Issue 39: How one of us got into USC, plus the true worthiness of selling yourself for a stellar resume

A super special exclusive: an interview with one of us! SocratesPost reader and senior at the International School of Lusaka in Zambia dishes on how he beat the college admissions mania this year to get into USC for mechanical engineering! In this never-before-published interview, Krishna divulges the college essay he wish he didn’t write, his most effective online resources for DIY college admissions, and how he upped his SAT score from 1210 to 1460. Aspiring engineers and international students will want to read this.

Exclusive Insider Interview: USC admit from Zambia

Mercy at SocratesPost: Krishna, tell me a little bit about yourself and your background to begin with.

Krishna at USC: My name is Krishna Bisani and I’m 17 years old. For most of my life, I’ve lived in a country called Zambia in a city called Lusaka. But I was born in India and I did live there for five years. And I did a program called the International Baccalaureate. I have no experience with AP and stuff like that.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, tell me what got you interested in doing the IB program?

Krishna at USC: Well, it wasn’t really anything that got me interested. It was really was more like the best option available out of the things offered here. It was either that or the British A levels. And I liked IB better because it offered more subjects for me to choose from. For A levels, there’s usually between three and four subjects. And with IB, I can do six and they have a variety of subjects to choose from: the arts, computer science, a lot of things that broaden your horizons.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Looking back at your high school experience, what IB classes did you take?

Krishna at USC: So I took mathematics at the higher level, physics at the high level and business management at the high level and for my standard level courses, I took chemistry, French, and English.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How did your experience in your IB courses help you develop interest in your college major, mechanical engineering?

Krishna at USC: I feel like more than the subjects themselves, the teachers that I had were really great. And they motivated me to pursue engineering and the major, which is a major I applied for because my math teacher is a really, really great teacher. She’s taught everything that I needed really well. And our physics professor has a 30 years of experience with physics and 20 years as a teacher. He really got me interested in looking mechanics and quantum physics. So I just naturally progressed into engineering, but, you know, things may change if I can find something that is more interesting. I’m open to change.

Mercy at SocratesPost: How would you describe your high school? In terms of academics, the student population, the culture, all that if someone had no idea what your high school is like, what would you describe? What would you use to describe it?

Krishna at USC: The first two words that come to my mind are welcoming and diverse. Our school has students from 63 countries. We have staff from everywhere. There’s about 650 students overall, and it’s not really a high school; it has primary, nursery all the way to high school. In my class, there are 25 of us. That’s pretty small compared to American standards, but it allows us to get to know everyone get to know our teachers really well and make some good friends.

And at the end of the day, I think it’s the place where we can thrive if we want to because the teachers are very supportive of us. They’ve been doing this for the past 70 years or so. Our school has some good heritage.

Mercy at SocratesPost: I was curious because your school has students from 63 different countries and staff also from everywhere. How is your school integrated with the local community?

Krishna at USC: The majority of the population of the school are Zambian students. It’s spot on in the middle of the city. They don’t really advertise. The way that is integrated into the Lusaka community is probably through the service that the school does. Community service is compulsory the moment you enter middle school through high school: helping out the community in different ways from fundraising, to actually going and teaching, to just having students come over to our school and teaching them here.

We make sure that we’re not isolating ourselves from the community, just not being detached and making sure to show that we care. I feel like we truly do.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Overall, what’s your high school’s attitude toward college?

Krishna at USC: There’s no real general consensus or anything like that, but everyone in my class is indeed going to university. We’re pretty small class of 25. And if you didn’t want to go to college, then no one would stop you from doing it. At the end of the day, there’s no emphasis on you have to go to a really good university that it’s really sort of best to use your own decision wherever you want to go. If you want to aim for the top, you can, but if you just want to go to college where you think you’ll be happy, they’re perfectly fine with that. And they’re probably going to be even more supportive of us. Because at the end of the day, they just want us to be happy.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Do you feel like there’s any sort of unsaid pressure for students to perform in a certain way at your school?

Krishna at USC: I don’t think there’s pressure. There’s expectations for sure. Like, our class was one of the best in recent years. So they expect us to meet the standards that they have their eyes. But in terms of pressure, I don’t think there’s any pressure. The teachers are just very kind in general; they will they will help us to succeed. And if we don’t, they’re very supportive of that as well. I mean, obviously, they’re not going to be happy. But at the end of the day, I can’t really say that there was pressure at all. If there’s any pressure sort of self inflicted.

Mercy at SocratesPost: It seems like a supportive community. There’s a sense of closeness because of how small the classes are. Great to know that. So when did you start thinking about colleges?

Krishna at USC: I’ll say probably freshman year.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay. And when you were thinking about colleges, what were your thoughts focused on?

Here’s a preview of the rest of our conversation! Subscribe to read the rest and support our ad-free newsletter.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Was that when you spent the summer at Columbia University in New York?

Mercy at SocratesPost: OK, so you went to Cambridge, and then the year after was when you went to Columbia. So you actually started thinking about college pretty early, because you wanted to try out different campuses, as a high schooler. What resources did you use to do that research?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Why was it that you preferred American universities?

