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:
Important Insight from Elaine
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
Important Insight from Elaine
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
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
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
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
Questions you may be asked during an interview
Important Insight from Elaine
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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