HOW i got INTO a top college with "regular" grades with usd $50k per year as an international student
I felt compelled to write this article for one main reason: Students are not putting in the work from early on to actualize their college goals.
I come into contact with so many students who are smart, with great grades, who have the potential to get into a top school...but who, for whatever reason, have not exerted themselves ENOUGH outside of the classroom to have that "wow factor" for admissions officers. They probably have a couple clubs and a sport to their name, and maybe a leadership position or two. But if you're a "regular" student like me (i.e not a prodigy or "genius"), then you have to understand how to play the game.
In this article, I will share MY story (long before starting College Quo). Before getting into it, I have to say that my story is not, and cannot, be anyone else's story.
I started my high school journey at Campion College. From third form onwards (where I'll start my journey — since those are the relevant years for college), I was a pretty regular student. I didn't know a thing about going to university abroad, and as far as I was concerned, I would be heading off to UWI to study Law when I left 6th form. In either fourth or fifth form, I brought up the idea of going to college abroad to my mother. Knowing that for me as a non-US citizen, the fees would likely be too high for us as a family, she told me that the ONLY way that I would be able to go was to get scholarships — and a lot of money, in scholarships. But the caveat of that situation was that also as a non-Citizen, scholarships & financial aid would be MUCH harder to get.
In order to get lots of $$$ from American colleges as a non-citizen, you have to be spectacular. At a school like Campion, where I felt "regular" amongst some of the most brilliant minds of my generation, I wanted to know how I could compete with these 'top' students. In all honesty, I really was not a spectacular student. My grades were good (3.8 GPA), but not amazing. You know the spectacular ones: the ones who are selected as sub prefects in fourth form, the ones who had perfect GPAs, and who the teachers loved, and who stood out in school with tons of leadership positions, awards, and accolades. I was NOT that person.
I had a few clubs and awards to my name, but nothing spectacular. Outside of Key Club, Debate Club, a few volunteer-stuff, and maybe a sport or two, I had no "wow" factor on my application.
I knew that I would need that "wow" factor.
So, in fourth form, I co-founded Campion's Leo Club Chapter (the youth organization to Lion's Club International) with a friend. That was the start of learning how to strategize for college apps, while pursuing things that I was interested in.
I also got involved in initiatives outside of school (Sailing & Astronomy...that my family was a part of) to boost my college profile. I started a business buying and selling swimsuits, and even tried (and failed) to make them myself.
I studied hard for CSEC, and got 8 ones (I only did 8 subjects). Again, in the world of elite college admissions, 8 ones is nothing spectacular. I don't mean to dismiss getting 8 ones as a "regular" achievement, because it's a fantastic achievement that I was proud of. But the students who get into top colleges? They have 10, 12 and 14 ones. I was not at the top of my game, but I needed to compensate for my lack of 'out of this world' grades with amazing extra curriculars, and later on, a GREAT college essay.
I graduated from Campion with honors. I got no awards and accolades at graduation; I wasn't close to being valedictorian or salutatorian (as I said, I wasn't even a sub-prefect). I was a "regular" smart student.
The students who went to top schools with big scholarships...you know, the the schools with low acceptance rates and large endowments — they were at the top of the game. I was in the middle of it.
I left Campion and went to Hillel for 6th form to do the IB Program. This switch made the biggest difference for me personally. At Hillel I really put myself out there, because I knew exactly what I wanted (to get into a top college, of course). I started 2 clubs and a charity organization, I was Student Council Rep, and got nominated to interview for Head Girl (which I didn't get, but I was automatically a Senior Prefect, so that was nice). Keep in mind that at Campion, I didn't even get chosen to be a sub-prefect. At Hillel, my grades were even better than they were at Campion, and I eventually graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
But before I get to graduation, at Hillel things were getting serious (College Prep wise). I was really confused about the process. I had no idea where to start, or what schools I would be a good fit for, or what schools I could get money from. I turned to online forums like College Confidential, where I took advice from strangers online about my college search LOL. I figured that I would start with schools like Duke, Berkeley, Northwestern and UCLA. This is a screenshot of a post that I made in one of these online forums, during Grade 12 (Lower 6th form) of IB.
After learning that schools like UCLA and Berkeley did not offer financial aid to international students, I immediately took them off of my list. Thanks to the advice of internet strangers!
Then I got some of the best advice that I got through this really confusing process: I needed a balanced college list, and to focus on schools that offer financial aid to international students. OK DONE.
I also have to point out that my goal was not to get into a top college for the brand name. I wanted to go where the money was, quite frankly. Elite colleges have large endowments that translate into more financial aid. Nowadays, I see TONS of students who focus on the brand name. If I ask "Ok but why do you WANT to go to Harvard or MIT?", they have no clue. This is the WRONG approach.
