We had the wonderful opportunity of interviewing Sophia Gonzalez (UPenn '21) about her time during High School.
Sofia shares some key words of advice:
"I'd say, be true to yourself. Also, don't be afraid to explore new things. When I was going through high school, I thought that you had to have four years of consistent extracurriculars, and there had to be a linear progression of how you were doing. But the reality is as long as you're involved and willing to make an impact in whatever space you're in, admissions counselors are also very understanding that you didn't have a stable high school experience, and that's okay."
"So one thing that I appreciate about the way I grew up is that I think it automatically just made me more interesting. I had seen different ways of life, I had met so many different people."
"I had an untraditional high school experience by spending half of my high school experience in Houston, TX and the other half in Mexico City, Mexico. I was in Houston my freshman year, Mexico City sophomore & junior years, and then back in Houston my senior year due to my mother's work. Throughout the four years I got to be involved in many different activities such as Cheerleading, Choir, Musical Theater, Model United Nations, and Peer Tutoring.
I constantly challenged myself by taking Honors/AP/IB classes - as well as taking exams that were not offered as classes at my school. I applied to Penn ED so definitely got the chance to relax a bit my second semester of senior year. At Penn I completed my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Bioengineering within the four years and also was heavily involved as President of the Kite & Key Society, Executive Vice Present of the Biomedical Engineering Society, and Assistant Vice President of Membership of Sigma Kappa. My work with the Kite & Key Society transformed the visit experience during the pandemic, expanding access to the University in unprecedented manners, and led to me being awarded with a Student Award of Merit and the William A. Levi Kite & Key Society Award for Service and Scholarship. Throughout my undergrad years I completed two corporate internships - one within Information Technology at Merck & Co, and one within Pharmacy Operations at CVS Health. In the coming weeks I will join Merck full-time as a member of their flagship Manufacturing Leadership Development Program in Durham, NC. Shortly following my graduation in May, I was accepted to MIT Sloan's MBA program via the deferred admissions process - so I'll be returning to higher education in the coming five years!
- Sophia Gonzalez
We’re going to start off with your high school experience.
You spent half of your high school experience in Texas and the other half in Mexico, moving back and forth between the two:
Q: How would you say your transition between these two places affected you in terms of academics, extracurriculars, friendships, and other areas?
A: "I think this is such a great question because this was such a defining characteristic of who I was growing up.
So for more context, I was in Texas in ninth grade, and in Mexico City, Mexico for my sophomore and junior years. And then in my senior year, I was back in Texas. In terms of academics, extracurriculars, and all the school stuff, I found it difficult to have any leadership position in high school because of the nature of me not having time at any one place. That was something that concerned me going into the college application process. Looking back, it obviously didn't matter.
I was able to craft my own story, but that was something that concerned me very much academically. It pushed me to do even more because I went to two different schools, so I could see the different things that were offered at different institutions. I had multiple frames of reference as to what it takes to get into a really good school, and what it takes to be impressive in the eyes of admissions counselors, so I think that was helpful. In terms of friendships, I had a really solid friend group my freshman year of high school, and I was sad to leave them. But at the same time, I knew that moving to Mexico was going to be a really big experience. And at the end of my junior year, when I had to leave Mexico, that was brutal for me in terms of leaving my friends, honestly. I had major FOMO my senior year, and making friends in that last year was a big challenge. I pretty much kept to myself a lot of senior year.
I channeled a lot of that energy into focusing on college applications, AP exams, and just doing well to put my best foot forward for college apps, so I would say that was a struggle."
Q: How would you advise a high school student who moves around a lot on being a competitive applicant when they may struggle to find stable extracurricular, academics, and connections?
A: "I'm going to start on the extracurricular part because I know for me, that was the most difficult thing because academics, as long as you spend a full school year at an institution, then you know you have a class and you're done, and maybe you have like an AP score that goes along with it, and that definitely helps.
But extracurriculars-wise, your ability to go up in leadership and have those impressive titles of President or Vice President of any club gets diminished when you're moving around so much. So, I'd say, be true to yourself. Also, don't be afraid to explore new things. When I was going through high school, I thought that you had to have four years of consistent extracurriculars, and there had to be a linear progression of how you were doing. But the reality is as long as you're involved and willing to make an impact in whatever space you're in, admissions counselors are also very understanding that you didn't have a stable high school experience, and that's okay.
