By Alice Liu, Intern
As the years go on, it’s becoming harder and harder to get into certain colleges. The pressure of getting into a good college puts a lot of stress and work on a student’s shoulders and knowing tips and tricks that can help you get into the college of your dreams is very useful but sometimes hard to find. That’s where Kalven Goreal steps in. Goreal has been a professional writing coach since 2015 and is a lead write for high school and college student publications. Through his years working with and tutoring students, he has gained a lot of insight on the things students need to know while getting ready to apply for colleges.
Crafting Your Story
College preparation is an opportunity to craft your story and tell your tale. The application process is a very competitive and selective environment. Therefore, students have a small opportunity to share why they should be offered admission versus others. Goreal says that a good way to develop this story is by sharing your experiences and distinguishing yourself amongst others. At the same time, it is important to place limits on what you write about. Things such as insignificant details, redundancies, and events/actions that can be easily interpreted wrong can all cast you in a negative light to the admission officer. Overall, Goreal says that you should share your experiences in a way that highlights your strengths while at the same time distinguishes the potential you have compared to your peers within the school environment.
What Colleges want to See
“Colleges want to know you made the most of your time,” Goreal says, explaining the things involved in crafting a successful application. Even though earning a high title in a club or activity or winning many awards is a huge factor in impressing colleges, not all students can be presidents or national champions but it’s important to take a risk and work towards what you love. After hearing this, many students tend to join too many clubs, resulting in not being specialized in any area or subject. “Most successful people are focused on one or two different activities,” Goreal explains. He himself was in a lot of clubs but he wasn’t able to be highly specialized to get the most out of it. There was very little he could think of for college applications regarding the clubs and accomplishment aspect. “In a sense it was kind of embarrassing.” Although it is ideal to participate in clubs, Goreal says that you should dedicate yourself to something you’re good at and apply yourself heavily to a few clubs important to you. Over time, commitment can make you very good at what you’re working towards.
In addition to joining clubs, you must also show off your skills and accomplishments. Think about the skills you have developed over years of practicing the things you enjoy and learning. How do you use those skills to help others and the community? How do you utilize those skills when you are faced with challenges? What is a passion that stems from that skill? Goreal suggests using that skill to help others and collaborate. “When you work with other people, everyone does a better job…” Goreal highlights collaboration and synergy as top points that colleges look for. Among your accomplishments and milestones, colleges also want to see how you are helping your community and your skills. “Illustrate the most exciting things you have done!”
You also must talk about your passions in life as it is important to pursue what you enjoy working on. In addition to pursuing your passions, Goreal also suggests sharing knowledge with younger students as well. Colleges want to see you continually learning about those things that interest you and actively learn about the subjects or activities that you’re involved in. “When I talk with students at first it can be very challenging to express what you enjoy -- what you’re good at…” Expressing your passions can sometimes be a challenge, according to Goreal. He recommends just trying new and intriguing things to see what you like, and upon discovering your interests, try learning more about them or use them to do good in the community.
Overall, colleges generally want someone who is well-rounded but especially good in their interests, all while learning new things and helping the people around them.
For the most part, applicants choose to write about general experiences such as their activities (both inside and out of school) and how that relates to the major they wish to pursue in college. This can be counterproductive if approached in the wrong way as general overarching hopes/experiences do not reveal much about your inner self. In more depth, you should generally write about your passions, how you help others, your extracurricular, and how you solve any challenges encountered. It is important to include your experiences and write vividly so you can captivate the readers and indirectly display positive character traits. “You should write vividly. And when I say vividly, I mean with a narrative flare.” Goreal suggests. He says that colleges mainly want to see your life experiences, how you’re committed to organizations, how you volunteer for good causes, and how you’re focused on what you’re doing. You must add in all the details while avoiding redundancies. Redundant information and ideas that are not fully developed are some red flags that should be avoided while writing your essays. Furthermore, it is essential to provide narration and tell a story in style. Everybody has their own style. Address that style in your essay. Colleges want to know: what’s different about you? How do you stand out? Making the reader visualize the writing gets them interested, so be descriptive.
During the talk, Kalven Goreal also provided some additional important information for applying to colleges. This includes researching, social media, letters of recommendation, and the three application decisions.
“Research is your best friend.” Goreal encourages researching your schools and application requirements so that you know and have all the information ready and are prepared. Research is often a great tool to learn more about your college and raise your chances of having a fully prepared application. This also includes letters of recommendation from teachers, advisors, or mentors. You would want colleges to view you as a hard worker who is involved with both school and extracurricular activities. Teachers would also want to write a letter of recommendation for someone who is engaged in class, isn’t afraid to ask questions, does well in class, and shares their strengths with others.
