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Sydney - UC Berkeley - Class of 2020

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I was prepared to be rejected from all my reach schools, so I didn't want to get my hopes up about any of them. I tried not to have a clear favorite.

Twenty-six college visits, 18 applications, GPAs, test scores, acceptance rates—it felt like getting into college was all about the numbers. And, in the end, most of my admissions decisions were statistically predicable—except for one.

Hometown: Robbinsville, NJ

High School: Public

GPA: 3.8/4.2 (weighted)

ACT: 32

SAT: 2010

Major: Environmental science

Goal: Meet new people and make connections

College

Status

UC BerkeleyAttending
Boston CollegeAccepted
Columbia UniversityDenied
Cornell UniversityDenied
Duke UniversityDenied
Fordham UniversityAccepted
George Washington UniversityAccepted
Georgetown UniversityDenied
Harvard CollegeDenied
Lehigh UniversityAccepted
Northeastern UniversityAccepted
Princeton UniversityDenied
Rutgers UniversityAccepted
Syracuse UniversityAccepted
University of PennsylvaniaDenied
Villanova UniversityAccepted
Yale UniversityDenied
Freshman Year Update

Cal is fast-paced and high pressure, but the people seem much more laid back than in the Northeast—and compared to New York, everyone is a slow walker! My first class, though, was terrifying! I was hyper-conscious of all the brilliant people surrounding me. I felt more confident my second semester, after faring decently grade-wise.

With the rowing team and classes, my day is packed from 5:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., so I have to micromanage my study time. Luckily, my roommate and floormates are great. We live in a suite off campus, with its own kitchenette and two bathrooms! It's nice, although it lacks some of the social aspects of a big residence hall.

I worried I'd feel alone in a school of 35,000. But there is a real sense of community here!

Top factors: science and crew

My parents raised me with the notion that education is one of the most important things in life, and that a good college means success. So I wanted to aim for the best education possible. I applied to colleges based on their high academic standing, especially in the sciences. And, because I'm a rower, I looked for schools with Division I crew teams.

The Ivy League schools were very high on my list, as were other top-ranked schools like Georgetown and Duke. I didn't feel that I had the most stellar achievements and grades, but I felt good about my test scores. I had also challenged myself throughout high school to take the highest level courses possible, while also balancing extracurriculars such as Girl Scouts, competitive piano, and most of all, crew. I hoped at least one of my favorite colleges would see that I worked extremely hard.

Keeping expectations in check

I was prepared to be rejected from all my reach schools, so I didn't want to get my hopes up about any of them, and I tried not to have a clear favorite. But Yale was probably my top choice. I just felt the most at home there. I also really liked UC Berkeley from the second I set foot on campus. I loved not only the aesthetic beauty but the rich history and prestige of the university, as well as the school spirit.

When my admissions decisions started to arrive, I wasn't surprised. I was getting accepted into the colleges for which I had above average test scores, and rejected from those I did not. I was denied from all the Ivies. On the bright side, I was accepted to many other schools I liked. I was seriously considering Rutgers. It was only 30 minutes from home, had good programs in my major, and was relatively inexpensive compared with the other schools I got into. Plus it had a great women's crew team.

Confetti from Cal

On the morning of my 18th birthday, I woke up, looked at my phone, and saw an email from UC Berkeley telling me to check my student portal for my admissions decision. I was fairly certain it was a denial because my numbers weren't above their published averages. I logged in and digital confetti rained down my phone screen—revealing an acceptance letter! I was so surprised! I immediately texted my parents, who were away at the time, as well as all my closest friends.

I considered both Rutgers and Cal for a while, but in the end, the specific academic programs and resources at Cal won me over. Plus, its women's crew team is #1 in the nation. Cal brings together all of my interests beautifully. Go Bears!

My ups and downs

Since I completed 18 applications, I experienced a lot of stress and sometimes emotional breakdowns. Physically, I lost a lot of weight and felt very tired. The most stress came when I had several application deadlines approaching at once and knew that if I wanted to apply, I had to finish them.

Surrounding myself with close friends was a huge help. My best friends and my boyfriend comforted me and kept me sane. They all shared in my excitement when I was accepted to Cal, which felt great, as did knowing that some of my stress had paid off.

What I learned

It's okay to take risks in your essays and explore your failures. For example, for my essay, I chose to write about the mistakes I made during a race that caused me to crash my boat and almost become disqualified. Because I was applying to schools with top crew teams, I felt I was taking a risk with this topic. But through the essay I was able to discover (and explain) how the event helped shape me as a person.

The money factor

I did not receive any financial aid from Berkeley. I will be paying for college with loans.

My advice

Stay realistic about your chances of acceptance when applying to highly selective schools. Don't doubt yourself, but don't get your hopes up. Being pleasantly surprised is definitely better than being let down.

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