Academically, I would say, if you're up for the challenge, like any class where it can be standardized, like an AP or an IB class, I would recommend those just because different schools have different grading scales. Maybe at one school, AP classes aren't graded on a curve, so you do poorly in the class but you do well on the AP exam, versus another school might grade pretty easy on AP courses so your scores are super high during the school year but your AP score comes back and it's like, not great, so having those standardized tests will help you to showcase what your skills are. One thing that was so big for me: do not let yourself be persuaded by academic counselors who think they know best. When I went back to the same school in Texas in my senior year, my college counselor tells me, "You can't have letters of recommendation from your school in Mexico because American colleges aren't gonna think that's legit," and I was like, what in the world is this woman talking about? My teachers this year have known me for approximately two months and they're supposed to help me get into these Ivy Leagues? I don't think that's going to work. So I think as a general nature of moving around switching schools, you have to stick up for yourself and be your biggest cheerleader. I remember something I had to fight about was the fact that I needed to be put in an advanced math class. My school in Mexico wanted me to retake precalculus, but I already took this class. So those are definitely struggles that students may find. "
Q: How do you think this experience helped your application stand out for Penn? Or how do you think you developed important personal qualities that made you stand out?
A: So one thing that I appreciate about the way I grew up is that I think it automatically just made me more interesting.
I had seen different ways of life, I had met so many different people. During the time that I was in Mexico, the Black Lives Matter movement started in the United States. It was very interesting to watch that movement as an American but outside of my home country. I'm Latina, my family is originally from Venezuela, they came here right before I was born, so I grew up a Latina in the United States.
When I moved to Mexico, I found myself being American in Mexico. I think that inspired a lot of self-reflection on my part and allowed me to become a global citizen at that point, just because it gave me a fresh new perspective on the lens that American schools give their students, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. What I mean by that is just that there are certain ways or certain narratives that are told by American history classes and American political science classes as to how the rest of the world runs. That gives me a lot of different things to talk about. I think the fact that in my senior year, I didn't have friends was kind of a blessing in disguise of the fact that I literally wouldn't even have lunch in the cafeteria. I would go to the library and work on my essays and work on homework. At that moment, it was not fun, and I was like, oh my gosh, I hate senior year, this sucks, I just want to get out of here.
But that pushed me to be like, I'm going to go to the best college ever because none of these people think I can do it, and I'm just going to prove them wrong."
Was this something you stressed in your essays as well - how this changed your learning experience - or was this something you decided to not emphasize?
A: This brings up one of my favorite stories. In my junior year, I took AP Physics, which was very uncommon at my school in Mexico for juniors to do, and I walk in day one of class, and this is my second year at that school, so I knew most of the people in the class.
All of them were seniors. I was the only junior and one of four girls in this class. So automatically, I'm like, oh gosh, this is not gonna go that great. My teacher, on day one, tells me while he's in front of everyone, "Oh, you know, you're wasting everyone's time by being in this class, you're not going to do well, you should just drop it." I went home and I cried to my mother that night, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I can't do this, and at that point, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, so I was like, oh my gosh, mom, I'm never gonna be an engineer, I'm never gonna be able to do this."
Thankfully, my mom has been such an amazing role model in my life. She also studied engineering undergrad back in what would have been the 80s. So for her, she also went through so many cases in which men doubted her abilities. She straight up told me, "You're gonna prove him wrong, and I'm gonna help you." I ended up not dropping this man's class.
At the end of the year, I was actually his top-performing student. At the end of the school year, we had a week in which seniors wouldn't come to classes because they were already finished and had graduated, but the other years still had to go to school. I'm sitting in this class by myself with my physics teacher. We're just sitting there, and he's like, 'Sofia, I really want to apologize. You completely blew me out of the water. I think you have big things ahead of you."
He asked me, "Where do you want to go to school?" At the time, my dream was MIT. I was like, "I want to go to MIT," and he's like, "You can do it. I want you to know I will 100% write you a letter of recommendation." So in my application materials for almost all of my schools, I told that story and attached his letter of recommendation. I think that it's just such a funny story to recount now.