I Applied to 27 Universities... Here's what I Learned.

I Applied to 27 Universities... Here's what I Learned.

  • Universities that I applied


Oxford (rejected)

KCL (pending)

Warwick (accepted | conditional offer A*AA)

York (accepted | conditional offer AAA)

Southampton (accepted | conditional offer AAB)

Felt quite pity when Oxford sent me that rejection letter... To be honest, I was kind of expecting it. Didn't get the chance to do the writing exam TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) because my city was in lockdown on the 3rd of November, and the test center I registered for was in Nanjing, so I couldn't attend it. In the beginning, I thought Oxford'd give me an opportunity to do the interview because I really thought I had an impressive Personal Statement. Later on, I found out that I was just wrong; with 20,000+ applications, they wouldn't give the slightest damn about an Asian guy... However, it didn't crush me; I am tougher than that.

  • Why I chose KCL (ranked 33) over UCL (ranked 8)

Talking about my other choices. Many people said I was stupid enough to choose KCL over UCL, which both asked for A*AA for my major PPE - Philosophy, Politic, and Economics. Still, I kept my stance. Here are my reasons:

*Those who judge the goodness and badness of universities based on rankings are just superficial. Don't get me wrong here. I am not saying all ranking websites are worthless, but they should only be a minor criterion for reference when deciding which university you want to attend.

If you look closely and do the research, King's wins hands down for Social Science and Humanities, which means stronger philosophy, public policy, and political economy courses in which I am going to study. I'd do the same If I was going to make this choice again.




Carnegie Mellon





Johns Hopkins



Princeton (got an alumni interview a few days ago, don't know if most people get one...)




Yale (rejected)


UC Barkley


UC San Diego

UC Santa Barbara

UC Irvine

  • Why I didn't apply for Dartmouth/UChicago/Northwestern etc.

I want to talk about why I left out several equally respected universities in my application:

After doing some research and randomly scrolling through some web pages, I excluded Dartmouth from my ivy list because of its geographical location. As international applicants, we are going to treat our school community as home in the four years (unless you choose not to be a boarder) during holidays, when all your local friends have gone back home and met their family. That will probably be a rough time for you (honestly, there's not much to do apart from doing additional studies, sports, and watching soap operas to kill time, especially now COVID has caused some travel restrictions). At least for me, I want to find a college located in larger towns, where I can be surrounded by people and socialize.

About Northwestern and UChicago, I simply don't like the whether there—Illinois, chilling... Chicago was a heavily industrialized city in the 20th century, and now some elements of it remain. It's undoubtedly a tier-one university. However, I have safety concerns around Hyde Park and those gang neighborhoods near the school campus. Every year there's a case or two of students being killed... (I know JHU is also located in a relatively dangerous area, but at least the weather is better). I do understand why that is the case. Poor African-American people moving to downtown to make it easier for them to claim benefits and have easier access to the government-provided welfare.

Personally, I think in order to get into a top elite school, you have to tick off those four boxes:

  • Preparation

I don't consider myself intellectually gifted. I have hardly ever been called the 'brightest kid in the class.' Darting across these years, I didn't work hard at the beginning. On my transcript sent out to all the universities, clearly, they can see what I got in Y10 (equivalent to 9th Grade in the States). What I am most grateful for is that I started to care so deeply about learning because of ME; I chose to push myself to the limit without anyone's prodding. All my friends and teachers said I made an enormous transition, from sleeping through lessons to being at the top of the class.

Hundreds of hours of voluntary work don't come in one night. Start early, don't wait until the last few months to start your applications. Find a local community service, create your own student club at school, do one independent research project... I wish I had put more work into preparation; my best extracurricular activities were school-level leadership roles, mainly in the clubs I enjoyed.

  • Privilege

I am a first-generation student; my parents had no higher education than secondary school. Compared to others, I spent the entire 6 years of my secondary and high school at Wycombe Abbey International School. Many kids here came from privileged backgrounds. Every time school finishes and all the broader are allowed to go home, you can see all the Bentley and Maybach parking next to the road... However, it was my parents who encouraged me to strive, not stepping back because I hadn't got an advantaged starting line. They advocated for independence in my school performance. When I got home with all the C's and D's grades on my report cards, they didn't force any pressure on me, just told me to work harder.

At the beginning of Y13, I felt the pressure was coming on me. I had once thought of dropping Physics. However, my physics teacher noticed my struggle. After the hour-long discussion where we just sat together and talked, that giving-up thought disappeared. What touched me the most was that he said he treated me like his son (he has two daughters, no biological sons). He only wants me to do Physics for fun, and he would try everything to maintain my interest in this subject if I choose to keep it going.

It was a privilege to be treated by teachers that closely. I know aiming for intrinsic motivation is what people often tell me to go for, but most of the time, outside factors weigh heavily. For me, I didn't want to ignore people's high expectations of me and let them down, so I chose to put myself into this game and make them proud, make my significance. It turns out that not quitting Physics was one of the best decisions I made in my whole Y13.

Among all my peers, I didn't attend the best local private school, nor did I have any agent helping me, nor did I have the best English teacher correcting my essays. I don't consider myself a privileged kid. However, I'd like to share a quote by Serenity Prayer, one of the greatest American political philosophers of the 20th century:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
  • Opportunity

During my time at WAIS, I was close to many teachers: my English, Economics, and Physics teacher, also my counselor, who was a pretty humorous guy. They recognized my difference compared to my classmates and pushed me beyond the classroom standard—for example, asking me to do further research on xxx subjects.

Besides, 5 years of rowing experience really made me stand out among peers. My coach recognized my potential from where I stood in Year 9, and I am thankful for that. My school offers us the opportunity to compete outside with other squads; not many people in China get that chance.

