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

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Elton Lin

ilumin education college admissions counseling consulting radio interview bay area palo alto cupertino

Last week, John continued his series of radio interviews on Bay Voice Radio, 96.1 FM (Bay Area, NorCal). Throughout this series, we'll be highlighting aspects that help students find the right majors, write the best (and most honest) essays and reach the right universities.

The interview is primarily in Chinese -- apologies to the non-Chinese speakers! If you would like to find out more, we'd be happy to do a free consultation and discuss how we can help. Click HERE to contact us and click on the link below to listen to the interview!


Top-Tier Colleges: What do they really want? (Part 3)

John Chen

Please note that this is a three part series on what traits colleges are looking for in competitive applicants. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Ivy Leagues seek students who develop and pursue their passion

When Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, was asked for her best advice to parents she remarked “Make your children interesting!” Easier said than done—but interesting students only emerge when they pursue their passion.

Many parents dismiss their children’s area of passion as a childish waste of time. Unfortunately, this dismissal develops in students a sense of directionlessness--and may even curtail their success later in life.

For example, a friend of mine was raised in a typical “Tiger parent” household. She was prodded into academic excellence and was finally admitted to Berkeley as a pre-med student. She later attended UCLA for medical school and graduated as an M.D. Yet only a few years into her medical practice, she dropped out completely to pursue a career in graphic design.

In our most recent conversation, she admitted bitterly to me, “I was the perfect child, always doing what was asked of me. But I kept wondering if happiness was real, and why, if it was, I missed it. It wasn’t until I finally left medicine that I realized happiness was real--but that’s after I wasted eight years of my life and racked up $300,000 in debt." 

Unfortunately, my friend is not alone. We see many students who do not pursue a genuine interest, and end up with a resume that blends facelessly in with all the others. However, parents who encourage the pursuit of a passion--any passion--enable their children to shine.

Mary’s mother dreamed of her daughter becoming a savvy business woman--but Mary, an introvert, had other plans. Much to her mother’s dismay, Mary became obsessed with science. She lived and breathed it. She spent her Freshman summer at the UC Davis COSMOS program, and immediately emailed her professor begging that he let her work in his lab for the rest of her summers in high school. She spent three years helping him research the effect of second-hand smoke on rat lungs, and later went to Harvard where she is currently studying Biology.

Our students’ story and the growing voices from Ivy League schools all send the same message: give us students who are driven, passionate risk-takers.

So what can you do to help?

First, empower your child to make his own decisions. Give him choices, and walk him through (without lecturing) each decision’s consequences. Ask good, meaningful questions and leave the ultimate decision up to him. Each decision is an opportunity for growth for your child--if you let it be.

Second, let your child fail. Sit with him as he faces the consequences of his own choices, and support him no matter what. Give him the tools to think logically about how he will do things differently in the future. Let him learn that taking risks is the key to success, and quite possibly, the key to Harvard.

Finally, foster your child’s passions. When they’re young, help them explore all their interests--don’t weed out the ones that you don’t approve of. Look a little deeper. Does your child spend time playing video games? Maybe encourage him to join a video game camp that teaches him how to code and create his own game. Does your daughter love fashion? Consider teaching her how to create goods to sell online. Many parents complain that their child isn’t motivated--but we believe all students are motivated--it’s leveraging what they’re passionate about with a direction for their future.

Top-Tier Colleges: What do they really want? (Part 2)

John Chen

Yale University Library

Yale University Library

Please note that this is a three part blog on what traits colleges are looking for in competitive applicants. Click here for Part 1.

Ivy Leagues seek students who are risk-takers

Parents need to help nurture strong decision making skills. This also means allowing children to taste failure. Time and time again. Ivy Leagues often seek students who take risks and aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, one of the Common App prompts reads: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

MIT is even clearer about it. Their admission criteria of MIT states: “MIT wants to admit people who are not only planning to succeed, but who are not afraid to fail. When people take risks in life, they learn resilience as a result - because risk leads to failure as often as it leads to success.” 

