How to get into Harvard and the Ivy League, Singapore Addendum

Disclaimer: I didn’t, so this is mostly what I would have done better. I don’t know for sure if it works, but I believe that it would have. Take my advice with fistfuls of salt.

I was too late. I only read Allen Cheng’s guide to the Ivies when I was already in the last year of junior college. And along with learning about the superstar effect, where the best get a lot more rewards than the second best, I became more and more convinced that I could have done better. My rejection letters were the final wake-up call for me.

In Singapore, the real problem is our extra curricular activities, and perhaps our essays.

It’s so hard to do CCAs well here in Singapore. We have a huge academic focus and there’s a tendency to spread our attention in many places. In my secondary school days, I used to have 3 CCAs along with a third language and also an attachment at A*STAR’s computing department. Oh, and art and piano class too. It made my life interesting, yes. But it also meant I had no main selling point, and I wasn’t memorable on paper to US universities.

So how can we do it better? There are ways. It’s hard, but not impossible. I’d suggest the focused route if you want to get into a top American university. Plus, you’d stand out even more so than students with similarly impressive CCAs from other countries. This is because Admissions will be comparing you against other Singaporeans, and we’re more likely to be ‘well-rounded’ cookie-cutter types.

What this can mean in practice:

1. Focus on 1 CCA and bring it to greater heights. Talk to people and search the net for opportunities. For example, start an inter-school network if there isn’t already one. Grow the member base. Run events, produce books etc. For the more academically-inclined, if you’re doing research, make it outstanding. Olympiads are pretty good too, especially if you can go international.

2. Start a new CCA and grow it aggressively.

3. If you want to spread the commitment out, you can take a gap year to build up resume after you’ve settled academics.

On the Singapore universities side, for school stuff it’s best to get it down somewhere in your CCA records. Fight to get it in – ask your form teacher, CCA teacher, email people.

On hindsight, I would probably have passed on art and piano lessons, one of my CCAs and perhaps also the project with A*STAR. Those took up the most time, and if I could do it over I’ll instead focus on growing my remaining commitments + doing even better for school.

What if you’re scared? A large part of my problem was because I was scared. If I’m free, that means I’m doing something wrong, right? If I don’t have a laundry list of achievements, it must mean that I’m not doing enough. Everyone else around me was taking on more and more commitments; should I do that too?

The secret is not more, but better. Remember that: admissions want the best in one field, not the jack of all trades.

Still unconvinced? Think of it this way. We know so many failed examples who follow the conventional “cookie-cutter” route. See this as a bet – a bet to refuse the rhetoric of more. Having fewer CCAs doesn’t mean that you’re worse than other people. In face, fewer means more focus, and also more time for other things like sleep. This is because it’s much easier to build one CCA up to the top, than to juggle many CCAs. Many CCAs means starting from scratch several times over. If you only pick one, you can build it up step by step. Instead of disparate focuses, you can channel all your energy into one and power that up. Think of it like mountain climbing. It’s a lot easier – and more impressive – to finish climbing one mountain, rather than climbing several halfway.

What if, after all that, you don’t get in? You win anyway – your achievements would likely still be impressive on their own, you’d be more chill, and you’d get more sleep. Score!

Now that I know all of this, I’ll be thinking hard as I enter university about what I want to focus on.

A quick word about essays:

1. Find a story to tell, with a strong central theme, like “overcoming fear” etc. just one will do.

2. Dig into the why. Why did the event pan out this way? Why did you feel the way you did, and what does that say about you? How did your behaviour change after the event, and why did it change you? Is it because it’s changed your viewpoint, overhauled old biases etc.?

3. After you’ve dug into yourself and found the root causes, try to link it back to a bigger problem/observation. E.g. if it was about fear, talk about how the rest of your life would improve, or how the world can benefit from facing its fears too, or how other people would benefit from facing fear. If it’s inequality you’ve faced, link it to how it’s shown you that others face inequality too and what you’ll do about it. For me, I chose to talk about minimalism and how it helped me become more confident in myself. On hindsight, I should probably have linked it back to how it’s an antidote to our fast-paced, materialistic society, especially Singapore society. Or how, apart from material possessions being a “safety net” for me, I might be clinging onto “safety” mental fallacies too. Basically, how is what you’re facing internally playing out in the world? Are there any global trends similar to what you’re facing? Link it back to something that’s universal.

There’s lots of other advice out there, too. Do an internet search.

Now, go forth and prosper! Best of luck.


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