Another key point to look out for that Goreal elaborates on is social media. Goreal states that schools are very protective over the image of a “clean academic environment” that “doesn’t involved negative individuals” so it is very important to know that colleges can look through your social media and public information to see any bad behavior. Schools do not want someone who is disrespectful. Having a LinkedIn page can also be very useful if you are looking to be professional with businesses or college. It is a great platform to share your interests and accomplishments while giving you the opportunity to make professional contact.
As for the application process itself, it is crucial to know about the three application decisions: early decision, early action, and regular decision. If you are interested in early decision, you must do everything early and sign a binding agreement, which ensures that you are 100% sure to attend that school right away when offered admission. Early decision is only allowed for one school so, as Goreal stated before, research is your best friend! Research the colleges you are interested in to see if early decision is the right decision. Early action, however, is a little different than early decision. For early action, you must also do everything earlier but it is not binding, unlike early decision. Since professors generally want students that do work earlier, it might be an advantage to apply for either of these since it sets you apart from regular decision applicants. Regular decision, on the other hand, is just the regular way to apply, with all the regular deadlines and requirements. There are certain tradeoffs between choosing the different types of college applications. Early decision has an increased chance of acceptance but is much more restrictive compared to early action and regular decision. Both EA and ED need to be submitted earlier leaving you with less time to refine and polish your essays, however, your acceptance/rejection results return much quicker (usually around December) which may alleviate additional stress that can build up later in the school year. Overall, it is up to the student which application method they choose as they are the best person to judge whether their applications are ready by the EA/ED deadline.
Q&A with Kalven Goreal:
Q: The common app has 6 essay prompts plus an essay of your choice. If I pick the topic of my choice, what are the pros and cons?
A: When I look at the common app application, I read all the prompts. I realize that this is the information that they want. That’s why they’re asking these particular questions and providing this particular prompt. They want to know about a time you were a leader or a time you helped solve a problem. Or they want to know what you’re really passionate about, a subject you’ve been studying -- inside and outside the classroom, or how you’ve helped your community. If you have something that is more important than helping your community or showing leadership or overcoming challenges, then you should share. It’s a bit of a risk and it’s very rare that what you share could not be presented in a different way under the other prompts. It’s a risk that I wouldn’t take personally if I was a student because it’s vague.
Q: Aside from scholarships, how big of a role do you think sports play in applications, compared to academics?
A: I played sports in high school and I was also a part of many academic activities -- science bowl and science olympiad being my favorite. I wanted to study physics in college but it turned out the college I went to did not have a physics program and I really wanted to go to that college so I changed my major to finance and economics instead. Ideally, the things you spend time on in high school are the same things you spend time on in college. I did play a lot of sports and spent a lot of time in my sport in college so I felt like I made the right decision for what I wanted at that time. Looking back, tennis is a great activity but spending all of those hours playing tennis was not very beneficial in a professional sense and most of life is professional. However, if you were to receive a scholarship, it’s completely different because the financial motivation to excel at that sport is greater than the passion to pursue an academic subject. Overall, academics are much more important than athletics in the sense that you’re going to be a student in college.
Q: If you weren’t sure what specific field you wanted to go into, how would you go about dedicating yourself to a select few clubs and organizations?
A: It’s really difficult to know what to apply yourself to without applying yourself to everything. If you don’t give yourself a chance, you won’t really be sure of what you’re good at or what you enjoy. Before I went to college, I had seven different jobs in eight months during my senior year of high school. I figured I needed to work and wanted to see all the different things there was to do. I found out pretty quickly -- seven different times -- that if you’re not very specialized, you’re not going to be happy doing the work that you’re doing. My rule of thumb is: if you’re not happy to be there, stop doing that activity. It’s not going to be worthwhile for you. I would definitely dedicate myself to the things that make me happy.
Q: How important do you consider alumni interviews if they’re optional?
A: Whenever the word “optional” comes up in anything, I’ve learned that it really means mandatory. If they’re giving you the option of doing something, why wouldn’t you do it? So if they have an optional interview with an alumni, be confident! This is your opportunity to get in front of an alumni: someone that’s already been at the school that you want to go to. You get to find out what their college experience was like and you can show them how excited you are to go to that school. If you have the opportunity, you should take it. Otherwise, you’ll have many missed opportunities.
Q: Should I submit optional essays. Are they really optional?
A: Yes. If it’s “optional,” that means mandatory. You should complete it and use as many words as you’re given to complete the task.
Q: What about the additional essay for details of circumstances or qualifications not related in the application? Is it a good idea to write another essay?
