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Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.


Elton Lin

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Alice joined ILUMIN Education's team in 2016 after discovering her passion for college admissions as an ILUMIN client. She speaks Mandarin and Cantonese and works with international and transfer students. Alice has a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from Stanford University and has worked in the biotech industry for over 25 years.

What is an aspect of your consulting work that you very much enjoy?

One part of my job that I tremendously enjoy is the interaction with parents. Since I am a parent myself and have gone through some challenging years with my own kids, I can relate to many of the challenges that parents experience. I speak both Cantonese and Mandarin, so I interact a lot with the Chinese parents who speak limited English. In particular, I work with many students whose parents are still living in China. Parents in China are often anxious to know about the well-being and progress of their sons and daughters in the U.S. I communicate with these parents often via WeChat. It is very reassuring for parents to know that we care about and wholeheartedly support their children.

One time a student had an accident during a summer camp here in the U.S. Even though the student updated his parents on his situation, the parents felt relieved after I contacted the camp director and made all the necessary medical and travel arrangements. Whether or not the parents live abroad, it's important to me to provide frequent communication with students and parents to address each family's concerns and needs. For parents living abroad, it is particularly important as they are not familiar with the U.S. education system and communication with their sons and daughters is not as easy as for local families.

What would like both parents and students to know?

I’d like families to understand that not all students will thrive at a top-20 school, even though it is understandably a dream for Bay Area families. I worked with a student whose family wanted him to get into very highly-ranked public schools. We knew already that those schools would not be the right fit for him. Even though the family insisted that we help the student apply to their preferred schools, we were able to convince them to also apply to a few schools which would be a much better fit for him. During the course of the college application season, it became clear that the student struggled to manage his time and follow through on action items. There was much hand-holding during the process. If there was no consultant working with the student, the entire application process could have been quite messy. The student and his parents eventually realized that the student would benefit most by attending a smaller private school, which typically provides much more support.

What do you think it would be important for students to do during their high school years?

I encourage students to take their time to explore their interests and start early if possible. Ideally, students should narrow down their areas of interest and focus on major-related activities by the beginning of the junior year. In recent years, more and more students would like to major in computer science since the job market for software engineers is hot. However, not everyone is made for computer science. It is important to keep an open mind about majors, as competing against students who do have true passion for a field like computer science limits the college options for those who don't truly love it. After all, those students who choose majors that aren’t a good fit may struggle or lose interest in college.

I had a student who wasn’t sure of what major to pursue. Her family wanted her to study computer science. We advise students to try different activities to explore their interests. In this case, the student took a computer programming class and didn’t find a passion for computer science at all. On the other hand, she was interested in her high school AP Statistics class and also in an Introduction to Business class taken at a community college. She had a great time working with her teammates designing and building a product in the Junior Achievement entrepreneurship program sponsored by Ilumin Education. She also enjoyed volunteering in a non-profit organization serving low-income families. All of these factors pointed to a business major. It is important to bear in mind that a lot of students change their majors in college. It helps to know the intended major while in high school so students can develop their passion and build up their profiles accordingly. However, students can continue to explore and adjust their majors in college.

What is one piece of advice you would like to give to parents?

I know we as parents tend to think that we know our child best. It is natural that we would like to be involved in their college essay writing process. We might be afraid that our child would miss some valuable information to point out or write something “immature” in their essays. However, my personal experience is that it is best to take a step back and not inject our own ideas into the college essay writing process.

Firstly, most students are reluctant to have their parents’ involvement when it comes to writing their essays, which could be quite personal. If parents insist, the students may not put in their full effort into the drafting of the essays, assuming their parents will take care of it. Secondly, the essay could get quite disjointed when it is mixed with different writing voices. Thirdly, the admissions reviewer can tell the difference between an adult’s and teenager’s writing styles. The essays need to be written in the student’s own authentic voice to be most compelling. As consultants, we guide the students and provide ideas according to our knowledge of the student and what is most effective for college essays. We work on many drafts of the essays together. However, we don’t write essays for students. When my son applied to college, I completely left him to work with his consultant and didn’t read the essays until the final draft. The essays turned out to be genuine and impressive.

How’s your experience working with transfer students?

Besides providing coaching and college admissions service to high school students, we also help transfer students apply to four-year colleges. We are seeing an upward trend of international students who come to U.S. community colleges and then transfer into four-year colleges. Community college is a good stepping stone for students who may not be ready to enter four-year colleges right after high school because of a language barrier or high school performance that is below the student’s potential.

When working with transfer students, I emphasize time management. Since their classes could be scattered in different hours of the day and many of these students work, it’s easy for students to overlook their admissions timeline, especially the time required to complete drafts of their application essays. In addition, transfer students are adults; parental involvement tends to be minimal, and thus it’s less likely that somebody is at home reminding them what to do. It could be a challenge for transfer students to handle all the requirements during the application process by themselves. For example, they may need to contact their high school and even middle school in China to send official transcripts to colleges. International students also need to show a bank statement as a supporting financial document. There could be an additional deadline to submit portfolio, audition and other supplemental materials. It’s very easy for any of these steps to slip through without proper planning. Time management is indeed important for all students, but it is particularly so for transfer students. I work closely with these students to detail the admissions timeline in advance and follow up with students closely for each step along the way.