How I Got Into a Top 20 University
📖 Student Stories
Hi! I'm Daniella (she/her), a rising freshman at Cornell University! I'm a First-Generation Low-Income (FGLI) student and an underrepresented minority (Latina).
While I don't believe statistics are that important in the admissions process anymore, I applied with a 32 ACT and around a 3.9 Unweighted GPA, 4.65 Weighted GPA. I took a rigorous course load in high school, with around 18 AP classes by the end of senior year, but I only took classes that either related to my major or seemed interesting to me. Although I had decent statistics, I didn't do anything outstanding in high school like find a neutron star or win a national competition, and you don't have to either.
I hope to major in either physics or computer science, and love taking part in science outreach organizations and competitions!
🌸 When Should I Start? Junior Year: Spring and Summer
Planning Your College List
While last-minute changes and applications are sure to happen in the process, it is wise to finish your college list sometime in the summer before applications open up! It is important to have a balanced list of schools, all of which you adore and would love to attend.
A healthy list usually has anywhere from 8 to 15 schools. After you stray past 15 schools, time and stress management becomes more difficult and application fees may begin to weigh you down. Additionally, make sure most schools have high graduation rates, fit your budget, and are a social fit.
Things I considered while making my list were: size, academic programs in my major, setting (urban vs rural), clubs for FGLI, and diversity. I eventually settled my list that started at twenty or thirty to a list of ten. Here is my list below, but obviously your list will be different and personal to you:
Lists should be broken down into these three categories and below are the suggestions I followed while making my list.
- Your stats in the 75% percentile or above
- ~60% acceptance rate or higher
- Pick at least 2!
- Most students make their safety schools a local school, but it is not a definite rule
- Ensure these are not only schools you are likely to get into but also schools you can afford
- You can make sure they are affordable by running the NPC (Net Price Calculator) for each school
- Your stats are around the 50% percentile
- Acceptance rates in between reach and safety schools
- Pick around 2-4
- Any school with an acceptance rate below 20% is instantly a reach, no buts!
- Reaches can also be any school where your stats are below the 25th percentile of accepted students
- Don't get too attached and don't let them overwhelm your list
- Make sure these are affordable too! Getting into your dream school and not being able to afford it is not fun 😐.
Asking for Letters of Recommendation
Letters of Recommendation are an often overlooked, crucial part of the college process. Ideally, you should ask in the last month of your junior year, but any time before late September is fine. It is polite to give your recommender at least one to two months to write your letter. I asked my recommenders in early August and sent them detailed information about myself and where I was applying.
I asked my AP Physics teacher and my AP Human Geography teacher because they fulfilled a requirement some schools have: 1 STEM, 1 Humanities. Check the requirements for each of your schools before asking. You don't want to miss out on a school because you asked two humanities teachers instead of one.
- Ask sooner rather than later
- Make a brag sheet!
- Brag sheets are a short, one-page summary of you with information and traits that you want your recommender to include.
- Add deadlines and important information!
- Pick teachers that know you well both as a student and as a person.
- Send some reminders, but do not pester them!
🏃 The Activity List
While the amount of activities and honors you are allowed to list varies from each application platform, all follow a similar format. For reference, the Common App has 10 slots for activities and 5 slots for honors. Some students use all slots, while some only use a few.
Quality over quantity still holds true while you are creating an activity list. Don't write down a club you attended one meeting for but still paid the club dues. I only listed activities I felt impacted me and that I thoroughly contributed to. Some activities I listed were: Science Olympiad, Computer Science Club, and my previous job at a tutoring facility.
Be realistic with your descriptions and hourly estimates, exaggerating will only harm you. Don't freak out about having "lackluster" activities. What is important is that they tell a story about who you are and what you value. Try to focus on activities that relate to your major or activities that you hope to carry on in college.
💭 The Personal Statement
The personal statement is as it states... deeply personal. This essay takes most students the longest, not only because it is usually 650 words, but also because it requires a heavy amount of introspection.
There are various options that the Common App gives you to write about, there is one bound to fit you. If there isn't, well, one of the prompts is to choose your own prompt!