A: Different schools have different essays that ask you to discuss challenges in your life or large and great experiences that are now reflected in your application. Ideally, the great experiences are listed in your application and your essays make it very clear that you are highly involved in these activities that were very successful. The more challenging ones are the details of circumstances in your life that may be very difficult to share. I’ve been in that position and as I’ve grown older, I understand that this is a college application. It’s an application for an opportunity and you want to share the things that will make you stand out in a good way. There have been students that have had challenges and they’ve written about them in their essays. The largest focus for me is showing: how did you grow from this experience? What did you learn from it?
Q: Searching for college advisors is a pretty challenging thing. What is the criteria for selecting a college advisor? What makes the student stand out above and beyond everybody else, so they get to be the person that the college will pick?
A: If you’re looking for a college advisor or if you’re looking for someone that is going to help you through a very challenging process, ideally, you have someone that is aware of the challenges that you’re going to face and willing to make those challenges more manageable but not diminish those challenges. If the application process was easy, you’d just send in your grades and test scores and be done. It would be wise to have someone that makes you stronger as a thinker and a writer when you go through the process. When it comes to writing your essays, there’s a tendency for students to need help. It’s very important to have someone guide the students and help them think for themselves. If a student is not thinking for themselves, then they’re not going to succeed in college. A good college advisor will extract information from students. You have to work with someone you work well with.
Q: There are advisors that charge $10,000+ in hopes of helping students get into an Ivy League. In your opinion, is there anything special that they’re providing?
A: Definitely. When I first began working with high school seniors, I did some research on the area myself. I looked for what other companies were doing and how much they were charging but a lot of them don’t want to share what they’re charging. One of the companies was successful from what I remember and there were four Ivy League graduates that ran the company. They charged $15,000 to apply to one university and $35,000 for a full service application. On their list of services was strategic giving. This is when a company will advise you on making donations to a university strategically so that they remember you. At the end of the day, it’s an application process where students share what they’re good at. You want to be where you’re welcomed, not where you had to force your way into. I’ve observed that you can buy your way into a lot of things in life, but the things that matter; you probably want to work hard and earn them.
Q: You mentioned social media presence. If a person does not have any social media, do you recommend that they start building it younger so that colleges have something to refer to?
A: You don’t have to. No news is good news. If you don’t have anything, it’s very interesting and you stand out since most everybody has some sort of social media. However, if you were really involved in things you should have a LinkedIn page and you should follow some people. When it comes to other social media for recreational purposes, it’s not very impressive for a school. Their main focus is that you don’t do anything that you shouldn’t be doing using your social media. When it comes to sports it’s a little bit different because students have to share their experiences. However, there are websites that are solely dedicated to making athletic profiles.
Student Discussion Panel - Terence Lee & Kevin Gao
As important it is to know about the whole application process, what goes into it, and how to craft an amazing application, it is also necessary to know about high school and college in general. Kevin Gao and Terence Lee led the student panel discussion where they talk about some helpful tips to prepare for college and Junior/Senior year of high school.
It is important to start getting ready for college early on during the high school years so you can give yourself a lot more time to try new things and do what you are interested in. Finding your interests can help expand the activities list for common apps and UC apps so colleges can have more to look at. “They see that list and they get a general sense of how you are -- but not much depth into it,” Kevin Gao, rising freshman at UC Berkeley and current president of EqOpTech states. Based on your application and what goes into it, colleges can get an overview of what kind of student and person you are and what you have accomplished. However, essays are where you get to talk about yourself and your experiences so colleges can actually see you in more depth. In the essays, you can talk about what you did in clubs, your accomplishments, something important, your hobbies, and much more. “For me, that was EqOpTech,” remarked Gao. In his common app essay, which was around 700 words, Gao wrote about his experience as president, obtaining the presidential and congressional awards, and how he was really dedicated and involved in EqOpTech. He talked about specific experiences such as delivering laptops and witnessing the emotions of kids receiving laptops for the first time.
Gao also reminisced back on his time applying for colleges. “It was very miserable for me because I had to rush through it.” During the summer after junior year, Gao went to Japan and Minnesota for camp at a college. He said that he was in a mad rush for early action/decisions that were due on October 31st because he put off starting college apps due to other things. He suggests brainstorming starting at the beginning of summer, writing around september, and start with the UCs. Gao ended up applying to 5 early decision/actions, 7 UCs, and 20 schools in total.
The application process can be rough, so finding someone to help, such as a college advisor, can be really helpful. Ideally, it should be someone who knows a lot about what you’re writing about. Terence Lee, rising sophomore at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and founder of EqOpTech, had his parents, english teacher, family friend, and Kalven Goreal helping with the essay. “It’s good to get as many perspectives as possible,” Lee recommends. “When you get people looking in from the outside, they’re able to catch things and provide you perspective that maybe you didn’t account for.”
