A condensed version of college advices I wrote for my cousins. Hope it is helpful.
Update after 1 semester: The stuff I’ve written here seems pretty solid. I currently think about optimizing college and the future in similar ways. I have to preface that there is tons of luck involved in the process, and that I got into Harvard because of a really good report my interviewer wrote for me—my resume was fine, but just barely there.
Start of Advices
Disclaimer: My advices will be idiosyncratic, and probably (definitely!) won’t apply to everyone, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. There’s a high degree of luck involved in getting into Elite Unis (though you have to reach a certain standard for you to be considered as a potential applicant), so don’t take my word as gospel.
Extra background info: My preparation for US application is more hap-hazard than most. I decided to apply to US Feb. Y12/Junior Year due to much nagging from my parents, and I have been extremely lucky the entire process in getting awards that I never expected I would get and into schools I never thought I would get into. If there is one takeaway outside of the more concrete advice, then it’s that it is possible to get into these Unis given 1-2 years of preparation. You just (though this is hard) have to provide a reason (in your essays), backed with evidence (via stats), for why YOU are better than all the other applicants with straight-As+20APs+ridiculous-amount-of-extracurriculars (which there is plenty in HK and China, due to what we can cynically call 内卷, and more charitably call “the pursuit for academic excellence”). Now, following this disclaimer, are some advice that you probably don’t want to completely listen.
- Work hard at one thing you love and be better at that thing than anyone else your age
KEY CONCEPT YOU WANT TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN APPLYING GA1 AND FINDING WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO FOCUS ON:
Comparative Advantage—If you have two things that you are good at, pick the thing that other people aren’t doing. You want to be better than anyone else at this one thing so schools can’t afford not to take you.
Explication of GA1:
- Read and explore widely in prep school and first years of senior school to find something you love (i.e., willing to be stuck with this thing for 90%+ of your waking hours and still having energy to continue doing this thing day after day).
- If you are young and you found something you love, spend time on that rather than getting tutors on subjects you are dispassionate about。
*If you don’t really know what to do, focus on 2 subjects: English and Maths. For English, focus on your ability to read and write. For Maths, don’t do repetitive questions, but try really hard and difficult questions that require integration of different areas of Maths.
**This is because so long as you have the basics of English/Maths honed down, you don’t need that much training in order to be the best in your age group in some narrow academic fields (unlike arts/sports where you have to practice 26 hours a day for a decade). Example: I averaged 10+ hours reading & learning Philosophy & Philosophy-related-topics for the past 3 years.
- Find ways to get rid of cheap distractions to find higher-level fun
Explication of GA2 and the Cute Anecdote:
- To have an addictive personality (video game addiction is common amongst boys, not sure about girls) is not a bad thing (it is probably a bonus). What you want is to channel it towards a good cause (i.e. addicted to some productive thing that you love—productive as you define it).
Two Methods to Direct Your Addiction Positively:
- Make what you want to do as appealing as possible
= Find intro-level classes/videos/podcasts that are interesting and less hard-core to get you introduced to the subject (we generally find videos more engaging than books—although higher-level stuff is best accessed through books).
= Have a vague plan for the future, of what you want to do with your education/learning. Some good ways include 1. Contemplate Death 2. Think about Politics and the shitty situation the entire world is in 3. Think about the beauty of really knowing something and understanding the world in some way. But you ultimately have to find your own reason for working your ass off, and it is this reason that will justify your work and make it play.
= Consume some higher-level non-bullshit self-help-that-is-not-really-self-help. E.g. Naval Ravikant, Lex Fridman, Joe Rogan (would it be an insult to your intelligence to say that what I have highlighted & underlined are the pieces of advice I think are most solid?)—Basically listen to entertaining long-form podcasts with brilliant minds will help you formulate a plan.
- Make video-gaming (or some other thing you’re addicted to) as horrible an experience as possible
(You can find a lot of different ways on the internet, so I won’t list out everything here.)
= My Experience 1: I stopped playing games by throwing my mouse and mousepad away. When I bought them again, I was so rusty that I was losing all the time, making the game more torturous than fun.
= My Experience 2: I use blockers (Chrome Extensions—Antigram, Block The YouTube Feed) and also try to unfollow every person who spams too many posts so there’s nothing to check when I go on Instagram & co., making social media—see the ME1 parallel?—not fun.
*The most important thing to take note of is that this is a slow process, and you have to negotiate with yourself on a settlement that you can happily follow than a brutal authoritarian imposition that will make you resentful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLVUXbdqjUw&ab_channel=tmcleanful—(best video I found on this topic).
- Take Short-Cuts (perhaps the most important point because it goes against what parents normally tell kids—“follow the rules”, “be a good student”, etc.)
Basically, do the minimum necessary work. If there is any schoolwork that you think can be done more efficiently in any way, don’t do it.
IMPORTANT NOTE: IPAD IS A GODSEND. Combined with a stand to prop your iPad up and you can do any extra learning (e.g. real hard Maths problems when your teacher is explaining some concept you already understand in Bio) in class and your teachers won’t know.
IMPORTANT NOTE 2: Try to answer questions when you can so that your teacher won’t be suspicious—most questions can be answered even if you didn’t pay attention to the class content.
(Specific to Harrow HK): Take advantage of the great thing about Harrow’s system—that Harrow only sends in your end-of-year grades to schools, meaning you can slack off and revise for Summer Assessment for a good GPA.
It is difficult to talk about the concept more without giving any examples, so here is a list of examples of what I’ve done in order to do the minimum necessary work.
Example 1. Learn Biology from a college textbook rather than listen in Biology class to kill two birds with one stone.
Example 2. Working on STEP and MAT questions rather than textbook questions.
