Stanford: Standing Out and Getting In
Michael Kim, Stanford
Every December 15th, I am reminded of that fateful day when four years of hard work were validated by a single email that said, “Congratulations!” Before opening the email, I had decided to film my reaction because I wanted to remember the moment. There was a lot of yelling, whooping, and my entire family ended up in my room to celebrate with me. Every now and again, I re-watch the video just for fun, and in addition to pride, I am filled with humility. To feel undeserving is to be falsely modest – but I understand that there is a small margin of luck, fate, call it what you like, that we cannot control. All I could do is my best, while praying that the uncontrollable fall in my favor.
This year, my brother was not admitted to Stanford, and the rejection hurt me although it was indirect. In these moments, it’s easy to be angry, to attempt to find fault in someone’s actions or ignorance. But I know how passionate my brother is about all that he does – and I know a few members of the Stanford Admissions team, who are fantastic people with great discernment. Thus, I arrived at the conclusion that gives me peace: that the small margin of the uncontrollable fell unfavorable, as it sometimes does. My brother will be a stellar student at whichever university he attends, and I’m excited for him.
But all this reminiscing about my college acceptances brings me to reflect upon my time in high school. Whenever I can, I revisit Bellarmine and just feel so at home visiting faculty members. I think to myself, “Here is a place where I was sincerely loved.” Part of me feels that the reason I excelled in high school was this very feeling, knowing that I was in a place where I could safely grow. It was definitely one of the many elements of my high school experience that I am grateful for, and to which I attribute my college acceptance. My youngest brother will most likely be a freshman at Bellarmine next fall, and I’ll share with him these reflections – so he knows both what to expect and what he can do.
First, I built strong relationships with adults. Everywhere I went, I prioritized getting to know the adult in charge. At church, I was very close to my pastor, who later wrote me a recommendation. At school, I got to know the Jesuit fathers, asking them about their amazing lives. A little extra effort goes a long way, and can really pay off because these adults are the ones who make decisions. For example, I happened to meet Ms. Byron, our director of scheduling, on a school retreat. I kept in touch with her by stopping by her office every once in a while, asking her about her kids, and sending her emails for holidays. Of course, these interactions need to be genuine, and these actions were inspired by friendship rather than manipulative intent. But once I had befriended her, I didn’t have to worry about not getting into the popular classes that I wanted to take. Most students are shy or reticent about meeting adults – be the student who can get to know them, joke with them, get excellent advice, and ask them for favors.
Second, I chose quality over quantity in my activities. For me, the extracurricular in which I was most involved was with a program called Amigos de las Americas. Amigos trains and sends high school students to Latin America to live in and work for a small community. We volunteer in local schools and carry out a Community Based Initiative, a project developed based upon the community’s needs and strengths. My involvement with this organization was multi-faceted and consistent, as I think all extracurricular involvement should be. I spent two of my summers as a volunteer, led for two years as a training supervisor, and was trained to become a training director. I had found something I was passionate about, and I took every opportunity I could to increase my impact on the program. This is not to say that I wasn’t involved in myriad activities – but when faced with a choice, I chose depth over breadth.
Finally, I was not afraid to ask for help on my college applications. I took my application writing very seriously, because I understood that my four years of hard work would be condensed into a few pages that would be glanced at by an admissions officer. So of course, every word counts, every moment of your first semester senior year counts. For my common application essay, I started brainstorming in the summer and had written fourteen drafts before I was satisfied. Each of my Stanford essays was edited by an adult whom I respected as a stellar writer/intellect. If you ask early enough, they will make time to read for you. Ask older students you know who got into schools you would like to go to, ask teachers you respected (even if they scare you), and if you can afford it – seek professional editing. I assure you that the essay you write a couple weeks before it’s due with a single revision will be embarrassingly shallow and bland compared to the essay you grappled with for three months with some help.
High school was an amazing four years. I took my classes seriously, but didn’t feel bad about just doing the bare minimum to get the grade in classes I wasn’t particularly interested in. I devoted most of my time to exploits outside the classroom, because that was where my heart was. I had many mentors, and found it incredibly valuable to learn from their experiences and beliefs. I challenged myself by traveling as much as I could, and wanted to get to know myself. I didn’t see the SAT as a stupid test that I had to take, but as a challenging series of puzzles to solve. If I could give my brother a single piece of advice, I’d tell him that he should strive to always be genuinely happy and incredibly busy. Happiness without productivity becomes dull and unfulfilling. If you’re busy doing what you don’t love, you won’t be happy. If either of these things are lacking, change! When you get comfortable, double your efforts in everything you’re doing. Do this and you’ll look back at these four years with a smile.