Aanand - Columbia University - Class of 2020

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Don't worry if you have fewer extracurricular opportunities. Colleges consider what you do with what you have.

My parents insisted on me attending a highly ranked school. Harvard and Yale were my first choices, not necessarily because I thought I'd enjoy them but because of their rankings. But I was nervous. I had good grades, but I didn't have the typical list of extracurricular and academic achievements other Ivy League applicants typically have on their college applications.

Hometown: Davidson, NC/
Kadena AFB, Okinawa, Japan

High School: Public

GPA: 4.0/4.39 (weighted

ACT: 34

Major: Economics and mathematics

Goal: Prepare for law school

College

Status

Columbia UniversityAttending
Cornell UniversityDenied
Duke UniversityAccepted
Harvard College (EA)Denied
Oxford UniversityDenied
Princeton UniversityDenied
Stanford UniversityDenied
UC BerkeleyAccepted
UCLAAccepted
UNC Chapel Hill (EA)Accepted
US Air Force AcademyAccepted
Yale UniversityWaitlisted
Freshman Year Update

The first few weeks I missed my friends from home and stalked my own Instagram, reminiscing about the good times we had. I felt pressure to attend every party just to appear social and cool, which got old fast. I eventually made friends by hanging out with my floor mates, joining an Indian dance team, and establishing judo as a club sport.

Most of my classes are in gigantic lecture halls with professors who don't know my name. But the academics are at the next level, and I feel like I'm constantly challenged. Although, after taking Calculus III, I'm now thinking of moving away from Math as a concentration.

Sometimes when I'm sitting on a cold, crowded subway car, I wonder what my life would be like at Duke, in spacious, warm North Carolina. But Columbia's fast-paced, career-focused culture is what I signed up for. My plate is full and I'm constantly juggling, but I'm happy with that.

Visiting colleges—from Japan

My mom is an officer in the U.S. Air Force, and I spent my last years of high school on a military base in Okinawa, Japan, at a school with limited access to things like robotics, AP classes, and SAT/ACT prep. I had to take advantage of the opportunities I had available and make some of my own. I joined as many clubs as possible, played sports, and acted in plays. I also worked hard to improve my test scores (using test prep books), eventually achieving a 34 on the ACT.

I couldn't visit any colleges, either, so I had to gauge the "feel" of a campus from college websites and YouTube videos. Fortunately, I am an outgoing, adaptive person, so I had an "I'll love wherever I go!" mentality.

In December, I was elated to find out that I got into UNC Chapel Hill, my safety school. It was a relief knowing that I was going to college for sure. But Ivy Decision Day was one of the saddest days of my life. I was denied or waitlisted by all my Ivy League schools.

Falcons, Bears, or Blue Devils?

For the entire month of April, I struggled to decide between the Air Force Academy, UC Berkeley, and Duke. My mom, the Air Force officer, zeroed in on the Academy. My dad, the mathematical thinker, calculated that Duke would be best. Me? I was attracted to UC Berkeley's fun atmosphere and great urban location near San Francisco.

After admitting I didn't want the restrictive environment of the Air Force Academy, I explored Duke and Berkeley. Duke had been very communicative with me throughout the admission process. My admissions officer sent me a handwritten congratulations card, and my parents received personalized emails, plus bumper stickers and banners. We really felt included in the Duke "family." When I considered Duke's small class sizes and community atmosphere, Berkeley seemed too big. I chose Duke just before midnight on May 1, happy to be a Blue Devil!

Columbia comes a-calling

Several weeks later, I woke up to an "application update" email from Columbia. I was accepted off its waitlist! I freaked out! I scrambled out of bed and ran and told my dad, who was sipping coffee and watching the news. He freaked out too!

But choosing to leave Duke was far from a no-brainer. I had found a roommate and made friends through the Facebook group. I felt both a little intimidated by Columbia's big-city atmosphere, and late to the party, since everyone had already chosen roommates. Then I reminded myself that the reason I applied to such difficult colleges wasn't to find the right "fit" or family or Facebook group; it was to learn, make connections, and become a competitive professional. I couldn't deny myself such an incredible opportunity. Letting my "rankings" mentality take over, I withdrew from Duke and set my sights on Columbia.

My ups and downs

Most of the time, I worried whether I'd done enough extracurriculars, scored high enough on my tests, and proofread my essays often enough. I especially struggled with my essays. I wrote two different essays, picked one, and then scrapped it in favor of the other. With the help of one of my favorite teachers, the essay went through what seemed like endless revisions. I heaved a sigh of relief when she finally said, "It's good to go."

Despite the stress, it felt wonderful to read the word "congratulations" from any school. There's no feeling quite like it, except when you ask someone to prom and they say yes.

What I learned

At first, I considered whether or not I got accepted to a college as validation of whether I'd worked hard enough. But eventually, I learned to take my rejections with a grain of salt. I was applying to the most competitive schools in the world. If I'm confident that I did my best and tried my hardest, then not getting in simply meant it was not the right school for me. Life goes on.

The money factor

Fortunately, Columbia gave me enough aid to match Duke's cost of attendance, removing the financial factor from my decision. I hope to earn an ROTC scholarship, but otherwise, my parents are footing the bill.

My advice

Don't worry if you have fewer extracurricular or academic opportunities at your high school. Colleges consider what you do with what you have.

Applying to college takes dedication, but it's worth it to commit to the process. Too many of my friends with potential didn't apply to schools they could have gotten into because applying took so much time and effort. If you don't put in the work, you won't have a chance to reap the rewards.