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

Filtering by Category: Student Stories


Elton Lin

>>> A letter from one of our recent ILUMIN graduates!

You have finally made it to high school!

It may seem daunting; trust me, it was for me too. Freshman year, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to become an engineer like my parents and follow the predictable Silicon Valley route - this makes me laugh because there is no way I would want to be an engineer now!

Read More



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Join as many clubs/organizations as possible

Everybody’s experience for college freshman year will be different. But for me, it felt like high school where you start again from the bottom of the ladder except that as a college freshman, you are the special one. Being the youngest gives you an unique social opportunity to join your club sports team/hobbit groups or cultural groups. I still remember at the Activities Fair in the first week, you are invited to join millions of clubs and organizations and meet all kinds of people in various social groups. So shake a leg!

Freshmen year is the best opportunity to find out who your classmates are because it’s when asking “where you are from” and “what’s your name” still don’t sound awkward. It’s also a good time to know yourself better, what kinds of friend groups do you fit in more or what types of friends do you click with more etc. As a lowerclassmen myself, I cannot speak for whether freshmen friends stick around, but I can guarantee that college community is often much larger and much more diverse than high school community. That means you probably won’t be able to know every guy/girl in your grade like you did in high school, and that it’s time to actively reach out to find a community that fits you. And joining an organization/community that you feel comfortable with will help you transition into college much easier and faster.

Study wisely

Having been a professional student for 12 years, you are an expert in your way of studying. Whether it’s watching Khan Academy videos or reading Sparknotes, by the time you enter college you already mastered the art of studying. On top of every useful studying method that you mastered, I would also strongly recommend going to professor's or TAs’’ office hours. Lecture is the same for every student, but in office hours professor’s and TA’s can answer specific questions that you may have in a way that can tailor to your needs. It’s an opportunity to get to know them personally and for them to know more about you. Going to office hours is also a good way to find out their grading style and what to expect as a student. Ultimately, they are the ones who gives you scores for assignments and the final grade.

One good news about college is that you don’t have to do everything that’s assigned to you. For example, textbooks and lectures are often overlapped and teach same things. Doing overlapped studying may help you understand the materials more concretely, but when you are under time pressure, whether you are a visual person or audio person, make sure you study the way that works for you.

One last bit about studying is that it’s never a bad idea to reach out to upperclassmen or older friends who have taken the course before. They know more than you do. Having been through more advanced stages, their knowledge and experiences are extremely valuable resources as you study for your current class or plan for your future classes.

Find your own college life triangle // academics + social life + sleep

There is a saying that every college student only have enough time to focus on two out of three things in college: academics, social life, sleep. I would agree that this is true in many ways. I remember during the first week, I was lying in my bed about to sleep, then I hear music and laughter from the party down the hallway of my dorm. I asked myself: should I go out and socialize with those people in my dorm? What should I do? Is it not a cool thing to do to go to bed early? I checked out the party anyways, but I had a tremendously difficult time waking up the second day morning and staying in class with a huge hangover from the night before. So having a good balance would be really helpful.

Every student’s life triangle will be different, and most likely it will change in different stages throughout college career. But going back to the first point, I recommend social life over two other things in freshman year because freshman year is the prime time to establish friendships. It’s also when you need companionships the most. But in sophomore/junior years when classes get harder, it would be time to study and pursue for your major/degree. Thus, setting a clear priority for what’s truly valuable for you in different stages of college is crucial for planning a college journey that you will enjoy.

-- Joseph W., Junior at Stanford University



CONGRATS to the ILUMIN/Junior Achievement Company Program team for winning "BEST PRODUCT" at the NorCal JA Company of the Year Competition 2018!

Great work team and excited to empower and equip the next generation of entrepreneurial change makers!

AND now off to the JA National Company Program competition in Washington DC!

You can also check out the Silicube and preorder yours HERE.

Some reflections from our students after the program:

"The JA program allowed me to learn how to manage a team, from keeping everyone on track and encouraging them to the tougher aspects like making sure the quality of the work produced was acceptable. The members of the company program became close knit over the 13 weeks we met, and I learned that while a good idea may come from a single person, the true innovation requires the collaboration between the team members to provide support and occasionally limits to the thinking of an individual."

