Top of the Class

#2 How I Got In - Stanford Admit and Her Strategist Talk Authenticity, Scores and Essays

May 01, 2021 Crimson Education Season 3 Episode 2
Top of the Class
#2 How I Got In - Stanford Admit and Her Strategist Talk Authenticity, Scores and Essays
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Top of the Class
#2 How I Got In - Stanford Admit and Her Strategist Talk Authenticity, Scores and Essays
May 01, 2021 Season 3 Episode 2
Crimson Education

Australian student and recent Stanford admit, Maggie, is joined by her Crimson strategist and Harvard graduate, George, in discussing Maggie's application including her extracurriculars, scores and essays as well as providing advice for future applicants to top colleges.



Show Notes Transcript

Australian student and recent Stanford admit, Maggie, is joined by her Crimson strategist and Harvard graduate, George, in discussing Maggie's application including her extracurriculars, scores and essays as well as providing advice for future applicants to top colleges.



The transcript is edited for clarity and to remove vocal filler. 

Alex 

Hello, and welcome to a very special episode of the Top of the Class podcast. I am delighted to be joined by Maggie and her Crimson Strategist, George. Maggie, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.


Maggie 

So hi everyone. My name is Maggie and I’m from Melbourne, Australia and I just graduated from high school. I applied to some US colleges and I was obviously guided by my wonderful strategist, George and I was accepted into Stanford University, which is my dream school. So definitely very excited for that and to see what might happen in the future.


Alex  

Absolutely. That's the story that is to be written over the next four years for you. And George, over to you. Give us a little background as to your story and how you ended up helping Maggie through our application.


George

Yeah, absolutely. I could start way back from the beginning, which is that I'm from the UK. I studied at Harvard for my undergraduate and then knew that I wanted to come to work for Crimson, and work with students like Maggie, because I had such an incredible experience. And so I wanted to be able to help students who found themselves in similar positions to me where they knew that maybe their home education wasn't quite fitting for them, and that the US or the UK was going to get a new experience.


Alex  

For you, Maggie, is that a story that you gel with?


Maggie 

Well, my introduction to higher education in the US was that my sister applied before me and I was able to be a bystander to see how the whole thing worked and now that she is in uni, I see how many opportunities are being offered to her. So I was definitely motivated seeing my sister go to university overseas. But I really wanted to experience a different culture and to meet different people from all around the world.


Alex 

And why was Stanford your dream school?


Maggie 

Well, it's  funny, because I think the moment I decided that Stanford was my dream school was actually by a video that was released on Crimson’s YouTube channel. And it was this vlog of a Stanford student who took theater and performance studies. And she guided us through the school, I was like, ‘wow, this is exactly the place where I envision myself.’ In one particular instance, I remember her describing the Simps, they call it the improvisation theatre group at Stanford, and the production that was on that season. It was basically a play that took place in the toilets of the Memorial Church at Stanford. And to me, I've never ever seen a theatre production that was so unconventional, so out of the box, and to me, I feel like that really represented Stanford's deep rooted culture of innovation and that encouragement of the students to push themselves creatively. So I think that's what really appealed to me about Stanford.


Alex 

From your perspective, George, when a student like Maggie comes to you and says, ‘I really want to apply to Stanford’, what's your first reaction?


George

Yeah, I mean, given the acceptance rates were even lower than they've ever been, it's always my first response to any student, no matter how incredibly well positioned they are, to say that this is a big test, the likelihood is that we won't get in. And that's not to deter whatsoever, that's to add reality to the situation. And so my first response when Maggie approached me and said Stanford, we spent a little bit of time going back and forth on whether it was the right choice. But ultimately, Maggie herself was able to convince me beyond any convincing I needed to do myself that she was a good fit for that place. And I think, ultimately, Maggie writes with such authenticity, and what she does, she does from the heart. For these top universities, it was very clear for me that what she was writing about, she meant, and it was really who she was.


Alex 

That's awesome. Well, you also gave me a natural segue into the essays. Maggie, can you take us through your process in writing your essays?


Maggie 

Definitely. I think both George and I, we brainstormed a lot as to what are perhaps some of the most, as you say, authentic ideas that we can present to the college. So I basically started off by going back to my childhood and thinking about the times and the experiences that made me who I am. So I wrote about my family's progression from a family of quite a lot of conflict and ultimately into a family that is now living very harmoniously and with a lot of love for each other. So I think all of these experiences really bring out the genuineness that you want to convey to the admission officers, because at the end of the day, I think that's what really will touch their hearts and convince them that perhaps you are the right person for the uni.


Alex 

Yeah, exactly. Well, for you, George, when you're brainstorming these topics, how do you know which one could be the one you end up going with?


