“Although, yes, the athletic personal statement essay is kind of general, mine was unique, because I centered mine around the fact that I am a go-getter. When I was 16, I knew exactly what I wanted: I wanted to move here to Colorado and train at the Olympic Training Center,” says Camden Pulkinen, a Columbia University admit, world record holder, and Team USA figure skater. Despite Bs and Cs on his transcript, Camden was one of the 3.7% of applicants accepted by Columbia this year.
This week, the internationally recognized skater competing for a seat in the Olympics shares:
- How to make “finding a passion” for college less stressful and more rewarding
- Why his parents treated him differently from his salutatorian sister and how that led to his achievements
- Why an attitude of nonchalance is key to successful college admissions
Thanks so much for joining us, Camden! Can you tell us about your background and your high school experience?
I lived in Arizona until I was 16, and I always was a figure skater. It’s really unique being a figure skater from the desert; it was the atypical identity that I really resonated with. When I was 16, I got assigned my first international competition for figure skating. Throughout high school, I was in and out of high school because I was always competing. I don’t remember my GPA at this point, but I was averaging around Bs, Cs, and a few As here and there. I definitely was not succeeding. For context, my sister, who has already graduated from UCLA, was always top of the class. She was salutatorian of our class of 1000 people. She was ridiculously smart, and she always got As.
I knew that my purpose in life is skating, so at 16 I moved to Colorado Springs. I dropped everything and moved to Colorado Springs, and I switched to an online format of the same high school I went to. It was a big change, because I came out here and I was 16. Most people leave the nest and go to college at 18, but I left at 16, and I was making all the mistakes, just messing around. I came here, graduated high school, and I ended up taking the ACT once because I knew I would stay in Colorado Springs for training. I got a 29, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to UCCS,” which is the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, so I didn’t feel the need to take the ACT again although I would have liked to. There was no need; I wasn’t going to apply to any top schools. I was very highly focused on skating.
I earned my national medal, I set a few world records, I won a bunch of competitions. I was excelling in skating, but my school and just my overall academics were suffering. I remember that back in junior high school, I really was this great student, so it’s not like I didn’t have it in me; I just was so hyper-focused on skating that I didn’t leave any room for academics. It’s very common for people to drop school for skating.
The classes I was taking at the University of Colorado were challenging, but I was coasting by. I always went part time, so I did two or three classes every semester. Over the last three years, I was like, “Okay, I kind of want to see what else there is to life rather than just skating.”
How did you choose Columbia?
I didn’t apply to all the Ivies; I only applied to three, and I really applied to the ones that I felt aligned with my goals. I applied to Columbia because it was in New York City, and I really felt like it’s the finance center of the world. Location mattered. I never really lived in a city, so I selected places that were a little more near a city and would not just push me academically but also push me as a person and change who I am. I remember a really impactful sentence I used in my personal statement, something like: “I now crave that same craving I had when I was 16 to further myself, just like I wanted to in skating.”
A lot of people think you need to have a connection with an admissions officer to get into a school like Columbia. What was your experience with that?
I knew a lot of people that go to the school or are alumni, so I was really lucky to have one of my friends, an alumnus, connect me to his admission officer who helped him get in. She really helped me, and it was nice to have that one-on-one commitment. Also, Columbia has had two great Olympic athletes, figure skaters, that have attended the school: Tim Goebel and Sasha Cohen. Actually, Sasha Cohen was Olympic champion. So luckily, the skating community is really tight-knit, and I had the access to talk to them.
Although it may be a little awkward, my best advice to someone is just to do the work that’s not the essays. Do those extra things. Contact someone, even if they’re a second or third connection on LinkedIn; just shoot that message. Anybody you can add to the, “Oh, who do you know that goes here?” helps. Attend those seminars, attend the virtual whatever it is. I think I attended a few virtual orientations telling us how to apply and such. Those things help. I even went on my own and emailed all the colleges I was going to apply to. I just had a template; I was like, “Hey, I have a few questions. Would you be able to go on a Zoom call or a FaceTime call?” It was during quarantine, so everyone’s just sitting at home, and 90% of the people I contacted responded to me. There was only I think one school that didn’t respond. Those were my ins. I didn’t have any ins beforehand.
What aspect of your application do you think stood out to Columbia admissions officers?
