on the day it was due because I was under more pressure. For the Common app essay, it took a lot of time–a couple hours drafting and then mostly editing for the next few weeks.

Common App Essay

Elaine’s Recommended Brainstorming Strategies

  • Think through ideas/stories in your life that are important (words, phrases, activities)

  • Review your timeline of life events (random memories)

  • Write about old memories

  • Think about moments throughout life and how they changed you

  • Spam everything and build on those ideas as much as you can; anything you can’t write 750 words about, don’t consider

Important Insight from Elaine

  • Don’t start writing essays too early (i.e. junior spring), some things may happen or you may change your mind about things and need to write a new essay.

  • Have an idea/theme you want to write about first and then see which prompt it fits under. That way, it’s more authentic to you and what’s most important for you to articulate.

Quick brainstorm practice (Elaine didn’t find this useful because she already knew what she would write about, but maybe you’ll find it helpful.)

Write everything you can think of in 30 sec-1 min for each:

1. Plan that fell to pieces

2. Something that worries you

3. Most scared

4. Most fun

5. Most surprised

6. Most disappointed

7. Something you go without

8. Pet peeve

9. When you got lost

10. Felt despondent

11. The perfect day

12. Glad you said no

13. Something fell out of place

14. Someone said that stung

15. Most beautiful/ugliest thing you’ve seen

16. Best gift

17. Smell

18. Daily ritual

19. Skill you don’t have

20. A sound

21. Your name

Then, highlight words/ideas that come up/automatically attached together and build on/group into categories


General Tips

  • Begin by writing out the entire essay – it’s okay if it’s over the word count. Afterward, start cutting it down not by rephrasing, but by removing anything that isn’t critical to understanding who you are and getting the point of the essay across.

  • You can write multiple essays and then decide on which one is the best to submit. Elaine didn’t do this, but she knows people who have and have gotten into top institutions.

  • You can make your essay come back full circle by tying in your ending to the hook from the beginning.

  • Rather than having multiple equally-lengthed paragraphs, it’s okay to have lone sentences. This helps to create a sense of a story and is also refreshing for admissions officers who have probably read countless paragraph-based essays. Have fun with the structure and make it something you think would be interesting to admissions officers rather than having a standard 5-paragraph essay.

Tips for School-Specific Essays

  • You can reuse your essays for different schools, but make sure you edit it so it is specific to that school if necessary.

Keep in mind, these strategies worked for Elaine. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll work for you. Take these with a grain of salt and do what works best for you.

Elaine’s Experience Elaine wrote various essays about a Youtube video that tied into how the meaning of “impact” to her changed throughout the years, anime, and food at Duke for one of the Duke essays.

Elaine’s Top Tip: You can write about anything that you want to write about as long as it reflects you or why you want to go to a certain school.

Why This School Essays

Most schools have a “why us” essay where you can demonstrate the research you’ve done on the school, how you would take advantage of the opportunities offered at the school, how you’ll positively contribute to the school community, and why that school is a good fit for you. Elaine shares some tips on what she wrote in her “why us” essays.

  • Research the schools you’re interested in. Based on the research, use certain sentences/paragraphs to show that you did your research, connecting your goals with the school’s values with specific references to how you plan on engaging in programs, research, professors, organizations, etc. at that school to show how you’ll thrive given the opportunities.

    • Each school has a set of values or a mission statement. Find out what they are and incorporate as many as you can into your essay without making it sound inauthentic or forced (i.e. name-drop authentically).

  • Mention that you visited to show that you’ve taken the time to learn more about the school.

Why This Major Essays

Similar to “why us” essays, some schools have “why this major” essays so you can explain why you chose the major that you did, what experience you’ve had that's led to your decision, and the impact you’ll make through your major at your school and in your career.

  • Since you’ll probably write this essay multiple times for multiple schools, Elaine suggests creating a template for this type of essay so you can easily explain how you plan on exploring your major in different schools.

  • If a school asks for a longer essay, you can (though this is one of many strategies) introduce the essay with a story from your childhood that strings together the essay and shows a narrative that makes sense for you to pursue a certain major.


(I introduced some of Elaine’s extracurriculars in the introduction of the article.)

Q: How many slots out of the 10 extracurricular slots on the Common App did you fill out?

A: I filled 8-9 slots in the extracurricular section. Colleges pay attention to your top 5 EC’s so adjust/reorder them in the Common App based on the values of the college you’re currently applying to (e.g. Harvard values leadership, MIT values STEM, Columbia values research, etc.).

​Important Insight from Elaine

  1. Colleges like to see specific numbers/stats for everything even if they’re low (e.g. number of followers on Instagram art account, money raised through a fundraiser you organized/were a part of, number of website visitors, hours of volunteer service/work, etc.)

  2. You can include minor commitments (personal projects, Instagram, taking care of siblings, etc.). The extracurricular section is for anything you do that takes up time outside of school.


Some schools have an interview as part of the application process. Elaine shares her experience and tips from interviews.

Q: What schools that you applied for had interviews?

A: MIT, Duke, Harvard, Yale, and UPenn

Q: How many interviews did you have to do for each school?

A: Sometimes one interview is enough, but some have a second one with an alum or admissions officer.

Questions to ask the interviewer

  1. At what point in your experience at college did you know you had made the right decisions?

  2. Did you participate in clubs and how did you balance all your commitments?

  3. What would you change if you could go back?

  4. Is there anything that you learned through a friend's pro tip or from class that you still use?

​Questions you may be asked during an interview

  1. Introduce yourself. (Follow this up with a variety of interests that you pursue and explain them)

  2. How do you spend your free time?

  3. What was your favorite project?

  4. What do you generally do?

Important Insight from Elaine

  1. Don’t fully prepare. Just have topics you want to cover, or you’ll be flustered when it doesn’t go as planned.

  2. Try to share your personality, things you do, and potential follow ups to those responses rather than accomplishments that are in other parts of your application.

  3. Smile especially when they can’t see your body language (i.e. through a virtual setting) because it leaves a good impression and also boosts your own self-confidence.

  4. Getting ready the day before is enough preparation

  5. Make sure you are alert during the interview.

Let us know if there are any other questions you want us to ask our future interviewees that weren't discussed here!

Thanks for reading!
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