After lots and lots of research, along with the guidance of my college counselors, I chose to focus on top liberal arts colleges, rather than large institutions like the Dukes & UCLAs of the world. I realized that I was more likely to thrive in a smaller environment where I could be a big fish in a small pond; where I could really get to know my professors and they would get to know me; and where I could really make an impact. I applied to schools like Swarthmore, Williams, Middlebury, Pomona, Wesleyan, Bowdoin, Colby, Hamilton, Grinnell, Macalester...and a few others. Getting into these schools were still a long shot (in fact the acceptance rates for all except Grinnell, Macalester and Colby are lower than the acceptance rates for Duke & Northwestern). But I knew that these schools were a better fit for me personally. **If you want to read more about liberal arts colleges, check out this post**
I knew that to get into at least ONE of these schools, I needed to go ALLLL out. I really really wanted it. I literally obsessed over it. Everything for me became about getting into one of these schools (with enough $$$ to be able to go). I took the SAT three times. At that time, the SAT was out of 2400 (instead of 1600 like it is now). The first time I did it, I got 1900 (which would equate to 1260 on the new SAT). WAY too low to even get in to one of these top schools. I studied really hard and got a 2010 (1330 on the new SAT). Still too low. I knew how badly I wanted this, and put serious WORK in. At school I constantly had my SAT book in hand. My "most likely to..." in the Hillel yearbook was "most likely to pass the SATs" (I really wish I was known for something cooler, but alas...). I took the SATs one last time and got a 2100 (about 1400 on the new SAT). It was still a bit low for most of the schools I was applying to, but I sent it my scores in anyway, whether the school was test optional or not.
I got waitlisted at the vast majority of schools that I applied to, except for my safety schools which were Howard University, University of South Florida, and Florida International University. I got significant scholarships from these, but I didn't feel the personal connection to them that I did to the others. These are all amazing schools...but I really wanted a smaller environment. I was waitlisted at Wesleyan, Pomona, Colby, Bates, Grinnell, Skidmore, Macalester, the University of Chicago, Middlebury, Williams, and others. I told myself it came down to financial aid (but wondered if I was good enough). As an international student who needed financial aid, I was in the most competitive category to be in. US citizens who applied for financial aid were prioritized, of course. I was dismayed. I put in so much time, effort, and money to getting into one of these top schools and the best I heard was "maybe".
Then one day as I sat cross legged on my bed at home, I anxiously waited for my Bowdoin decision letter. I was expecting another rejection or waitlist. After all, at the time Bowdoin's acceptance rate was only 12% and I had already been waitlisted at schools that had higher acceptance rates. My chances were low.
Then, confetti appeared on my screen as I opened my decision letter. I screamed and my dad rushed in to ask what was wrong. Everything else that happened is a blur. I'm even smiling so hard right now as I'm writing this and reliving that moment.
At the time, Bowdoin's average SAT score was 2200+, so I was still below-average (my score was a 2100). How did I, as a "below average" international student who needed financial aid get in?
Honestly, I don't know why exactly Bowdoin accepted me...which is why I strongly believe in personal fit. I also got off the waitlist at Grinnell and Macalester, with AMAZING scholarship offers (even better than Bowdoin's offer). After toying with the idea of going to Grinnell, since it would've been more affordable than Bowdoin, I decided against it. Bowdoin flew me up for admitted students weekend, and I fell in love with the school. I haven't regretted my decision to go to Bowdoin one bit.
One thing I always ask my students who want to apply to top schools AND get financial aid (and even more so, if they don't hold a US passport) is "How badly do you actually want this?". If you're not sure, don't do it. You need to be dedicated to the process. You need to make sacrifices. You need to work on 40 drafts of your college essay, along with supplemental essays, getting recommendations, getting top SAT scores, going all out extra-curricular wise, working on financial aid applications, and really....doing the MOST to get that letter of acceptance.
SO ASK YOURSELF - How much do you want this?
Oh, and I hopped back on College Confidential 2 years after my first post, shortly after I began my tenure at Bowdoin.
Someone quickly pointed out that "my logic was off", because the schools that I ended up applying to were "more competitive" than Berkeley and UCLA.
I wrote this article to show you that it IS absolutely possible. Now, getting into these same schools is more competitive than it was when I applied five years ago. Bowdoin's acceptance rate is now 9% (It was 12% when I applied). I wish the system didn't have to be this competitive, but if you REALLY WANT IT then you need to bring your A-game.
Oh, and join College Quo.