// Ronald C.

"Before attending the Junior Achievement program, I knew little to nothing about business and what it took to run a business. Now, after my experience with Junior Achievement, I understand the number of different teams and the endless work that come with producing a single product. The marketing team and I had so much fun making a commercial and brainstorming ways to bring our product to the public. My favorite moment with the entire company is when we finally got to see our product in person. We had been working on the logistics of the bag for over a month, and to finally see all of our hard work come to life was so exciting. Even if you aren't currently interested in going into business in the future, I would highly recommend joining the JA program, because it introduces you to many other dedicated and inspiring high school students, and it gives you a newfound appreciation for the world of business."

// Mia S.




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My first two weeks at Amherst College were uncomfortable, to say the least. Meeting new people really isn’t my thing, but that’s what freshman orientation is all about. Struggling to find something in common, fake-coughing during awkward pauses, cringing when I fumbled over my name — I felt like a fish flopping on land.       

And saying good-bye to my family? That was the worst part. My mom, who traveled the 3,061.2 miles to help me move in, had to leave right at the beginning of orientation to catch her flight. So I met my orientation small group in a mess, tears streaming down my face and unable to croak out much more than “Hi."

That night, I was sure I’d chosen the wrong school. “I should’ve stayed closer to home,” I thought to myself as I miserably slipped under the covers. “I miss home. I miss my mom. Everything feels weird. This was a mistake.”       

But within a couple of weeks, as classes started and I began to check out clubs on campus, those thoughts slowly disappeared, and to my utter disbelief, I settled in.

The excitement with which I approached my classes was surreal. In high school, with the end goal being a high GPA and college, I’d lost a lot of my passion for learning. School became a routine; classes became a means to an end. But in college, getting to choose the classes and professors I wanted — Amherst has an open curriculum — made a huge difference, and I found myself looking forward to class for the first time in a long time.

Granted, I wasn’t always excited — there were days when I didn’t even want to get out of bed. But the intellectual environment at Amherst really reignited my love for exploring and expanding my worldview. We weren’t taking classes to get into college anymore; we were taking classes because we wanted to learn.

And as I got to know my peers both in and out of the classroom, I began to feel more at home — like I belonged. I still remember feeling simultaneously weirded out and pleasantly surprised the first time I referred to Amherst as home. It just slipped right out of my mouth, and it took me a second to recover as I realized what I’d said. But I also knew that somewhere along the way, it became true, both in my mind and my heart.

Maybe your first few weeks in college will also be uncomfortable. Or maybe they won’t. Regardless, here are some tips I wish I’d known when I first got to college. Hopefully, they’ll help you get a head start on having a great year.

  1. Check out campus clubs within the first few weeks of school. Clubs are probably the primary way you’ll make friends, so it’s important to find a club that fits you and your interests. That way, it’s a win-win situation: you’ll get to be involved in something that’s important to you and you’ll make connections with people who share the same passion.

  2. Try something you maybe would never have tried before college. Each semester, I promised myself that I’d push myself out of my comfort zone in at least one big way. First semester, I joined Amherst’s mixed martial arts club, and second semester, I participated in a small flash mob performance. (I have no experience in either arena and am an especially clumsy dancer.) But though my entire body throbbed for days after each martial arts practice and I spent the entire dance performance with my face flaming red, it was exhilarating to know that I’d had the guts to do something a little scary — and stuck with it.

  3. Being sick sucks. The first time you get sick in college, you’ll find yourself really missing and appreciating your parents. You have to go out and get your own chicken soup and hot teas, you have to rely on classmates for notes, you have to check your temperatures yourself and decide whether or not you’re capable of attending activities. So try your best not to get sick; it just becomes such a burden. You’re better off regularly taking care of yourself and resting the moment you feel something coming on.

  4. People care way less about your GPA in college. At Amherst, no one ever asked me, “What grade did you get?” It was such a refreshing change from the culture of academic striving in my hometown of Palo Alto, California. In college, it’s not about making the next benchmark. It’s about discovering what makes you light up — what creates the spark in your eyes. Don’t try to hold yourself to other people’s standards; instead focus on what interests you and what you can do with what you have.