George 

Yeah, that's a great question. You're going to find many different ‘How To’ guides, and what are good essay topics, and you want to wow them, you want to make them cry, you want to do this, you want to do that. But ultimately, when you write something that is telling us a lot about you, that gives us great insight into what you would bring to a community. And remember, in the USA, they are all about community, they're all about wanting to have a community built of diverse people that will all learn and grow from each other, and maybe learn and grow from each other in ways that involve a little bit of conflict. And they want to see that you're writing an essay where they see the complexities of who you are, they don't want to see an essay in which you are singing from the rooftops your achievements, because Stanford, Harvard, Yale, any university in the USA could accept four or five times over the amount of students that they get if it were based on grades and achievements alone. But as well as not wanting those big achievements to be written about, because we don't need to do that they speak for themselves. They also don't want somebody who's trying too hard. And trying too hard means that you think what they want to hear. If the most impactful thing that happens to you was a day trip that you took to the theme park, where your experience on one particular ride changed your life. Fine! That actually sounds like an entertaining story. If it was one single conversation that you shared with a grandparent, that's not necessarily this huge, exciting story that's going to have a big entertaining story arc. But if that is really what has defined you and has made you who you are today, chances are you're going to write about that in a way that's going to be far more compelling than anything that is written for the sake of entertainment. Right? And I think, Maggie, that's what you were able to do with your common app essay. Like, you're a fantastic writer, it was entertaining to read. But ultimately, the most important thing that you take from that essay is, ‘Oh, I know much more about Maggie than I did before. And I really firmly believe that Maggie will be somebody that fits very well in a community where she will learn from others and others will learn from her.’ So I think it's a frustrating answer, but you just get a feel when somebody is writing authentically and when somebody is writing for the sake of trying to impress you. 


Alex 

Yeah, well, Maggie, I'm interested in your experience, when you're putting pen to paper and writing something very personal. And then it's George's job in this instance, to give you feedback, and to tell you how to improve that writing that is very personal to you. So what's that relationship like between student and strategist?


Maggie 

Yeah, definitely. I personally think my relationship with George is a very comfortable and very safe one. And I never felt judged by him for whatever experiences I've had. So working with him has always been a very smooth ride. Sometimes I feel the need to defend myself but at the end of the day, I think George has the experience to help guide me through this process and in everything he does, he doesn't force the ideas, he suggests. And I think as a student working with him, it was just a lot easier to accept the criticism. It was very just a very comfortable journey when working with him in terms of writing the common app essay.


George 

Thank you for sharing that, Maggie, I really appreciate that. As a Crimson strategist, it's not our birthright to give criticism, we have to earn that trust. And I would say in response to that question, Alex, that learning how to receive criticism and have that humility is going to be something that will shine through in an application. But that doesn't mean that they should just have it, right? And like, I think it's so important that we as strategists and as mentors, it is our responsibility to work with our students and make them feel that they can share things that they would maybe not want to share so I'm really glad to hear that Maggie and I’m delighted we could strike that tone. 

Alex 

Just a quick question, how long have you guys been working together on this application?


George 

It was 18 months we had together.


Alex 

So from your perspective, George, what did you see as some of Maggie’s strengths and what did you see as some of the areas for improvement?


George

Maggie already came to Crimson with a strong resume with a strong CV as especially in achievements at school and that to me showed that Maggie was somebody who, with the right direction, would be able to change the world. And clearly, that was already happening. Her grades were fantastic and there's always time to keep building these things up, even with 18 months ago. I think the thing that Maggie showed room for improvement is something that a lot of Australian students and many international students have a challenge with, which is to look for ways in which they can engage with activities outside of school. I went to school in the UK, and the culture of activities and extracurricular activities in the UK is the same as Australia, where the strongest students are the ones that are president or club captain of a team, head girl, head boy. And there's this feeling like there's not much more that can be done, because when they look around them, they're really at the top of their game. Unfortunately, the US is not the same thing, right? And when universities have to choose one student in 25, they're not going to look at the ones who didn't go above and beyond and say ‘oh, but context allowed, they didn't do it’, because context allowed in the same country, other students did. So I think it was a matter of working with what Maggie already had and knowing that she has the potential to be this change maker. And as we see from the podcast that she has put together which is an incredible achievement, just making sure that she knew what was expected of her. So, the best thing that I could do was serving as a sort of mouthpiece for the university where she may not have had that had she been working solo.


Alex

So it's like saying, ‘okay, looking from the perspective of how an admissions officer might view your CV, they would probably say, you're not doing enough outside of school at this stage. And so let's get to work on that.’


George 

Exactly. And specifically, you have to think of US admissions officers because they're a different breed of admissions officers to what we see in any other country.