Mercy at SocratesPost: When you finally decided to study in America, how did you narrow down your list of colleges?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Which 19?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Was it that you decided on these 19 and then you started the application? Or was it maybe you started the application on several of them and as you went along, you added more and more to your list?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Which app was the most difficult for you?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Why do you say that?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Interesting. Okay. Are you comfortable sharing what your essay was about?

Krishna at USC: No problem. I’m going to read the prompt out. “In 2015, the City of Melbourne, Australia created a tree mail service in which all the trees in the city received an email address so that the residents can report any tree related issues. As an unexpected result, people began to email their favorite trees, sweet and occasionally humorous. Imagine this being expanded to any objects (tree or otherwise) in the world, and share the letter you’d send to your favorite.”

I wrote my letter to a…

Mercy at SocratesPost: I love it. So I think that’s very intriguing. And it has some cultural commentary and sociological commentary. And it was interesting, because you said that looking back, it wasn’t the smartest decision. What made you think that after submitting, it wasn’t the smartest decision?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, I guess it’s tough to ever know these things, because they can’t possibly give feedback to every single applicant. So speaking of essays, how did you start your essay writing process? And what types of resources that you use?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, that makes sense. And what is your essay writing process? Is it like some people will draw out an outline, some people will just start writing a draft and see what happens. Some people will revise as they’re writing a draft. How do you write?

Mercy at SocratesPost: How long do you think it took for you from beginning to end to write all your essays?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Some people find the essays are the hardest part of college apps. What do you think is the hardest part for you?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Why’s that?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Oh, okay. So it sounds like where you go to school, standardized testing is not a typical way to evaluate students. Because IB program uses logic and reasoning to evaluate as opposed to picking A, B, C, or D for the right answer.

Mercy at SocratesPost: All right. So tell me about that process. You said that you had to take the SAT 4 times. Did you take a diagnostic test?

Krishna at USC: Yeah, I did a practice test on…

Mercy at SocratesPost: What do you think contributed to you improving so much with each test?

Mercy at SocratesPost: If a student who’s about to take the SAT asked you, “hey, Krishna, what is the number one thing I should be paying attention to?” What would you tell them?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, I remember that at one point, you told me your scores went up to a 1460, which is phenomenal.What did you start with?

Krishna at USC: 1270, something like that.

Mercy at SocratesPost: Is there anything else that any other advice or knowledge that you want to impart to your students?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, that’s great. When you were studying for the test, or at least getting familiar with the test, what was the most helpful resource to you?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Got it. What part of the college application process surprised you the most?

Mercy at SocratesPost: How did the fact that so many other applicants were applying to these colleges affect you?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Yes, I see. During your process, before you submitted applications, did you make any connections with admissions counselors or people who worked in the admissions office?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Got it. When you talk about these forums, which forum did you use a lot?

Mercy at SocratesPost: Okay, so what did you do during that waiting time after you submitted apps and before you heard back?

Stay tuned for the remainder of our interview with Krishna!

Dear Socrates Q&A

This week, we selected a question from Ann, a parent in Boston, Massachusetts:

“Selling yourself to top universities with an amazing resume is incredibly stressful. Is it worth it? Legacies playing a huge part of admissions makes for very few real spots.”

As a journalist, I’ve conducted comprehensive interviews with some of the best and brightest admissions insiders. Through these conversations, I’ve developed a sense of what really matters to them. After many interviews, I’ve noticed a common theme among all of them when I ask questions like “what’s your best piece of advice?” and “what’s the biggest misunderstanding about getting into your college?” They’re not collaborating on these answers, but oddly enough, they’re implying the same thing:

No. Selling yourself for an amazing resume is not worth it.

Instead, here are the two efforts I believe admissions pros think an applicant can make that are worth it.

1. Spend time showing interest in that specific school instead.

When I was a college consultant, I used to tell my clients that college admissions is like dating. Of course you have to meet your potential partner’s minimum criteria (a.k.a. your college’s basic admission requirements), but aside from that, despite how you might play hard-to-get games together, you’ll eventually want to be with the one who is most interested in you.

Colleges are competing for students and they want to accept those who are head over heels in love with them.

Want advice?

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SocratesPost is always on the frontlines scouring the news for relevant updates in the college admissions landscape. We look for anything that can help shape our understanding of the latest trends in admissions and help our readers see the direction in which we’re moving. Questions we explored this week:

  • The SAT scorers made a mistake on the May exam and test takers’ scores ended up lower. Where did the answer key mess up?
  • This top public university will add an Early Decision option — due Oct. 15 — starting this year. Which one is it?
  • This elite school was a pilot school to receive SAT adversity scores. What does the score dashboard look like? Look here.

Get answers below.

June 3, 2019 — The math section

A group of students who took the May 2019 SAT exam were notified that their scores went up. The answer key for one of the math problems did not include all the possible correct answers and incorrectly logged their scores. Affected students’ scores could have gone up at least 10 points.

What does this mean? Even SAT answer keys are imperfect and students are at the whim of these rare, but possible human errors. At least College Board was honest about the mistake and took steps to rectify it.