Top of the Class

#4 How I Got In - Duke and UCL Admit Talks Managing US & UK Applications and Starting a Drone Club

May 12, 2021 Crimson Education Season 1 Episode 4
Top of the Class
#4 How I Got In - Duke and UCL Admit Talks Managing US & UK Applications and Starting a Drone Club
Top of the Class
#4 How I Got In - Duke and UCL Admit Talks Managing US & UK Applications and Starting a Drone Club
May 12, 2021 Season 1 Episode 4
Crimson Education

UK student, Wayne, was recently admitted to Duke and UCL among others and has committed to Duke. We talk about his Common App essay of a memory involving ice cream, starting a drone club and a biochemistry ethics debating competition and why he chose Duke.

Show Notes Transcript

UK student, Wayne, was recently admitted to Duke and UCL among others and has committed to Duke. We talk about his Common App essay of a memory involving ice cream, starting a drone club and a biochemistry ethics debating competition and why he chose Duke.

Podcast Host  00:05

Hi everyone. Welcome to another episode of the How I Got In podcast as part of the Top of the Class podcast of course. I'm delighted to be joined by Wayne all the way from London. Are you based in London, Wayne?

Wayne  00:30

I am I go to school just outside London at a boarding school, but I'm currently at home in Surrey.

Podcast Host  00:39

Well, it's great you're available and we've made the time zones work. And we've made it all work, which is fantastic. Wayne, welcome to the show. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Wayne  00:49

Yeah, sure. Hi, everyone. My name is Wayne. I am a sixth form student at Harrow School in London, UK. And I've been boarding for the past 10 years. So I've been in an all boys boarding school since I was eight. I moved over to this country originally from China, back when I was eight. And yeah, I've lived here since in terms of academics, I am taking I'm doing the a level curriculum. And I'm taking four levels at the moment. So triple science and maths. And I'm predicted a stars in all four of them. And in terms of sports, I'm a big rugby fan. So watching, I'm playing as well as I play squash in my free time as well. And talking about my free time, I like to I like building drones in my free time as well as just to tinker with a bit of engineering as well.

Podcast Host  01:42

Fantastic building drones is something that I didn't think many students could do unless like you had all the access to all the equipment and parts. How do you come across all that?

Wayne  01:52

Yeah, so we Yeah, that's very true. You know, to build a drone, you do need quite a lot of equipment and parts and quite specialized parts. So when I got to her back when I was 13, I realized we didn't have any of those. So I started the school's drone society, and sort of requested and reached out for funding. And slowly but surely, we built up an arsenal of equipment and parts, you know, specialized parts for drone society. And you're now we started during society with three members. And now we're up to about 35, with weekly meetings and lessons and lectures, often aimed at getting younger kids to get in that doorstep to like, sort of introduce them into the world of engineering and drones. And then they can use drones society as a place of discussion and as a stepping stone for their own endeavors.

Podcast Host  02:44

Wow, that's awesome. So I'm going to guess that was one of your main extracurriculars that you use when applying to the US, and you also apply to the UK. But let's go with the US first and foremost as you have as we just talked OFF AIR committed to Duke University, which is awesome. So going through that application process to the US and extracurricular profile wise and everything else. Was it mainly engineering, drone society has been like the main thrust of your application. Were there other elements?

Wayne  03:13

Um, there was there were definitely other elements. I think I had a pretty I kept myself pretty busy just even before thinking about applications. You know, I there was a lot going on at school. But I say my main extracurricular was a bioethics competition, which I coined two, two and a bit years ago now. And it was a debating competition focused in bioethics between the different schools around how the different states called around our school, and it was a community outreach focused program. So sort of giving opportunities to students who may not have had the debating experience and chance to debate into addressing sort of topical bioethical questions that might not be touched upon in class.

Podcast Host  04:01

Right, and so bioethical questions could be like, Is it right to clone someone? Or, you know, these kinds of things? Right?