  5. You’ll meet people who are rude or inconsiderate but you’ll also meet so many more people who aren’t. Don’t let the bad apples take away from the good ones. Make the most of the time you have with people who care about you and want the best for you. You only have four years in college, but those four years will feel like lifetimes because in college, your friends really become your family. So don’t give up on friendships just because of a disagreement; instead, pursue the people who matter to you.

  6. In a similar vein, don’t let what people say get you down. Not everyone in this world is going to like you, and that’s sometimes hard to take. But at the end of the day, you’re only going to be sharing the same space with them for four years. Think big — in five, 10 years, unless they’re devastatingly attractive, you won’t even really remember what they look like. Don’t let other people’s opinions of you dictate who you are and what you do. Choose to pursue what you want for yourself — what aligns with your heart.

  7. Widen your perspective — talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. So much of what I thought was right and true was thrown out the window the moment I set foot on campus. I come from a pretty homogenous town, and getting to talk to people from all walks of life — different race, different socioeconomic status, different upbringing, different opinions — made me much more aware of how limited my understanding of the world is. When you start to appreciate the nuances of each person you meet, you too will be able to develop a more comprehensive perspective of this world and its people.

  8. Be on top of your workload — no one else is going to do that for you. This was really difficult for me in the beginning because I’ve never gotten in the habit of using a planner, but I found out you don’t have to use a planner to stay organized. I started using a simple checklist on my phone that helps me focus on my priorities and accomplish what I need to do each day, and it worked really well for me. Poke around and see what can be of aid to you.

  9. Find spots that work for you off campus. As the year went on, it became clear that the on-campus environment could be too much for me to handle sometimes, so I started exploring off-campus spaces, working at a different cafe every day until I figured out which one felt the most comfortable for me. These spaces can give you a moment to breathe away from the sometimes suffocating social and academic scene on campus.

  10. Know what resources are available to you. I didn’t know that Amherst offers funding for its students’ unpaid internships until an upperclassman sent me the application link. After that, I spent two days exploring the Amherst website for any other Easter eggs — of which there were many!

  11. Keep up with school events so you don’t miss out when a prominent figure visits campus. This year, one of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, came to give a talk, and I was shut out of the event because I didn’t sign up fast enough for tickets. That will remain one of my biggest regrets for a long time, I’m sure.

  12. Keep in touch with your parents — this became increasingly hard for me as my workload piled up, but no matter how much adulting you do, you’ll always be your parents’ child. They want to hear about all the new ventures you’re chasing in college, and they’ll want even more to know when you’re having a hard time. Besides, letting them know what’s going on in your life might just increase the chances of receiving a care package during a period of difficulty!

  13. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know this is cheesy and everyone says it, but in college it’s especially true because you won’t have family members checking in on you every day. No one will be able to tell that you’re struggling unless you tell them first. And if you’re struggling, that’s normal. Each semester brings its own challenges. Rather than waste time and energy pretending they’re not real challenges, reach out and let people know. Check out the counseling center. Talk to your professors. You’ll find that people are much more supportive than you might expect.

At the end of the day, college doesn’t make or break you. There are high points and there are low points. You might not fall in love with your school right away, but as a clever man named Elton Lin once said, “Love is not always at first sight.”

College will be a lot more enjoyable if you make it your mission to make the most out of your experience. Before you know it, you’ll be done with your first year, and you’ll look back and be amazed at how fast it went, the good and the bad. Me personally? I missed Amherst the minute I left, and I can’t wait to go back and see what’s in store.

-- Shawna C., Junior at Amherst College

Why I Said NO to Harvard

Elton Lin

How do you know if a famous university is the right school for you? Just because it’s ranked highly or because it has a long and storied history doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be happy spending four years of your life there. Today, we have the privilege of hearing from someone who was faced with this dilemma. Read on to find out why Elizabeth (not her real name) decided not to attend Harvard University and her advice for finding a good-fit school.


In the spring of my senior year of high school, I received two college acceptance packages in the mail.  One contained an acceptance letter that looked almost like a diploma.  It was printed on frameable cardstock paper and declared that I had the right to study at the most prestigious university in America, Harvard University.  The other was written on regular paper and invited me to study at a very selective liberal arts college that most people have never heard of, Swarthmore College. 