Take Jeff for example. Like Tim, he wanted to help students from a low income community. But his idea was to teach “easy” Calculus to 5th and 6th graders. Though his parents confessed their concerns to us that this program wouldn’t work, and (possibly distract Jeff from his studies), they wanted their son to try. Jeff was certain his passion for math would be infectious, but his program of 15 kids dwindled to a class of four. It was a painful, yet even in his apparent failure, Jeff realized that what were more important weren’t his math lesson plans—it was simply that he showed up each week. He was the only stable adult in the lives of these inner city kids. With that fresh perspective, Jeff brought in math games into his program and slowly built it up again to 13 students. Their teacher later thanked Jeff, since she saw a whole grade level improvement in their math abilities by the end of the year. Jeff took his experience of failure and leveraged it to gain admission to Cornell University.

Unlike Jeff, Cindy didn’t reach her goal. She was aiming to study pre-med. She did hospital volunteering and a bio research summer camp. When we asked if she wanted to try to start a pre-med club at school or do research in a lab she hesitated. She had never done these things before and they seemed outside of her comfort zone. Cindy wanted to stick with what she was already doing--and take no risks.  While she become a lead volunteer and went to two more summer camps--these actions weren’t enough. Even with her perfect 4.00 GPA and 34 ACT score, she was rejected from all Ivy Leagues.

Ivy Leagues look for students who push the boundary, take chances, and demonstrate “grit” in the face of failure. Yet, this level of dedication and direction only happens when the student is truly passionate about the project.

Stay tuned for our final post describing the last and most critical trait colleges are looking for! 

Top-Tier Colleges: What do they really want? (Part 1)

John Chen

34,000. That’s how many earnest high school seniors applied to Harvard University last year. Only about 2023 of them were admitted. In 2011, Harvard had a 6.17% admittance rate. In 2012, it decreased to 5.92%. By 2013, it dropped to an all time dismal low of 5.79%. In 2014, it went back up to 5.9%.

So what can parents do to help their child enter the ultra-competitive Ivy Leagues? Particularly, what can Asian parents do when every Asian student looks identical: a top violinist who is also the president of the debate club and captain of the robotics club, graduating top of her class with a 2400 SAT score. 

From our experience as college admissions consultants, we’ve discovered a few key parenting trends that help raise an Ivy-League ready child.

Ivy Leagues seek students who are their own masters.

The Stanford admissions website states that “We want to see the initiative with which [students] to seek out opportunities that expand [their] perspective and that will allow [them] to participate in creating new knowledge. These traits of self-trust and drive are often rarely found among Asian students. We coach mostly Asian students, and we’ve discovered how our collectivist values (which stress service, thoughtfulness, and submission) leave many Asian students immobilized.

For example, Paul was one such student. He received his two B’s in sophomore year and his mom was furious.  The next year, she sat next to him for up to six hours a day watching him study and complete his homework. She also cancelled most of his extracurriculars and scheduled him with as much tutoring and SAT test preparation as possible. The result? He never learned to take control of his own learning. He never learned how to make his own decisions and manage his own time. His GPA began to slip, and his lack of extracurriculars and apparent lack of initiative hampered his future. He had barely made it into UCSD after being waitlisted for a few months.

Often these students, who have the raw talent to do well at an Ivy League, do not make it to one if they lack initiative. However, we’ve found that parents who foster a sense of independence and self-trust enable their students to thrive.

One of our students from 2012 comes to mind. Fred and Nina often asked their son, Tim, “Well, what do you think? You decide.” Tim learned to identify a problem and figure out how to solve it on his own.  As we worked with Tim, he was bothered that many students from low-income neighborhoods were not college-bound. Tim started a college-admissions workshop for inner city high school students. Tim planned an entire semester’s worth of curriculum and met with high school students each week to provide academic counseling. Tim was the commander of this project, and owned the process from start to finish. Tim later began his freshman year at Yale University--a place in which the president wrote, “In selecting future Yale students, “I am inclined to believe that the person who gives every ounce to do something superbly has an advantage over the person whose capacities may be great but who seems to have no desire to stretch them to their limit.” “We look for that desire and ability to stretch one’s limits” states another Yale admission officer. That motivation can only come from students who have learned how to think--and act--for themselves.  

Come back tomorrow to learn the second trait top-tier colleges are looking for!