Advice from a Harvard Alumnus: How to stand out in your college application

  Jay Chen graduated from Harvard University in 2001. Since then, he has become a navy officer, has run for Congress to represent the 39th district in 2012, and is currently on Hacienda La Puente Unified School District Board of Education. Before all of that, he was a student at Glen A. Wilson High School…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/starraptureblog/" target="_self">Cassandra Hsiao</a>

Cassandra Hsiao

May 27, 2015

Jay Chen (Picture Credit)


Jay Chen graduated from Harvard University in 2001. Since then, he has become a navy officer, has run for Congress to represent the 39th district in 2012, and is currently on Hacienda La Puente Unified School District Board of Education.

Before all of that, he was a student at Glen A. Wilson High School involved in different clubs and activities, some of which are nationally recognized. He then received an NROTC scholarship to attend Harvard, which meant that the navy would pay for his tuition and in return, he would serve in the navy. After a year, he decided to be a full-time student, although later on he would join the navy through a commissioning program. He majored in Social Studies, a mixture of politics, philosophy and economics, and minored in Latin American studies.

Mr. Chen gave an inside look at the college scene, answering big questions and debunking myths.

Q: Was Harvard always your dream school?

Harvard was always my ideal school. My brother went to Harvard as well. I wanted to get out of California and leave Los Angeles because I grew up here. I always encourage students to try to leave their hometown and try a different community because that’s the one opportunity you get when you go to college. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.

Q: What were some steps you took to get there?

The standard things, of course: you need good grades and good SAT scores, but I’d say leadership and extracurriculars are important. A lot of students can get good grades and can test well, but whether or not you can lead an organization and take it to another level—that’s what Harvard is looking for. You really need to have some statewide or national recognition—you can’t just be the best within your own school. You need to have the opportunity to compete against students outside of your school. That’s one of the reasons why going to a public school is great because you end up competing against more students versus a private school, where the opportunities are a little more limited.

I was really happy to go to Wilson High School. I was chief of the newspaper. I was also president of the Leo Club and the Leo organization is worldwide. Through that organization I was able to become district Leo president and was able to extend my leadership experiences. Those are the things that students should try to do—not just excel in school but outside as well.

Q: What was something that surprised you at Harvard?

I was surprised by how easy it was to take on leadership roles even at Harvard. When you think of Harvard, you think, ‘All these students are overachievers. Where would I fit in?’ but once a college selects you, it selects you for a reason. Whatever college you go to, you should never feel intimidated or that you don’t belong. If you work hard and you are committed, you can succeed in university. I was co-president of the Asian American Association and I was a cartoonist for the Harvard Crimson, so I still stayed very involved extracurricular-wise at Harvard. Also, if there’s an organization or club that doesn’t exist, you can create it. It’s a very welcoming environment for innovators and leaders.

Q: What is one defining characteristic about Harvard students?

I think they’re all very motivated. They are not all cut from the same mold but they’re all motivated and hardworking. You’re going to have real geniuses in the crowd as well but you don’t have to be a genius to get in. It’s better to be well-rounded and to be good at a lot of different things. Harvard students have a lot of capabilities. Harvard wants a class that stands out. They don’t want a bunch of students who scored perfect on the SAT, or only students who are going to be great mathematicians or scientists. They want the soccer player, they want the artist, they want the cello player, they want the guy who is going to make a film and win an Oscar. That’s what Harvard is looking for. And that means they are looking for people who are self-motivated, so that no matter what field they go into, they are going to do well. They will bring great pride to the Harvard name and donate back to the school.

Q: You mentioned well-rounded students. Nowadays, many students are overloading themselves with different clubs, extracurriculars, and AP classes. What is your take on this?

When I say well-rounded, I don’t mean jack-of-all-trades, master of none. You don’t want to do 10 different activities and not accomplish anything in them. It’s better to do two or three activities well and make a difference.

I also interview for Harvard. Very often I’ll get students who are in five or six different clubs and maybe they are the secretary of one. And that’s about it. It’s much more impressive to Harvard if you are focused on maybe two or three clubs and you rise to be vice president or president. You can say, “I grew club membership from fifty to a hundred.” The difference you made in that position means a lot more than holding many different positions. Anyone can join a club. What matters is what you did in that club.