Wayne  04:09

Yeah. So I mean, we, we had a board of sort of the school biology society, we sat down and thought about the emotions that we could use. And some of them we came up with, you know, there were some sensitive topics or eugenics. And specifically, then there were also topical topics like the COVID vaccine, and the vaccine distribution and all that stuff. But there were also more sort of hypothetical questions like, I remember one motion was, this, this House believes that we should not be able to live forever, even if we had the choice to and the ethical implications of being able to be, you know, become essentially immortal. So those are some very, very interesting topics that, you know, the boys and the girls get into very heated discussions about

Podcast Host  04:52

so when you were applying to the US if you could sum up your kind of Wayne is a student who is this This this in this like a couple of different elements to your application. How do you think the admission officers ended up reviewing your application as

Wayne  05:08

I think I would say Wayne is a passionate and multifaceted shouldn't in terms of with many diverse interests and a specific focus on sport and debating.

Podcast Host  05:22

Okay, so rugby was like a big part of your application you feel as well?

Wayne  05:28

Yeah, I definitely think I mean, rugby is a big part of what I do to sort of keep myself balanced in terms of academia. And, you know, rugby is what I use to form lots of friendships, you know, and a lot of my socializing goes comes from rugby, as well, as you know, that takes my mind off things of the academic pressure. And that's how I balance this sort of work play lifestyle.

Podcast Host  05:49

Yeah, yeah. Well, it's an interesting application to have that biochemistry and rugby. Usually the two don't go together, I guess. I mean, generalizing. I used to play rugby as well. But generalizing against rugby players, they may be your back not afford, what position? Do you play?

Wayne  06:04

I actually play flanker. ,

Podcast Host  06:06

Okay that's somewhere in between. So we'll give you a pass on that one. But yeah, so it's interesting application. But where are you applying for sports scholarships at all in the US? Because I know a couple of schools do it. No. Okay. Not at all. And so it's mainly just on the academic route. And you apply to a couple of schools in the US, you ended up getting into Duke, you've committed to Duke, what are you looking forward to most about studying there?

Wayne  06:29

Oh, I am looking forward to the sort of sense of community that Duke has, you know, that's what really drew me. I remember getting in and, you know, I was so excited getting in but the, you know, an hour after I had the letter of acceptance, you know, there was a welcome party on zoom, obviously, you know, I can't fly over. But you know, there's a welcome party and the whole event, everyone was very excited and very friendly. And it was sort of like I had been invited into this and absorbed into this family to this community that was buzzing with life. So you know, just talking to people, I guess that's what I'm most excited about, and sort of getting to know that background and what they're there for and what they want to study or what they want to do, and all that stuff. Yeah.

Podcast Host  07:11

Is it a pretty usual path for students at Harrow to head to the US?

Wayne  07:15

I would say about, so we're a school of about 160 boys per year. So about 800 boys over the five years. And I would say about 50 of us head off each year to the US that number is growing with our recent success in the US universities. And I'd say we send about two or three to Duke each year.

Podcast Host  07:36

Okay, fantastic. You've got a couple of mates there. But it's going to be meeting a whole lot of new people from all around the world. I know there's a couple of students from Australia who have headed across to Duke. And it's a really fantastic community. So I'm sure you really love it there. But let's talk a little bit about your your essays as well, because obviously, that's a crucial part. And something that I've been discussing with other students on these calls, is the idea that at these top universities, academics, extracurriculars, all pretty much across the board very strong. And at some point, it's the essay that starts differentiating candidates, in a sense. So what did you end up writing on? And what was that brainstorming process like for you?


I think actually write essays were probably the hardest part of my application, you know, the most difficult and the thing that I spent the most time on, I had a difficult time brainstorming. And I was stuck between two, two main ideas. But I eventually, I eventually wrote on the topic of ice cream, Ashley, as my main common app essay, I love it. And I linked that to a memory that I had of my first flight. outside of China, coming to incoming over to England, I remember, it was 3am in the morning, and I was, I was a and I was sitting there and I was eating some Haagen Daz strawberry ice cream. And that sort of I was in the air and not knowing what was ahead of me, but I was, you know, the excitement was there. And I sort of compare that to where I am now and sort of looking forward into college and that excitement as well. And sort of seeing and I use the essay as a way an ice cream as a way of transitioning, saying how the ice cream has stayed the same, you know, all these years, but you know, I the, you know, me who is eating at the time is completely different to who I am now. And, you know, all the changes along the way and all the you know, all the experiences that I've had.