I said no to Harvard.

The process of saying no was not easy, and my decision was not made flippantly.  Of course, initially, I was thrilled to be accepted at both schools.  In some ways, it seemed like madness to even consider turning down an acceptance to Harvard. This school was the “holy grail” of studious, hard-working students like me.  However, I was uneasy about the kind of pressure that a name like Harvard would have on my education.  I wanted to learn for the sake of learning and to serve my future community.  I was afraid that at a place like Harvard, I would live under the pressure of achieving academically so that I could prove that I was worthy of my acceptance.

I had the privilege of visiting both campuses before making my final decision.  During my visit to Harvard, I was impressed by the classic architecture and the feeling of intellectualism mixed with a youthful energy that pervaded the campus.  I slept over with some students in the dorms, ate in the dining hall, attended an ice hockey game (Harvard won over Dartmouth) and visited a class.  However, the main thing that sticks out to me is a conversation I had with one student.  When I told him my dilemma over which school to choose, he said, “How could you even think about going to another school?”  In a way, that comment confirmed the misgivings I had.  My personality is more “march to the beat of a different drummer” than “go with the flow.”  That student’s comment grated against my desire to be different, to make my own path in life and not just do something because it’s what I’m expected to do.

On the other hand, when I did my Swarthmore campus visit, students seemed deeply intellectual but also less stressed about themselves.  The campus is beautiful (its grounds are an arboretum), and even the physical surroundings fit better with my personality and preferences.  The students at Swarthmore talked about their small classes and their personal interactions with their professors.  As a group, they seemed more anti-establishment, more relaxed, more fun.  I could fit with this crowd.

As the time neared for me to send my confirmation letter, I was convinced that I would get an excellent education at both schools, but Swarthmore seemed to be the place where I would thrive more.  Many years later, I do not regret my decision.  The education, experiences, and memories that I gained in my time at Swarthmore is an invaluable part of my life, and I wish the same for you as you go through the process of choosing a university.

Five Ways Students Can Manage Stress

Elton Lin

“I am sooooo stressed…” she groaned, her head resting on her thick Chemistry textbook. “I have three tests this week, and I’m behind on all my homework.” For many of our students, feeling stressed out has become the norm, though the causes may vary. Some students have relationship worries, others struggle with family conflict and parental pressure, but many put great pressure on themselves due to a fear of falling behind in a competitive high school environment.

Experiencing stress during high school is inevitable. It’s how you respond to it that can make all the difference. Here at ILUMIN Education, we see how common – and damaging – it can be for students to be stressed on a daily basis. Dealing with stress constructively is arguably more important than GPA or resume in terms of preparing students for success in college and career.

Here are some of the strategies we use to help students manage their stress effectively.

1. Use a calendar

It’s fairly common for high school students to think they can get by without using a planner. Often, teachers post the homework online. Or maybe Mom manages the family calendar. Time and time again, we have found that students underestimate the benefits of using a calendar themselves. Without a doubt, students who manage their own calendars are able to accomplish more because they can be more strategic about how they use their time. Ultimately, students who take control of their schedules manage their lives better and reduce stress.

If you haven’t already, get a paper calendar or choose a digital one, and start to fill out the calendar with all of the important dates: tests, papers, project due dates, due dates for applications, games, club events, social events, family events, etc. Be sure to work backwards and block out time to study. If you know you need at least a couple hours to prepare for your history final, reserve some time for yourself to make that happen. If you know an especially demanding school week is coming, schedule a pocket of time for yourself to exercise or meet up with friends as a healthy outlet in a stressful week.  

2. Create a good homework routine

Creating a good homework routine is key to getting things done and reducing stress. Ask yourself: Do I have a designated place to study? Have I reduced distractions? How can I work most efficiently? For example, a student we worked with usually did his homework while lying on his bed at home. It wasn’t uncommon for him to fall asleep while doing homework. He also kept his phone by his side and Facebook messaged his friends while he studied, which he insisted was helping him get his work done. Every night, it took him until at least 1 a.m. to finish his homework. He woke up tired, which increased the likelihood of him falling asleep again when doing homework after school.