  • Luck

Luck is a complete arbitrary variable. Being lucky = your preparation meets privilege and opportunity.

I have no regrets about applying to so many reaches. I believe I've basically done all my parts to the best standard possible: my grades, essays... The fact that so many people get perfect statistics and still get denied means no prediction could be made of whether you can get in or not. Even it turns out that all those elite universities reject me, I will be glad about the amount of work I've put into the process. The average populace hardly ever experiences the same hardships of applying for these many colleges.

Praying, hoping the admission offer who read your essays is having a good time, not someone who's rushing to get off work at 5 o'clock in the afternoon may work for you (ignore me if you are a legacy, athlete, or a 'philanthropist'). However, you should ask yourself the question, "would my school community care about me if I get crushed by a car tomorrow?" There are way more things to do except for getting good scores.

For me, getting into a good university benefits me magnificently in life. A place with freedom, insight, and access. The ability to see and understand the truth, which you don't very often in less selective schools. The secret key to an ivy league pathway isn't about straight A's on your school transcript, outstanding extracurricular activities, or coherent with no error essays; it's a gamble for everyone. Do not wish the admissions committee to be fair!

Okay, the last bit is the 7 lessons I learned from the process:

  1. Build Up Strong Relationships With Your Teachers.

I asked for four recommendations letters: one from the counselor, one from my physics teacher (head of science), one from my Economics teacher, and one from my rowing coach at school as the additional. I know an additional reference letter is not recommended unless it substantially contributes to your application. I did it only because I mentioned rowing in several essays, and I thought adding in my coach's voice would improve the validity of my words.

In our British education school, teachers don't need to write recommendation letters for their students, at least not in the length of an essay. Since I was one of the few students asking for one, all my teachers spent quite a reasonable amount of time working on my references, and they do weigh significantly!

2. Don't Disclose Your Strategy Until It's Too Late.

I learned this from Jamie Beato, the co-founder, and CEO of Crimson Education, in his TEDx Talks Ten lessons for success in business.

"As people, we are very obsessed with short-term gratification. But it destroyed your ability to build a lot of long-term strategic value."

University application is a head-to-head competition. The more you tell other students about what activities you're doing, what academics you're doing, what your game plan is, the more competition you create for yourself. It's like in a business market, share your model with the whole world = put it on Goggle = more people come into your market."

We need to take a long-term view and keep our secret cards to ourselves until the strategy is so good that no one can actually break and compete. I ranked my application according to the level of admissions difficulties because I could spend time doing their essays. When I finished my Stanford essays, which were like 8 of them, I just wanted to 'present myself' in front of my friends, at least I thought they were, to feel happy for me. However, the results turn out disappointing. Not only did I not receive any compliment, but I was also not 'welcomed.'

Here is a little anecdote, one of my friends asked me to show him my Personal Statement. I thought it won't hurt anyway because he is not even applying for the UK, so I sent him my final draft. It ends up that two days later, he 'decided' to apply through UCAS, and I found out that many of the expressions in there were similar to what I wrote, just in a paraphrased version. It ends up that our school referee asked him to rewrite the whole thing, which could be counted as a happy ending

3. Play strategic Games.

I applied for Yale for Early Action and ended up being rejected. If I were going to make this decision again, I wouldn't apply for Yale in the earlier round; I'd do Cornell, Brown, or UPenn because of the Early Decision offer, and they do make a difference!

Basically, the top universities use either Restrictive Early Action (you can only apply for one private school only) or Early Decision (if you are admitted, you have to withdraw all your application from elsewhere and go to that school). What's obvious is that all the US and international elites will aim for the top one! What you should do is avoid competition! If you were deferred by Harvard or Stanford in the early round, Duke, Tufts, or Vanderbilt probably would have accepted you.

4. Don't Limit Yourself.

Apply to as many universities as you can while putting in your best effort for each one! However, my suggestion is to apply for 10-12 universities; the more is overkill. However, if you really want to do more, find an agent to help you with all the trivial matters.

5. Keep on tracking what is going on.

Having a list of universities I want to apply for is more critical than I've ever thought. Having a sense of what I want to accomplish helps me know which stage I am at. Without it, I feel like I can never finish it because I'd always want to apply for more.

6. Ask, But Do Not Rely to Them.

I handed in my application right on the deadline day in most cases because I underestimated its required time consumption. Every year is the same worldwide; although the deadline is the 1st of January, Christmas starts beforehand, and the teachers in my school do not pay much attention to any messages over holidays.

What you should do is find an agent. At this point, you might think that only weak and dependent people find an agent because they rely on others heavily in the pathways. Trust me, if you feel that way, you were precisely me a few months ago. Yes, I have changed my thought on this after I experienced 4 months of enormous pressure, my counselor was too busy with his own matter, and he always replied to my message late, which put more anxiety on me.

You need to show your essays to somebody, don't show them to a bunch of people. The more people you show it to, the more opinions you're gonna get. It's gonna drive you crazy. Show it to this year's English teacher, last year's English teacher, your guidance counselor, your parents, and that's enough. Don't show it to your best friend who's really smart because you need to give this to somebody who will be objective and understand you.

7. The process is uncontrollable, so don't be negative.

Applying to reach Schools is risky. There are many uncontrollable variables, but definitely apply for reach schools; you might be what that college wants. However, only apply to the schools you will be happy going to.

Try to don't miss the deadlines, but don't over-stress if you do; universities often have a grace time. As long as you receive your applicant portal, everything will be fine. Overall, don't complain, be grateful. Colleges should be four years of work, but not four years of struggle. Find a college at the level that you belong, where you'll have the freedom to spread your wings and fly, not drown under the pressure of work.

QS world university rankings 2021 pdf download: https://info.qs.com/rs/335-VIN-535/images/QS-World-University-Rankings-2021.pdf