Podcast Host  09:29

Well, that's such a interesting essay topic. And I can understand that it took a while to brainstorm to it because when I'm thinking about writing a personal essay, it doesn't really jump out at me to take an essay topic that from when I was like eight years old. So when you're working with your Crimson strategist, you need some convincing or if they need some convincing as to this being the right topic for you.


I definitely needed some convincing I am I think, you know, I remember my first meeting with Chima, my essay strategist, my writing specialist, he, you know, he was asking me these things trying to get to know me a little bit more, and asking these very sort of direct questions, some of the, you know, things that I haven't really thought about and things that I really needed to slow down and be like, Whoa, like, I need to think about this. And, you know, like, it did, it did get pretty emotional. The first time I talked about this stuff, and you know, because it was something that I had, you know, buried in the back of my mind, something I'd never really thought about, never really had time to think about. So, I think I definitely needed some convincing to let myself speak out about this stuff, and, you know, sort of opened up about my experiences. Because it wasn't, you know, it wasn't a smooth ride all the way from a, I came here with no English background. So, you know, speaking a single word of English, and then I was, you know, obviously straight into boarding school. So, that transition process wasn't easy. And it's not something that, you know, I go back to very often in my mind, so I it was definitely challenging, but I think it was overall very positive, though, you know, my essay.

Podcast Host  11:07

Yeah, fantastic. I always find it fascinating for students who are writing a very personal essay topic with someone, right? Or like, with the support or with the feedback of someone who I guess, you know, even though you've had a couple conversations, you essentially don't know all that well. So it's a bit of like a trust factor, that this person is going to kind of hold these personal stories and treat them with respect, because they mean a lot to you. And hopefully, they mean a lot to them as well, in terms of that kind of feedback back and forth draft re draft type of scenario. What was that all like? Because for me, I always find that I'd be a little bit defensive, if I was telling my own story.

Wayne  11:45

Oh, yeah. No, Chima was great. drass redrafts. I think that was definitely quite a lot of changes. In the first couple drafts, I think the main common essay went through nothing sure of nine drafts, like gladly read this, you know, the main topic, the main idea stay the same. But uh, you know, it was a very, very rough, let's say, you know, it was a very rough diamond, the very start, you know, but, you know, with these drafts and redrafted his comments, I made changes, and then, you know, I sort of counted his comments, he'd query this, I would sort of answer it and sort of resolve his queries. And over time, you know, it became what it is now. And I'm proud of it.

Podcast Host  12:25

Yeah, fantastic. Which is, I guess, at the end of the day, if you can look at it and say that you're proud of it, then that's the main thing. So that was your common app essay. But you also had to write a couple of your supplementary essays as well, which I think is always an interesting opportunity for universities to get to know the candidates better. Did you come across any like curveball questions, many of the colleges that you applied to that you made that potentially made you think, like this university is more for me, because of the questions that they're asking.

Wayne  12:56

Yeah, I definitely. There were definitely some curveballs. I think mainly juice ones were relatively easy, actually. Well, relatively straightforward. There was only one option one compulsory one of why Duke. So that was quite straightforward. Yep. And then two compulsory, optional ones, of which I did one of shower perspective, shares something that you that's changed your perspective, I think. And that was quite straightforward as well. I think the most interesting one I had was, it was about it was a short response questions. So I think Yale had the 3200 character ones, where it would ask you, you had to teach like a course at Yale, what would your course be called? And give details of your course? And what would you teach? and Princeton had things like what brings you joy? And those, you know, on the surface, that that thing that looks quite easy, you know, watching Netflix or whatever, like that, that was quite a straightforward question. But when you really think about it, it becomes it becomes a lot more complicated. And then you start diving into it. And, you know, you want to write a lot of things, but you've only got about 50 words. So that is definitely a you know, those were definitely challenging. And I think, you know, one of the most challenging ones, one of the longer ones was also Princeton's when it asks you to share a time when you had a conversation with a person about a difficult topic, and how you dealt with that, and how you incorporated the knowledge from that conversation into your into into the future. So that was very, that was, you know, pretty thought provoking.