Q: How has Harvard continued to impact you after graduation?

Even after graduating Harvard, they stay in touch and ask you to contribute. I’m happy to contribute because I feel like Harvard has given me so much and I want that opportunity to be available to other people as well. Harvard is very generous in financial aid and I think by being more generous they are able to admit more diversity in body and students from different social economic classes. You shouldn’t be limited in where you go to school because of your income. Harvard recognizes that. The Harvard network is really fantastic. It’s the oldest university in America, so by default it’s going to have a lot of alumni. That network is really helpful.

Q: If you could travel back in time right before your college days, what is something you would do differently?

That’s an easy answer. I would take a year off before I went to college. I would take a gap year. First I would get accepted to a college and then I would defer for a year. I would then go travel or work or go do something that will help me mature, because when you’re a high school student going to college, the environment changes so much. Colleges offer so many resources and there’s so much learning that can be done there. However, you’re still the same student you were when you were in high school, so there’s a big gap in maturity.

A lot of students are a little bit immature when they enter college. They’re finally out of their parents’ sight, they can party, and they can do all these things. They waste a lot of time in college that could really be spent taking advantage of these resources. It’s better to take a year off, mature, grow, and get the partying out of your system. When you get to college, you can really buckle down and focus. One of my regrets is that I didn’t spend enough time talking to professors. I went to the classes, I did the work, but I never interacted with professors. I never really had clear academic passion because I was doing so many extracurricular activities. If I could go back, I would focus a little more on my classes, get to know the professors, and take advantage of that aspect of Harvard.

Q: Going back to the college culture that high schools are fostering, many students are aiming for Ivy Leagues because they are at the top of the ranking. How important are rankings and do they matter as much as we think they do?

Reputation and prestige –these are things that are inescapable in life, but it’s not the most important thing. It’s better to go to a college that suits you. There are a lot of people who go to top rank schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc., and sometimes they are very unhappy there. It’s not the right cultural fit for them. You can take a look at these top schools: very often you’ll see suicide. A lot of these top schools have these problems because of the pressure, or the support isn’t there. That even goes for high schools. There are a lot of high schools that are very competitive and prestigious. They have high incidences of suicide. It’s far more important to go to a school that fits you.

If you really wanted to go to Harvard, and you didn’t get in the first time, you could go to another school that suits your interests and capabilities, do really well, and then go to Harvard or Stanford for graduate school. Don’t think that you have to get a name brand school to start off with, but if you really did want to go, you can always go to graduate school. But if you go to a school like Harvard and you get poor grades, that’s not going to help you either. It’s not a good fit. It’s always good to open up a door, but once you’re through that doorway, you still have to perform. When you have that college on your resume, it can maybe make people give you the benefit of the doubt, but once you open your mouth, none of that matters. People are going to figure out what you’re about, where your intelligence is. You’re going to have to prove yourself and you can’t just rely on a college degree.

Q: What is your advice on college essay and finding yourself through that process?

I think the college essay is really important because it’s the one way you can stand out. It’s important not to write something very cliché. I read a lot of college essays where people talk about very typical themes. What you want to do is write something very true to yourself. Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. Talk about something difficult that happened and how you overcame it. You don’t want to pretend at being invincible if you think that’s what colleges want. They want to see that you’re mature and that you’re able to cope with hardships. That’s actually a good trait to have because when you’re in college, you won’t have as much of a support structure. You will have to be more independent and that essay can really help bring that out.

Q: When is it too early to start thinking about college?

I think it’s never too early to think about college. I think you really have to think about colleges once you get to the freshman year of high school. You should start thinking about it even before freshman year because you have to take the right courses in order to get where you want. If you only start paying attention sophomore or junior year, chances are, there’s someone already thinking ahead of you and they’re going to be in the leadership position you were hoping to get. You should start thinking about it before you step foot in high school.


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Picture credit : Cassandra Hsiao at Harvard(2012)


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