Constructing the application is really important. I think we see a lot of people that have 10 extracurricular activities. But I think what helped in my case was that I had four that all centralized around skating. I am also a skating coach. I serve on multiple committees within the US Figure Skating Association; I make a lot of decisions on the rule changes every season. And I’m an ambassador for this program called The Icemen Program, which is essentially an initiative to improve the involvement of male figure skaters, since figure skating is predominantly a female sport. I’m trying to break that barrier. I remember being the only ice skater in my 4000-person high school. I really made sure that my extracurriculars were all around this idea of skating, because that’s who I am at my core. I feel like as an admissions counselor, you can really read between the lines and see when someone’s doing it for the application and not for themselves.
College essays are one of the most challenging aspects of college apps for most students. What have you learned about college essays now that you’re done?
Chances are someone’s going to say the same thing that you’re saying. Someone’s going to say, “Oh, I love Columbia because New York City and the core curriculum,” which is their undergraduate education. How you can make that personal is: how does that affect you? Not just like, “Oh, I want to be in New York City because it’s fun and it’s cool.” But, “Oh, I can really expand my horizons and connect with Wall Street and see this and that and X, Y, and Z and go to the Met and really get a liberal understanding of life as a whole.” That’s going to be more effective, because it’s how it affects you. Be genuine about why you want to go there and say why that makes them want to accept you.
So although yes, the athletic personal statement essay is kind of general, mine was unique, because I centered mine around the fact that I am a go-getter. When I was 16, I knew exactly what I wanted: I wanted to move here to Colorado and train at the Olympic Training Center. Although my family was not in support of it, because it would cost a lot of money and I might be throwing away my life after skating, I did it anyway, and it’s proven to be successful. I tied those two together. Now I’m looking to improve myself in another way, which is my academics. Tie everything back to yourself. It may sound selfish, but the essay is about you. It’s not about anyone else. It’s not really even about the school.
Many high schoolers feel pressured to have a passion to demonstrate to colleges, like you have with skating. What should students do if they don’t have a passion?
I think it’s foolish and naive to believe that anybody has one single passion. I think our passions are always changing. They are ever-evolving. It’s never just going to be like, “This is my passion for life.” But if it is, there are ways that you can fulfill different roles within football or swimming, for example, that aren’t just being an athlete. You can mentor young kids.
Nowadays, social media is a great tool. I’ve seen some people start skating accounts. You could start a football account to show some of your highlights and help young kids, like, “Okay, this is the technique I use to throw a fastball or swing fast.” There are so many different little parts that you can fulfill within other sports.
I used to think that I could only be the athlete when I moved here, but now I coach. And I make money from coaching. I also serve on so many different committees, and I have a lot of calls every week about where figure skating in the US is heading. Realizing that although yes, you may be 17 or 18, to a seven- or eight-year-old, you are an all-star; you’re like the Tom Brady for them. It’s hard, but if you can find a way to really just fulfill other roles within your sport and your passion, that’s going to really help.
What should applicants know before applying to college?
I wish that my sport was school-sponsored, because if you can get scouted and recruited, then you have a much higher chance of getting admitted, if you have good grades. That’s another really great way to skew the acceptance rate. But also finding something outside of school that you love is really important as well. That’s a blanket statement; everyone knows that. But commit to it. What colleges want is a diverse pool of accepted applicants. I guarantee that most kids nowadays are joining Model UN, NHS, X, Y, Z, doing the sport although they don’t love it. But how cool would it be to do that and then do something completely unique like start a food Instagram or something? Although it may not mean much to you, to college counselors, it’s like, “Oh, that girl that started the food Instagram now has influenced 30,000 people with food posts, that girl’s a go-getter.” Do those unique things.
Be nonchalant with it. I think that this whole college admissions process is just super stressful, starting your freshman year in high school at 14 to 18; that is so, so stressful. Sometimes I feel guilty that I was accepted to Columbia, because I feel like I was really nonchalant with it. It’s nice to have that brand name now, but I really was just like, “I’m doing this for me, and if I don’t get in, it’s not the end of the world. If at the very worst I stay at UCCS and I get a 4.0 GPA upon graduating, then I can go to grad school.” You want to do the things you do in high school to better yourself, not for college admissions. College admissions read so, so many applications a day that they can see through the ones that are just doing it to get in and the ones who are just doing it because they love it.
Can you share how your parents were involved in your college app process?
For my sister, my mom was very, very strict. It was always like, “Okay, you have to get straight As, you have to get 5s on the AP exams,