Alex 

Now, Maggie from your side, when you joined Crimson, you obviously joined with a strong CV. Is that a shared view that you thought your extracurriculars were an area that you needed more work on? It's one of those things that a lot of people come to Crimson thinking they know a bit, but then realize that there's so many more complexities to the whole application then they first thought.


Maggie  

Yeah, definitely. When I first joined Crimson, I wasn't too sure of the entire process. So coming to Crimson and  getting more exposure to this journey just made me realize, ‘oh, wow, there's a lot I need to prepare for and a lot I need to do.’ But I think what's really great is that I have like a whole team of people who are just so supportive of me. For example, in terms of extracurriculars, I worked directly with Lily. I was working with her on an almost weekly basis, just trying to brainstorm ideas, think about what activities I can go for. And she was able to push me to understand that sometimes you can’t stay satisfied with what you’ve got, you have to really push yourself to achieve the best. And I was very lucky to have her by my side, because she was also a very supportive friend as well. 


Alex 

Well, I know, it's always a bit tricky when students hear that at the pointy end of their high school career, that they need to be doing more on top of an already stressful final year of high school. So what activities did you end up rounding out your application with in the limited time that you had?


Maggie 

Yeah, I was quite lucky in the sense that I knew where my passions lied, I knew that I was  passionate about theater, but at the same time, was also very passionate about giving global education rights to children. So I had two very clear ideas of where I want to center my extracurricular activities. So the whole process of thinking about what capstone project I might focus on, it became very clear to me. So one of my most central projects was this podcast that I created, where I was reading stories for immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. So I related my own experience as an immigrant to it. And I was just doing it wholeheartedly and poured my everything into it. And yeah, I think extracurriculars for me, it was just, it wasn't engineered, it just came very naturally to me.


Alex 

George, I'm going to guess as a strategist, you're super happy to hear that, that she wasn't engineering her extracurriculars to fit the application that it was more coming naturally. So when you hear a student is able to articulate that that was her story that she was pushing through the extracurriculars and the application in general, does that make your job easier?


George 

It definitely does make my job easier because one of the big challenges that we have when working with students is knowing what our main interests are. And I hesitate using the word passion, right? Because passion is very overused. And we don't need to know our passion at 17, 18 years old. But we all have things that we really enjoy and I think, Maggie, I can't quite remember if it was just before or just after you went to Nepal to go and volunteer to teach English, which I know was a very influential experience on you for creating this podcast. And eventually the two of us coming together and saying, ‘Okay, this is what I think we want to be remembered for our application.’ But I think a really good test as well of whether your leadership project is authentic is if once you've submitted your applications and you've gotten in, is it something that you sustain? Is it something that you continue with? Because there will be other students who will create something and then the day after they submit their applications, they'll never pick it up again. Admissions officers read 1000s of applications and somewhere somehow they will pick up that that is your motivation and they'll pick up Maggie's application instead and they'll see somebody who was driven, passionate and really wanted to actually make a difference. 


Alex 

It's interesting, because we've been speaking about formulas and when it comes to extracurriculars, there's often this thought that there are formulas out there for what extracurriculars you need to do. So I'm sure students have come to you and said, ‘Oh, but George don't I need some service piece here and don't I need some leadership thing here’ and trying to engineer their extracurriculars to fit in with what they think the formula is, when in fact, it's more the reason why you're doing these things, not just what you're doing. So Maggie, is there something that you feel really drove your application in terms of extracurriculars?


Maggie

Yeah, definitely. I think I was very clear what my purpose is even though I'm still quite young and inexperienced, I realized deep down where my purpose in life lies and that's to be of service to other people and to help other people. And I think that really shone through in terms of my activities and my projects is that I stay true to myself.


Alex

Did you have any anxiety or doubts about your application at any point thinking, Oh, my gosh, am I doing the right thing? Like, Is this enough?


Maggie

Yeah, for sure. I mean there's so many people advocating many different things. So nearing the end of the application, when I do experience anxiety in terms of fearing whether I did enough, or could have I done more, I always just remind myself, it's okay to be different, sometimes you don't need to do so much. I just realized that there really is no formula, there's no secret sauce in that sense. And yeah, just reassured myself everything was going to be okay.


George 

And having the courage to commit to what you're working on. The admissions committees aren't going to say, ‘oh, Maggie's podcast was better than x person's podcast, because Maggie's podcast got 10,000 views and this person got 9500 views’, right? Like they're not going to compare in that way, they're going to see how you fit within the larger profile of the students that you're up against. But they ultimately are making decisions based upon the human being or based upon the ultimate numbers at the end, they want to see that you've left an impact, but it's in that courage to actually commit to something and continuing on.


Alex 

One thing that we need to go over are your scores. So you did the local VCE curriculum, right? 