Podcast Host  14:34

Yeah, well, I guess they're trying to create a harmonious community, but a community that grows together in a sense, and I think every college has that goal, essentially. So a question like that is probably angled at that. But I'm interested in the Why Duke one, because I know it's quite simple and straightforward, but a lot of people, I think, struggle with some of these essay topics and they're quite pervasive. Across all the universities, a lot of universities ask the why this unit Question. So what approach Did you take to it? And I asked that because earlier you said it was very community focused after you got in. Yeah, this is before you got in, right? This is in the application stage. So at that stage, you didn't really know too much, perhaps about the community side of things. So what was your angle in that Why Duke essay?

Wayne  15:20

So I started the Why Duke Essay, I had a little bit of affiliation with Duke. So over the summer, the year before I applied to college, I worked with a research group at Yale, a bio engineering research group. And we wrote a review paper that's currently under review and about to be published at active biomaterials. And actually, the, the main source, the professor that was at the sort of front, bleeding edge of this technology, technological research was at Duke. So I reached out to him over the summer, and we're sort of we sort of had a conversation, and I really wanted to get to know him a little bit more and see, you know, see him teach and see him, you know, because he taught classes at Duke. So that was my I sort of started off that that was my way in, I think. And on top of that, my,one of the previous graduates at Harrow, one of my friends, who graduated three years earlier before me, who was in the exact same position as me, you're applying to the UK and applying to the US actually got in and went to Duke and instead at Duke right now, so I reached out to him before applying and sort of, you know, talk to him about the community spirit and all that stuff. And, you know, I read up about all these crazy events that you would do, you know, tenting, outside of the basketball stadium for eight weeks at a time, that sort of stuff. So while I that didn't necessarily get a real feel about, you know, the, about the people in the real community, I definitely sort of sensed it, whether that is on their website, or talking to David, my, my friend who's already there, you know, a Duke alum, I definitely sense the community. And that's what I focused on.

Podcast Host  17:03

Fantastic. Well, yeah, that's always good to have a bit of a insight from alarm, etc, to the university, which is awesome. Let's talk a little bit about the UK because undertaking two applications to two countries that are renowned for like the two most in depth applications that you can possibly do, either the US or the UK is a challenge. So what made you decide to put your hat in both camps and and try and make sure that you had as many applications out as possible? And at any point, did you think this is not worth it? I'd rather just commit to one or the other.

Wayne  17:37

Yeah, I, I decided to apply to the US after a summer program at Yale after doing spending two weeks a year or during the year Young Global Scholars Program in 2019. where, you know, that was my first exposure to us University style teaching, and you know, how it works in the campus and all that stuff. And I really liked it, I was a, you know, I went into this summer program, not completely oblivious of what the US style of teaching and university style was like, and I loved it, you know, I had the best two weeks of my time of my life. So from that point onwards, I sort of decided that I was going to put in a couple of us applications just for the, you know, I aimed high for the US and had the UK, you know, as sort of, I wouldn't say a backup option, but definitely a safety net that to carry me if things didn't work out in the States. And by applying to Oxford, obviously, Oxford requires a early us, you know, submission, as well as interview preparation and stuff like that. So that was definitely difficult. But I think, you know, I got ahead of it, I made sure that when it came to crunch time for Oxford, all my us stuff was done. And when you know, when it was really crunch time for us, and you know, writing essays, Oxford will be within a walled off. So I still had time to juggle the two together. So I think, was it stressful at times? Yes, I think so. As you know, as the deadlines drew closer and closer, but I think these two applications are actually quite well spaced apart. If you manage your time as well, and start early enough that you you know, you definitely have time to apply to both. I think it's definitely doable.

Podcast Host  19:17

Was it an agonizing decision then to kind of weigh up your UK options and Duke and be like, oh, who where am I going to go? It wasn't an easy option for you to be like, I'm definitely going to Duke?