I wrote for the "Identity" prompt because it seemed like the prompt that would allow me to communicate my motivations and life story in the best way. I began brainstorming for the essay over the summer and became more serious about narrowing down a topic in August. If you are struggling with picking a topic, I would recommend writing first drafts for multiple topics to see what sticks. Who knows, maybe you'll be able to reuse parts of those drafts elsewhere.
Never feel like you have to create a "sob story" or sell your trauma. Your worth to these colleges does not have to be tied to your background or upbringing.
I spent the next few months until the end of October editing, editing, and more editing my personal statement. It is important to leave ample room to edit this essay as it will be used for essentially every school you apply to. While I do not recommend peer editing for most essays, it may be useful to show this essay to a trusted friend in order for them to determine if your personality is shining through. Additionally, show them to one or two trusted adults, such as an English teacher or a mentor.
✍️ School Supplements and the Dreaded "Why School" Essay
Each college you will apply to typically has at least one supplemental essay to the personal statement, but the content and length of these essays vary greatly.
I began this treacherous journey by copying each prompt into a massive document in order to have everything in one place. The wonderful, wonderful fact about supplements is that schools tend to repeat prompts. A lot. Having them all in one place definitely speeds up the copy-paste bonanza you are bound to have.
Cornell University only has one supplemental essay, but it is 650 words. It is a combination of a "Why Us" and a "Why Major" essay. Meaning you should not only discuss why you wish to go to the school but also why you wish to pursue your major there.
Quick Tips for Why Us Essays
- It's not just about them, it's about you. Show what you can bring to the school and their organizations.
- Be specific! Is there a cool class you want to take? An awesome research lab? Mention it! But be detailed, so it doesn't seem like you just pulled a sentence from their website.
- Don't mention silly things like the weather, the city, or their mascot. It's a waste of words and makes you seem superficial.
- Show them you belong there and fit into the campus community by interweaving your values and aspirations into how the school can help you achieve your goals.
💸 QuestBridge and the FGLI Experience
QuestBridge is a program designed for "high achieving" low-income students to receive a "full-ride" from one of their 45 college partners. Typically, students who succeed in the program have a household income of less than $65,000 per four people. They additionally are in the top 5-10% of their class, have ACT/SAT scores above 27/1280, and most are first-generation students. This program has helped many FGLI students get into their dream schools, but has benefits and drawbacks.
Never, never let someone tell you that you don't belong. You deserve all your success and none of it is a result of your background or things you cannot control. You did this.
- Amazing community online and in-person
- More word-space on essays, personal statement is 800 words
- Most generous financial aid package from each of the college partners, usually no loans
- Lots of room to explain extenuating circumstances and family responsibilities
- Not a real "full-ride", the financial aid package for the school would be the same with or without the program since all partner schools are "full need met" institutions
- Early early deadline in September
- Matching to a school is binding
- Limited amount of colleges in the program
🧘 Stress, Time Management, and Dealing with Rejection
This process is incredibly taxing on everyone involved, and getting stressed out is incredibly easy. Every person handles stress differently, but I enjoyed hanging out with my friends after a long day of writing or going out on long drives listening to music. Try to schedule some time out of each day to do something you enjoy, even if it seems like 30 minutes less on an essay will be the end of the world.
As an FGLI student, it may seem like there is immense pressure to get into not only college but a prestigious institution. Give yourself room to breathe, you are not obligated to get into Harvard to make your family and country proud. Applying to college is an achievement in itself.
Another stress prevention technique is perfecting your time management skills. Some people work best with online To-do lists on their phone or on Notion/Google Calendar, while others need a hefty planner with detailed time blocks. Try different styles of planning and see which fits the busy life you lead the most!
Along with stress and the struggles of time management, you may also have to deal with rejection or the fear of rejection. It is a part of the process that is difficult to get over, especially if you were attached to a specific school. It takes time to heal from a rejection, but the blow may not be as rough if you are truly in love with each school on your list, even your safeties.
You will get through this process, and no matter the results, you will be able to move forward and hopefully attend college. You don't need to get into a top-anything to be successful and happy. Prestige is nice but not everything.
I hope my experiences were able to propel you forward in this process. Good luck!