When our sleepy student experienced a dip in grades, he took our advice to start going to the library after school to do his homework. He kept his phone on silent in his backpack until he had worked at least two hours. He made a note of any questions he had for his friends from class, and messaged them after he worked independently. The student was surprised that he could go to bed two hours earlier than before by making adjustments to his daily routine.

3. Take care of your health: eat, sleep, and exercise!

Physical health is inexorably linked to mental and emotional health. Have you ever noticed that you’re more prone to mood swings or impulsive behavior when you’re not getting enough sleep or when you are hungry? There’s even a term, “hangry,” that’s been coined to describe that very state of being angry because you’re so hungry. Many students report that they need to stay up all night to study before important exams, but they may be shooting themselves in the foot. Teenagers, in particular, need more sleep as a part of their developmental stage, and when they’re operating on a sleep or nutritional deficit, their cortisol levels will rise and their cognitive function will suffer as well (i.e., you will feel stressed and not think clearly).

Exercise is especially effective in reducing stress. Instead of watching a YouTube video on a study break, go for a lap around the block and see if you feel any better. Furthermore, a Stanford study shows that just spending time outside in natural surroundings can improve focus and reduce anxiety. Although it might be tempting to take a break from homework to check your Snapchat, it’s better for your brain to rest away from the stimulation that screens provide. Even spending a few minutes in your backyard or a nearby park can help clear your mind.

4. Get help when you need it

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your problems, it’s important to reach out and talk to a trusted friend, family member, mentor, or teacher. Not only will you feel less alone, a counselor or teacher, for example, might have some practical suggestions for making up a low grade or dealing with other school-related issues. It can be surprising by what can happen when students speak up. We’ve seen teachers change grades a year after the fact, students receive extended testing accommodations, and bullying issues resolved after students reach out to an adult who can help. After all, the worst-case scenario is that nothing will change. 

Although dealing with stress and changing moods is a typical part of the high school experience, some students face more severe anxiety or depression. Please be aware that mental health issues are more common than you might realize. If you’re experiencing anxiety attacks or depression, seek professional help. Many people struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives, and there are resources out there to help you.

5. Remember the big picture

It’s 2 a.m. and it seems like your grade on the Chemistry midterm in the morning means everything. It may seem that your entire future rides on this one exam.  It doesn’t. You likely won’t remember the grade you get on this test a year from now. That’s because your future success is a result of the sum of your efforts over time; an occasional misstep is part of the human experience. Whenever you find yourself overwhelmed by stress due to a challenge you are facing, ask yourself: will this matter a year from now? In two years?  If the outcome isn’t what you want, it may very well become one of the many learning experiences that will make you stronger and better equipped to deal with challenges in the future. The point is that though a grade or a problem might be eating you up in this moment, in the longer term, what matters is how your character develops from dealing with this challenge, how you learn problem-solving skills through addressing the situation, and how well you treat the people around you in the midst of it.

Teens face many pressures in high school. However, by learning to manage your stress now, you will have gained a lifelong skill that will serve you far into the future. We find that when working with our students, it’s important not to minimize the stress our high school students are experiencing, even if the source of their worries seems small. Helping students manage their stress levels is as important as providing tutoring for a strong academic performance. After all, stress is a catalyst for growth and an opportunity to develop emotional resilience in the midst of life’s challenges.


Elton Lin

Congrats to ILUMIN's seniors on their college admission results this past year! We're SUPER proud of you! Not only for the schools you've been admitted to, but for how you've grown as leaders, citizens and game-changers during our time together.   

We'll share more about individual student stories... but just for this post, let's celebrate the schools our students have been admitted to:

Azusa Pacific University
Bard College
Barnard College
Biola University
Boston College
Boston University
Bowdoin College
Cal Poly SLO
Carnegie Mellon University
Case Western University
Chapman University
Cornell University
CSU Northridge
Drexel University
Duke University
Emory University
Fordham University
Georgia Tech
Georgetown University
Hamilton College
Harvey Mudd College
Haverford College
Johns Hopkins University
Loyola Marymount University
Northeastern University
Northwestern University
NYU Stern
Occidental College
Penn St.
Pitzer College
Pomona College
Purdue University
Rice University
Rutgers University
Santa Clara University
San Diego St.
San Jose St.
Stanford University
Swarthmore College
Tufts University
Tulane University
UC Berkeley
UC Davis
UC Irvine
UC Merced
UC Riverside
UC San Diego
UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Cruz
University of Colorado Boulder
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
University of Maryland
University of Chicago
University of Michigan
University of Oregon
University of Oxford
University of Pacific
University of Pennsylvania (including Wharton)
University of Rochester
University of Southern California
University of Texas at Austin
University of Wisconsin at Madison
University of Washington
Virginia Tech
Washington University - St. Louis
Wake Forest University
Wesleyan University

We're not only proud of your results, but excited for your futures and know you will make your mark to build a better world for us all! 