Wayne  19:28

Oh, yeah. It was definitely very difficult for me to weigh up University College London and Duke University. You know, since both the great universities and you know, both a top of their field are what they do. But in the end, you know, there are pros and cons to both universities, you know, going to Duke would be you know, completely uprooting my life and moving to another country, you know, it'd be all new and I'd have to start from scratch essentially, whereas London is only about half an hour. way. So, you know, it was very familiar. And I, you know, I've been in this country for 10 years. But at the same time, I decided to go to Duke because I wasn't exactly sure on biomedical engineering or biomedical sciences, I'm sorry. You know, I know I like this sort of stuff. And I like, and I'd like to pursue a career somewhere medicine related. But University sort of had the game the options gave me options to try other things and the potential to switch around and the potential to be more flexible, I guess. And also with the opportunity to apply to med school, where as I wouldn't get that at UCL, I would have to apply for postgraduate medicine, which in the UK is very, very rare, whereas in the US, it's very common.

Podcast Host  20:49

Yeah, I love that you had that forward planning aspect. Like it's not just about your immediate undergrad, it's about what comes next, potentially? And what are your chances on either side to make that happen and that swayed you towards Duke? So that's clever thinking, did you end up discussing that with your strategist at all? Or do you make the decision on your own?

Wayne  21:08

No, I just I ended up discussing it with my parents quite extensively talking to professor's of both universities and you know, trying to figure out the logistical things and see see if going to Duke was even logistically possible with visas and fees and everything like that. But no, we made that decision sort of in house. It was quite a tight schedule as I was going back to school and everything. So yeah.

Podcast Host  21:32

Yeah, had to kind of scramble there a little bit. But I think you've made a very sound decision for sure. For students who are about to go through this application process, either the US or the UK, what advice would you give them based on your experiences?

Wayne  21:46

Start early, I think, and I think you should sort of do your research whenever you can. So whenever you get a spare moment, even if it's 10 minutes, five minutes, just have a read of you know, where you want to go the programs you want to do sort of the extracurriculars and the clubs and societies that each university offers. And write your essays early, you know, start thinking about what you're going to write constantly, you never know, when an idea is going to pop into your head, I remember, I just finished work for Oxford, for prepping for an Oxford interview one night, and it was very late, it was about 2am, I was just in the shower, and an idea popped in one of the essays. So I cut my shower short and jumped out of the shower and rushed back to write for another, like, an hour and a half. And, you know, there it was, there was a draft of the essay. So I think, you know, having having that stuff constantly on your mind is, is good, I recommend that just because you never know when an idea is going to pop into your mind. And as with writing, I would say, again, start early, there is an awful lot to write for the US compared to the UK. And it sort of creeps up on you, you think you have time. And suddenly, you know, you have like five essays to write in a week. And, you know, I always think leave yourself a little bit a margin of error with these things. But yeah, and one tip about writing is just write honestly, you know, you know yourself best. And you know, you can talk, talk about yourself and write about yourself the best when you're telling the truth. And you're really talking about yourself as a character, rather than making up facts or whatever. So I think the admission is can definitely tell when you're being truthful. And even if it's, you know, something embarrassing or something not not so glamorous. I think they appreciate the honesty.

Podcast Host  23:40

Yeah, 100%. And I think it's upon students to not fall into the trap of rehashing the highlights of their life or their resume or whatever it might be. And actually just speaking honestly, to try and let the admissions officers know like who you are really, they're not just like your achievements because the achievements have their moment in the application, no doubt. But the essay is the chance to really kind of bare your soul a little bit and and see if you're a good fit for the university. But even though it's some fantastic advice, and while I'm wishing you all the best of luck when you go to Duke, thank you for giving us a bit of an insight into your academics, although we didn't touch on the SAT, did you do that? 

Wayne  24:19

I took the ACT I took the twice I and Duke super scores. So I was super scored up to 34. This was right before so I took the ACT very early as well. So right before the pandemic hit, so I was lucky enough to have a score and get that out the way before everything sort of shut down.

Podcast Host  24:37

Yeah, yeah. And that's, that's a good tactic there for sure. Particularly with curfews, hip knee happening like that was the only way to go about it. Really. Yeah. But anyway, wind it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the show and discussing all things applications to both the US and the UK. wishing you all the best of luck in the US and enjoy the last couple of months there in the UK. Hopefully things Stay COVID normal as most as you know, as much as possible. And yeah, you get over there to check for some in person classes, hopefully.

Wayne  25:08

Hopefully so.