Example 4. Got my EPQ out of the way ASAP (finished December of Y12) by working throughout lunchtimes and brainstorming in EPQ “training sessions”; also tried to align it with what I am going to do anyway, so I didn’t waste much time on the project.
Example 5. Read ahead in History class so there’s no prep to do (by reading really fast and not caring about details—they can be filled in during the revision that I will be talking about in IMPORTANT CAVEAT 1).
Example 6. Preparing a list of Philosophy questions that I am to think about in school lessons when I can’t use the above 5 tactics but still has spare time.
IMPORTANT CAVEAT 1: Ideally you’d want full A*s for GCSE and A-level predicted grades. My GCSE grades were COVID grades, so I can say little about it. I secured my A-level grades by intensely revising for 2 weeks. The intense revision allows me to focus on extracurriculars the rest of the year without caring about school.
IMPORTANT CAVEAT 2 (highlighted because it is less obvious than IC1): You have to take shortcuts in such a way as to impress your teacher. Not many, but pick two teachers whom you are just going to be the best possible student imaginable who works your ass off and goes the extra mile. They are going to be the two teachers you request recommendations from, which is quite an important thing.
N.B. You don’t have to try so intensely in those two teachers’ lessons by the start of Y13 (Senior Year) since the LofR is already written. Focus on your essays from then on and SAT/ACT if you still have those to do.
I highly recommend ICanStudy (https://learn.icanstudy.com.au/) if you want to learn to study effectively.
For background: I went through the whole thing only 6 months ago so it didn’t actually help in my application, but my study habits are basically the same as what it teaches people (only that it is much more systematic and better than whatever I naturally came up with, and more geared towards achieving perfection than mine as being good enough, which is, see IC1, full A*s).
3a. Taking Shortcuts Outside of Academics
Here, there’s only one thing:
Be ruthless with not fulfilling (what you think is) your obligations/duties.
The whole CA process is hard enough. Don’t try to take anything else on your plate. Communicate with your parents & co. to let them know that you’re going to be a bit grumpy and harsh.
This means: Don’t do things that you don’t want to do though think you should do if you believe you could be improving your application in any way using that time to do other things.
N.B. Most of the above advice can be applied to Oxbridge application. (FYI, I got a Philosophy offer from Trinity College, Cambridge.) Only that you don’t have to care about anything (e.g. letters of recommendation, prefect/leadership positions, music/sports) other than finding the 1 thing you love and working on it, abandoning everything else (other than the necessary grades).
Also, learning to speak about your subject rather than just writing about it, and knowing your subject rather than appearing to know it, are important skills for Oxbridge.
There are tons of really good stuff on the internet that talks about essays better than me, and if you are applying to the US you probably will get a counselor—at least your parents will want to get one for you—and they will know more than me. You don’t necessarily need one (someone from Harrow ’21 got into Princeton & Yale & Columbia & Cambridge w/out counselors), but it will be harder on you. So here are some things I learned that might be useful and worth repeating.
- If you get a counselor, USE THEM.
Make demands on your counselor. Send essays to them. Ask them to brainstorm ideas with you for competition entries. Ask them about extracurriculars. The thing to know is that even though you paid your money, counselors won’t automatically pour their hearts and souls out to work for you (after all, they have so many students to cater to and only so much time). You have to provide them with requests, constantly—this will also help you move forward, since an opportunity to request help from your counselor is generally a sign that you strengthening the application in some way.
This applies to school teachers too. Ask them questions. Ask them for clarifications. Use them. Don’t be shy. Your school and your counselors are really expensive.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: You also have to be really nice to them and treat them as actual human beings. This is a) basic human decency, but b) also how you can get them to do the best work for you.)
- Spend a lot of time on your essays. And I mean, A LOT.
A LOT means you should be working on your essays for 2 hours every day for the 3-4 months leading to you submitting everything. It is your only shot and the last step in the whole process. So do it well.
You should try out a ton of different ideas for each of the main types of essays (examples of a type of essay include: Why-School/Major, A-Meaningful-Activity, Your-Best-Extracurricular, Contribution-to-the-Community) and each major area you want to present to AOs (e.g. Music, Sports, Leadership, Academic Strength). This makes starting with the supplements with the most diverse questions worthwhile (e.g. Stanford, Princeton, Yale).
A Note of Sympathy: The Why Major/School essays are really the worst. But because everyone is so fed up with it and so formulaic with what they say, you need to spend extra time thinking about how to structure this one so it is not so generic and stupid and boring and ridiculous but shows your personality and adds to the application in some way—it’ll give you an advantage.
- Make big promises in the essays—exaggerate but don’t lie.
—Pretty self-explanatory. Be yourself. But as the best version of yourself for AOs.
- Criteria to judge a good essay
A quick heuristic to judge whether your essay is worth a dime is whether every single word, punctuation, and sentence counts.
i.e. whether you’ve agonized over how to express a 5-word idea in 4 words without losing anything; whether you’ve written an essay that is (at least) 1.5 times (ideally 2x) the required length and have spent weeks cutting it down to the required word count; whether you can explain clearly your decision to include this adjective/sentence or chose this specific verb. These kinds of things.
US college application is a bitch. But it is also rewarding. By finding what you love and making yourself the best at it, you are not only preparing for application, but for life—so although there’s a lot of showmanship involved, there’s also substance. You will feel like a fraud when you are writing the essays, but you are simply formulating a vision of who you can be and what your unique strengths are (yes, that is the case even with the Why Schools essays, though to a lesser extent). We like to complain about how unfair the application process is, but, although the correlation is not perfect, the better candidates who have put in the most work generally get into the better schools (I’m, of course, a benefactor of the system, so take my advice . Of course, now I am a benefactor of the system, my view of it may be skewed. But anyways, good luck, have fun, and know that whatever suffering you are enduring now will end. And you won’t even remember how bad you felt then.