Maggie

So I got a 99.3 for that, which I think is just within the range in terms of being competitive enough for selective schools, but I also do want to mention that honestly, like I usually don't buy what people say about scores. You don't need to have the best scores. But having gone through this myself, I personally really want to say that your scores aren’t everything. For me, I actually received seven B+ in my report. And I really felt that surely this was going to be something that's going to bring my application down. But it just goes to show that really your grades aren’t everything.

Alex 

Yeah, absolutely. Well, for our international listeners, 99.3 is around the top 0.7% of scores in the state. So you did very well on that. And for your SAT, did you end up sitting that? 


Maggie

I was actually quite lucky in October, right before the early round for Stanford to take the test. And I received a 1540 for that.


Alex 

George, we're talking about Maggie having some doubts. How about you from a strategist’s perspective? Did you have any doubts or did you feel reasonably confident?


George 

Actually, Maggie was originally deferred. Now Stanford is renowned for deferring very, very few students. So if you're deferred by Stanford, it's a really good indication that you’ve got the stuff. And then there was a moment in January where Maggie shared with me that her podcast had been picked up by the Red Cross, which is huge and a testament to the work that she put in. And that left me with some hope because we no longer had to convince Stanford of how impactful this was so it was almost like an extra teacher recommendation of sorts, right? And then up until the moment we got that news, of course, you're like, ‘Oh, no, I don't know what's gonna happen. I'm so nervous.’ And actually, because I'm in the UK, I couldn't stay awake but the following morning, in my inbox on the Crimson app was an all caps message from Maggie and I was so excited. So yeah, of course you have doubts but at the same time, I knew that we weren't hitting and getting nothing in return, I knew that there was a great chance that it could be a success.


Alex 

Well, Maggie, take us through your initial reactions when you opened up the email that said that you had gained admission to Stanford.


Maggie  

Oh, gosh, okay. So I think this year, especially, it's like Ivy days, just right before the day Stanford decisions aren't released. Now the thing is, on Ivy day, I got rejected by all of the Ivies I applied to.I'm not gonna sugarcoat it, it was devastating. And with Stanford coming up next, honestly, I was giving up hope. And I was preparing myself to see the ‘I'm very sorry’. But I think leading up to the moment, I still held on to a little bit of hope. So I had my mom next to me. And when it said ‘status update’ and then you refresh the page. Oh my goodness, those 10 seconds felt the longest and as soon as you see the confetti, I was like, ‘oh my goodness, it's a dream come true.’ And yeah, we were just all very happy and ecstatic. And of course, I had to tell George.


Alex 

For our listeners, I'm sure they're keen on hearing your final thoughts on the application. Maggie, are there any final thoughts for people who are about to go through this journey?


Maggie  

Having gone through this myself, again, I just want to say that sometimes I feel like there will be moments where you push yourself a bit too hard, or you want things to happen really quickly. But I think my advice to older students on preparing for it is, it's okay to take it slow. I actually remember when nearing my final exams, I was reaching out to George, because I was very stressed, I had no idea if I would have the time to complete all my studies and I was sending messages out to George, like, ‘what do I do, I feel really stressed’. And his advice to me was that it's okay to sometimes take some time off, it's really okay and I'm still living that advice every day. So I think my advice to other students is, it's okay, everything will be alright.


Alex

Absolutely. From your side, George, what advice would you give that could sum up some of the things that we've talked about today?


George  

Actually, I just want to say on top of what Maggie said, when you're a high achieving student, the day does come when you realize that you can't do it all and I feel like when we had that conversation, I breathed a sigh of relief for you. Because I was able to say to you, ‘Take a day off, you're a human being you need it.’ And I'm glad to hear that you still take that advice to heart. And that is the advice I'm giving students now as well, which is we spend so much time on these applications thinking that we need to celebrate how extraordinary we are but these universities, they're interested in you as a human being, and they just want to bring good people on campus, like good kids, I'm going to say you're gonna use that word very specifically because young people live young lives and they've done things that young people do. And that's and that's what makes us human beings. Right? So they also want to see on your application, what makes you a good kid, what makes you tick, what do you enjoy doing? Like, like they want to see somebody that enjoys spending time with friends and just has an ordinary life as well. So my advice is when we think about authenticity, celebrate what makes you extraordinary, but also celebrate what makes you ordinary. If you can get that on your application, you're going to be far more compelling than somebody that thought what they needed to do was just impress, impress, impress. And when we're working with high achievers, that's a really natural inclination to think they need to impress. So celebrate the ordinary as well as celebrating the extraordinary and I think you're onto a winner.


Alex  

I think that's such a great way to sign off the podcast and hopefully it gives a bit of hope to students everywhere. That there is no perfect application that it really is just you being authentic, and you can celebrate the ordinary in your life, which I think is fantastic advice.