International Student,  Success

How To Get Into the Ivy League: An Interview with Nick

I first met Nick in my freshman year of high school in Taiwan.

We both attended Kaohsiung American School. We both loved basketball and hit it off right away.

In fact, I distinctly remember stretching in PE class and singing “When You Look Me in the Eyes” by the Jonas Brothers with him.

While I wasn’t impressed with his vocals (and he’ll admit to this), I was always fascinated with how dedicated he was at one thing. His studies.

“Man, this guy literally takes handwritten notes in class AND really reviews them,” I would think.

Eight years later, he now has his bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University and is now pursuing his master’s at Columbia University.

We’re talking the Ivy League now.

And I’m not surprised.

Though I never considered myself an academic, Nick inspired me to work harder and more efficiently in my junior and senior year of college. Surprisingly, I was even named Most Outstanding Graduating Senior in my major.

I thought I would interview him so he could give incoming high schools seniors and graduate school applicants around the world some insight into how he did it himself.

Columbia University campus

1. Why did you want to attend a top 15 university?

“When applying as an incoming undergraduate, I applied to around 35 schools in the US, UK and Asia.

Like many other “good Asian” students, my end goal since I was young had been to get into a top 15 university whether it be MIT, UPenn or Stanford.

However, this goal wasn’t parent-driven. It was actually quite self driven.  I prided myself in being “smart” and therefore, I felt like I needed to get into a top 15 school to validate all of my hard work.

Otherwise, I would not feel accomplished and not satisfied. In addition, I have an ambitious goal of founding biotech startups, which is best aided by an education from a world renowned institution.”

Nick at Johns Hopkins University

2. How did you get accepted into Johns Hopkins University? What advice would you give to others?

“In the end, I attended Johns Hopkins University for my undergrad and I am currently a graduate student at Columbia University.”

For both degrees, I majored in Biomedical Engineering.

I am very proud to be a student of these two institutions as I feel like I worked very hard for the right reasons to get into both.

While I believe that part of college admissions is determined by luck, I can still provide information regarding qualities each of my Alma Maters value.

Being the first research university in the US, JHU heavily emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge.”

1. Conduct research projects

“In high school, I used several of my IB course term papers as opportunities to conduct mini research projects. After shadowing at the Kaohsiung Medical University, I used their chromatography equipment for extract analysis in my extended essay and tumor growth data for preliminary modeling in my math IA. Making these kinds of extra steps make all the difference to JHU.”

2. Utilize your strengths and do your research

“In my sophomore year, I had the chance to look at some of the admissions comments on my application and I found that my main strength was in:

(1) my research experience and

(2) knowing exactly what I want to research once I get to JHU.

In my supplementary essay for JHU, I specifically identified which professors I wanted to work with and why.”

3. Get a high SAT score

“It’s also important to note that I got a 4.5 gpa and 2100 SAT score. For top universities, GPA / standardized test scores can’t make you but they can definitely break you.”

Nick at Columbia University

3. What was the difference between undergraduate and graduate school applications? What can others do to get into a competitive graduate school program?

1. Come from a well-respected program

“Coming from JHU, #1 in BME, I was already an accredited candidate despite just a 3.25 GPA.”

2. Conduct Research

“I did well outside of classes in a summer internship at NUS [Singapore] and research at the medical campus and finally.”

3. Have a compelling narrative

“In my first two years at JHU, my girlfriend was receiving cancer treatment. Thus, I spent a significant amount of my time caretaking and supporting her. In my graduate school application essays, I talked about how feeling limited in my ability to help people in need inspired me to further my studies in BME.

Heartfelt and sincere and genuine narratives with relevance to your field are very appealing to Ivy League schools.

Other graduate schools I got into include UPenn, Brown, Rice, Berkeley-UCSF, USC, BU and Northwestern.”

Good luck!

Salute to all the university applicants this upcoming year.

If you found any of this helpful, please share it with any friends or family members who could use some of the advice!


Marjon is the Creator of Third-Culture Thoughts. A political nerd and basketball enthusiast at heart, he writes about everything related to culture and the international experience.