Terence Lee gave his insight on the college experience in general during the student panel discussion as well. He applied to around 20 different colleges and didn’t really have any expectations for where he could get into or not. Lee applied to a broad range because “you’re never certain what colleges you’ll get into regardless of how much of an overachiever you are.” No matter how good your application looks, you can still get rejected. As for his senior year of high school, “I had a somewhat different senior year than most of you will probably have, as I participate in the high school dual enrollment at Foothill College” Lee assures. For his sophomore year, he took no APs and took 4 APs his junior year. Instead of taking a lot of AP classes, Lee signed up for several AP classes but dropped some in the first week because he took classes at Foothill college. These classes are recommended by him for reasons such as being able to be taught by college professors who were more focused on helping students learn material and get a better understanding rather than focusing on a final AP test. Lee also reminded students to check on the target colleges for transferred credits as not all AP tests are recognized by the colleges unlike community college credits are generally transferrable.
In addition to high school experiences, Lee talked a lot about the general college experience and what to expect when you go there. For housing, there is usually 1 or 2 options: dorms or private housing. Some colleges require 1 year or more or even none at all for staying at their dorms. Lee states that dorms are “mediocre -- it’s what you’d come to expect” and he stayed in the private housing program, which is not part of the university but is a university certified housing arrangement. As for the food aspect of college, there is usually a meal plan which can be the number of swipes per semester or you can get a certain amount of credits to use for food. The workload in college is often different than in high school. According to Lee, you can’t really get by without putting 100% of your effort into the work given in college. He recommends definitely getting a calendar or planner and not loading up your schedule with hard classes during the first semester. “Don’t prioritize getting good grades over your personal health.” Don’t overwork or overload yourself with classes you can’t manage because in the end, that can result in a lot of stress put on you.
Another important tip is to not compare yourself to others. In your classes, you’ll often notice that there will be people better than you and worse than you -- don’t compare yourself to your peers, but you can always ask them for help. Lee strongly recommends getting advice for the college life, especially from someone going to that university or an alumni. They’re the best source for that information since they actually attend college and get the firsthand experience.
Q&A -- Student Panel
Q: Realistically, how much time did you spend working on your essays to be satisfied before you submit them?
Terence: I spent most of my time working on the drafts during the summer when I had a lot more time. Even during the school year, I did spend most of my weekends working on the essays. I would say that I spent around 5 hours per day during the summer working on the essays. I had around 10-15 drafts before I was satisfied but that’ll vary with the essays as well as how much progression you make with each draft. Sometimes you’ll find that you will like previous drafts rather than recent ones, so it’s always good to keep a record of each draft you have.
Q: Nowadays, technology is advancing very quickly. Should you focus on the software/hardware aspect for a “backup plan?”
Terence: It all depends on what you’re interested in. If you’re interested in technology and software, then you should make that choice. Although, there is always the risk that jobs will be outsourced by the time you graduate. It is also useful to find specialities and specialized skills.
Q: What advice do you have for a rising junior or a rising sophomore?
Terence: It’s always good to start planning early. I would recommend starting to research colleges so you can get a general idea of what you want to major in or what colleges you want to look into. Maybe generate a list of the colleges you’re looking into. I had a spreadsheet of the colleges I wanted to apply to and over time, that list did change. You can always start planning early. As a rising sophomore or junior, you still have time to do the things that colleges look for in a student such as volunteering or taking on a leadership role.
Kevin: High school is a marathon. You should challenge yourself as much as possible, all while trying to get A’s. You should focus on having a balanced life between school and activities. The college application is an evaluation of the past four years so as long as you follow what you want to do, you’ll do well.
Terence: Colleges also would much rather see you start something and keep on doing it and bettering yourself at it rather than doing something maybe in your senior year that’s really impressive. They’re looking for time commitment and how you’re striving to do something continuously. So if you can start early, do something that you’re really passionate about and keep on working on it through high school. They want to see that you don’t give up easily.
Kalven: When I was in high school, I was on the science bowl team. When it came to our experiences as a group, we didn’t really get along at the beginning of the year. It was a tough experience but fast forward two years and we were spending two hours a day every Tuesday and Thursday practicing as a team. By our senior year, we won the entire competition and went to nationals. It’s very important to know that if you just take the time to apply yourself to something, work with other people, and working diligently, very good things will result out of that experience.
Courtesy of Joshua Kung, EqOpTech Digital Marketing