ILUMIN's Scholarship Student >>>>> Chu Hui Fu

Elton Lin

Every year ILUMIN works with a small handful of bright, amazing students who do not have access to educational coaching services. We provide, at no charge to them, essay editing assistance, college list formation guidance and coaching throughout the admissions process. We had the privilege of working with a really amazing student from San Francisco named Chu Hui Fu.

We were extremely impressed and encouraged by her story as a recent immigrant to the United States. We know her hard work and passion will lead her to great success! Watch the video above and read the interview below - I know you'll be inspired. Thanks Chu Hui and good luck at Haverford!


Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m ChuHui Fu, a senior at Galileo High School. I was matched with Haverford College (PA) through QuestBridge. I am planning to major in chemistry, biochemistry or some other science. I love the gratification of getting stuck, and stuck and more stuck, then finally coming to a solution. When free, I enjoy long walks. Some of my obsessions include chocolate, mint, music boxes and mystery novels.

What was your biggest challenge when moving to America?

I immigrated from China four years ago, with limited English skills. But that wasn’t the biggest challenge. I found it most difficult to adjust to the cultural diversity here, which was initially intimidating. But after time, I've learned to move beyond the stereotypes and be more social with people from different backgrounds.

ilumin scholarship student chu hui fu college admissions counseling life coaching

What’s your proudest moment during high school?

I was most proud when I was accepted into the lab internship iCLEM (Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology) because it was the first time I would work in an actual lab and because of the low acceptance rate. 

How did you discover your passion in science?

When I took biology, I was fascinated by genetics and cell divisions. See, in middle school, biology was just about memorization. I was never exposed to actual concepts, and that class was eye opening. Then I took chemistry, which I considered to be the first class besides math that made perfect sense to me. The labs were well-developed and filled with what my chemistry teacher called the "critical thinking questions.” At one point, I realized that I secretly wanted to mess up a lab just so I could redo it. That was probably when I discovered that I had a passion for science.

What advice would you give high school students to thrive in high school?

Explore the opportunities around you—both academic and extracurricular ones. Ask questions now when you don't understand something. If you don’t ask now, you won’t understand it any time soon. Also, join a club; be a part of something.   

What advice would you give to seniors applying to college?

Don't procrastinate until the last minute; don't start on your UC App at 11 pm on Nov. 30. It's going to be extremely stressful if you procrastinate. Apply to the scholarships that are available to you; it won’t hurt to have money in your pocket. 

ilumin education scholarship student chu hui fu college admissions counseling education philanthropy

What did you struggle with most in high school?

I struggled the most in my U.S. History class because I had difficulty memorizing dates, places and people's names. Unlike mathematical formula that can be derived, these facts couldn’t be deduced or rationalized, so I could not remember them very well. 

What’s the key to your success?

I take advantage of the opportunities around me. There are many free programs, and when one interests me, I apply. By doing so, I was able to go on a backpacking trip and a community service trip, conduct research in a laboratory, and try out creative writing. And from these experiences, I became more self-aware, fearless and confident.

What’s the hardest part about the college app process?

The personal statement was the hardest for me because my initial draft was over two thousand words and it had to be reduced to five hundred words. Also, as I revised my personal statement more and more, I started losing the passion I initially felt, and I started doubting if it really mattered to me. I once heard “I write to understand what I think"--and that was the case for me.

How did we (ILUMIN) help you?

ILUMIN encouraged me to start researching private schools early in the fall, which allowed me to learn about different schools and helped me discover what type of college I wanted. ILUMIN also proofread my college apps and personal statements, providing very practical and straightforward feedback.