It is not every day that a student gets accepted into multiple top universities. The now famous Brittany Stinson, who managed to get into 5 Ivy Leagues, is testimony to that.
So when one of our students from Singapore's Nanyang Polytechnic got into four top US universities, Singapore's largest publication, Strait Times, ran an article on Mr. Rayden Chia Yong Xiang, who was recently accepted into Harvard, MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and New York University.
As Rayden’s application consultant, it seems only fair that we take a deeper look at what would have set him apart in the pool of applications received by these colleges.
In late March, Rayden was thrilled to receive a letter of acceptance from Harvard University. Amidst all the jubilation, acceptances from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and New York University came pouring in. It takes a lot more than just great grades to get accepted into these top universities. So what did he do differently?
Q: From the onset, what about Rayden’s profile stood out the most?
Justin: He had a clear passion and discipline - information security. This was his major at Nanyang Poly, his personal hobby and intended major for his university applications. Even by the age of 16, he had managed to gain years of professional experience in his intended major. Naturally, his demonstrated passion made for an incredibly strong justification for any university to accept him.
Sarah: Demonstration of mastery and depth of knowledge in a specific content area can be very compelling for highly selective programs. This gives admissions offices confidence that the candidate will be able to fully utilize the academic and co-curricular resources of the institution to continue this trend during the program and beyond.
Q: What made you encourage him to shortlist these universities? Did you estimate his chances of being accepted to be so high from get go?
Justin: We knew he was impressive. However, no student profile is perfect. No matter how impressive his experiences were, we knew that shortlisting only top-tier schools would be a gamble. Although we encouraged him to apply to the most competitive schools for his major, we also made sure he applied to several backup universities as well.
Q: How much of a role, in your opinion, did his grades and SAT scores play in getting him accepted in these top Universities?
Sarah: Meeting academic standards is the critical minimum criteria in the admissions process for highly selective institutions. Admissions offices are using your past academic performance to predict academic success in the future, at their institution. Then, amongst all the candidates with strong academic profiles, universities are looking at how you have applied the theoretical classroom content in interesting and challenging ways.
Justin: Of course, his grades and SAT scores were on par with the universities he was accepted into. However, we see students with these profiles still get rejected to top and mid-tier schools despite their high scores. Oftentimes, it’s what classes you take, and not how perfect your GPA is, that matters. At a polytechnic, he was able to take classes that better prepared him for university.
In the 4 years prior to his university application, Rayden had been a Tech Lead at a “Code for Charity” initiative of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority, helping them raise $80K for needy students and was involved in R&D at government cybersecurity and defence agencies to safeguard national interests. Demonstrating these and many other focused achievements over the years in his applications would have helped him beat the odds and get noticed.
Q: Have you come across instances of students with similar or better overall profiles who still did not make the cut? If yes, what may have worked against them?
Justin: Singaporean students are brilliant. We’ve met students with perfect SAT scores, straight A’s and an impressive and full list of extracurriculars. Despite all of this, many of them are rejected. In most cases, we’ve observed that the most successful students have what we call a “Stand Out Factor.” They have something that either makes them perfect for a program, or they’ve achieved something so radically different that they clearly stand apart from the average applicant within their school, country and region.
Q: How did he frame his application/essays to highlight his “stand out factor" and get noticed by admissions officers despite coming from a polytechnic background?
Justin: Admissions officers are looking to get a complete picture of the student’s academic knowledge and their application of said knowledge. Rayden’s application and essays were framed to highlight his diversity of knowledge and the many ways in which he applied those things, from attending overseas conferences to operating as a freelance consultant.
In addition to highlighting his vocational passion, we made it a point to give admissions officers a peek at his personality through his essays. For instance, if there’s anything that came close to his passion for information security, it was his enthusiasm for all things culinary. I specifically remember a couple of instances where he had very beautifully articulated his fascination with food and vividly described some of his gastronomic experiments.
Q: The common advice given to students is to build a “well-rounded” profile. Can you explain why his profile caught the attention of Harvard and MIT?
Sarah: “Well-rounded” is a very generic term. The idea conveys a sense that there is some kind of proportion of quantitative performance and resume-builders which are the secret sauce in admissions. It is likely that he impressed admissions officers with clear academic performance, deep professional learning experiences and with his mature, ambitious and thoughtful personal story.
Q: As a Harvard admissions advisor, what are a few key features that admission officers consider when going over an application?
Sarah: There is no formula for the perfect candidate within highly selective admissions processes. Genuinely, they are looking for academic excellence, intellectual curiosity, and demonstrated ability to develop mastery. These characteristics come in so many different shapes and stories; from failures and successes.
Q: What is your one piece of advice for students who are striving to get into their dream colleges but are unsure about what direction to take?
Justin: You’re not an expert on what university will or won’t get you your dream job. Most students are only aware of the universities that are well marketed. I find this to be the biggest marker for error when applying. Make sure that you know what you want out of your “dream” university instead of saying, “Hey, I’ve heard of that school, and it’s supposed to be really good.” Do your research thoroughly. Find out what school fits what you specifically want out of your education. Once you’ve shortlisted those schools, find out what they want.
Most universities want students with a “Stand Out Factor,” and you should want universities that want students like you. If you can’t see yourself living there for the next four years, don’t do it. Selecting a university is a monumental life decision. Rankings and prestige are short-lived and empty, but your ambition and experiences are not.
Rayden’s passion for information security fused with expert guidance from his mentors in choosing the right universities brought him to the doorsteps of Harvard and MIT. This is not to say that students who have yet to find their calling are less likely to succeed. It only highlights the importance of choosing your best-fit university and framing your application to showcase your “Stand Out Factor."
Congratulations, Rayden, on your achievements and decision to study at MIT! We are positive that this story will be an inspiration to many students.