1. Tell us a little bit about yourself
I’m Ying Hong. I go to Stanford University, and I’m a sophomore. A large part of my life has revolved around science and math. The culmination of this is my representing Malaysia in the annual International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) several times in secondary school. I make bad puns and am not ashamed of them. I have the uncanny ability to draw very round circles and have recently translated that skill into drawing and sketching. I can write words in very uniform straight lines on blank, unlined paper.
2. What was included in the application process to your university?
There was the CommonApp, and Stanford had plenty of shorter essay questions meant to probe my personality, among those that I have record of are “a letter to your future roommate” and “reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development”.
3. How did you approach your essays?
I talked about my experience at the last IMO I participated in. I did not focus on the competition itself, but more on my experience as a leader, being the most experienced (read ‘oldest’) in the team. The gist of it was that overall, the team did not do as well as hoped, including myself. I am not a natural leader, and telling others to accept failure and move on (the competition wasn’t over yet) would just sound contrived. But having been through many such disappointments I knew how they felt and was able to talk them through it.
How did I write it? My writing style is very economical. I do not add flowery language and fluff to distract the reader. The point I want to convey here is my personal growth through this sequence of events I am chronicling. 500 words is very little. Spend them wisely.
Did you perform any internships before applying?
Not really, but I did work as a camp facilitator several times at Olympiad math camps with Ardent Educational Consultants (run by our IMO trainer Mr. Suhaimi). These camps run for several days. I also taught and trained my secondary school (SMJK Katholik) math team.
What are some of the activities that you participated that you think helped your application?
I played chess, and represent my secondary school and district (Petaling Utama) to MSSD and MSSS.
I was concertmaster in the school symphony (playing violin).
I also volunteered at a local Tzu Chi recycling centre (probably not very helpful in application but what the heck
6. Did you have to take any tests?
SAT – The essay has to be written in a specific format. For the vocab section you just have to memorize lots of words (SAT vocab books are a great resource) and the passages portion is rather tricky. I attend the Princeton Review course, but honestly once you know the tricks, they are pretty easy to nail down. I think the books are good enough. And lots of practice. As for the math portion… well…
SAT II (subject tests) – I took physics, chemistry and math. The A-Levels should be more than sufficient to master these, but even if you’re planning to take them before you complete your A-Levels, they are not very hard, because they do not go too deep into the concepts. Again the books are good resources, and do lots of practice.
7. How was the interview session?
There was no interview for Stanford. But I did have an interview for MIT (where I got waitlisted the first time I applied). It really depends on the interviewer. They are Malaysian alumni, so in general they want to help you. Mine was very ‘chill’, and I just talked very naturally. He got me to talk about what I was passionate about, and the interesting things I do outside of school. I talked about the crazy random projects I built and some cool origami and how they were in fact very mathematical creatures (you can construct the cube root of 2 and trisect an angle with origami. Not doable with straight edge and compasses).
8. What do you think contributed to the success of your application?
I think my IMO credentials (silver medal) weighed in heavily. But I also think that wrapping it up in a cocoon of fuzzy personality stuff and showing that I am not a robot who just does math and programming all day (although sometimes I do that) helped me distinguish myself from just another nerd. Then again, Stanford IS nerd nation. Anyhow, they certainly want students of a certain calibre, but once you get past that point, there are a lot of randomness and variables that can affect your application, from the lack of coffee to the excellent Californian weather.
9. What advice would you give to future applicants?
START EARLY. Really. Again, START EARLY.
Stress over it, have nightmares about it, fuss and cry about it, but if you really want to get into the school, it is worth it.
Don’t just apply to schools you want to go to, because most probably everyone else is applying there too. Apply to some of the lesser-known schools as well. You may have to explain to your future job interviewer where in the world it is, but the experience of living in the US or any foreign land is priceless.
START EARLY. Can’t repeat this often enough.
Ask friends or teachers or strangers to read your essays. Get honest feedback. Read them out loud (to yourself). If you don’t feel comfortable then you’re not earnest about it and they can sense fear…
1. Does your college require you to submit any supplements? If yes, how were they?
I don’t fully recall… There were some short essay questions as mentioned above, and I’m pretty sure there were short questions like what your favourite books are and favourite music and even movies… Don’t sweat it.
2. Did you apply via Regular Decision, Early Decision, or Early Action? What impacted your choice?
Regular. MIT was my top choice, but early action (or decision? I’m honestly still confused about the two) was only available for Americans. So I waited…
3. We know that the US places a focus on ECAs too. If a student wasn’t too involved in secondary school, is it too late to start during Pre-U, and where would be the best place to start?
I’d say it’s not too late, but you’ll certainly be at a slight disadvantage, given others have probably already accumulated years of experience and held many leadership positions. But as long as you show the initiative to learn and grow as a human being, and not just a certificate collector, then you should be good. Also, ECAs most certainly do not have to be ‘president of the marching band’ or ‘head prefect’. I’m sure if you weren’t too involved in those things, you must have done other things that may have profoundly impacted your life. Dig deep and find what truly drives you.
4. Any advice on how to ask for recommendations from your teachers/lecturers?
Ask. No way around it. Make eye contact. Don’t shake and convulse at the sight of your math teacher.
Get someone who knows you best as a person and not just about your academic achievements. The recommendations are there to fill in that outsider’s perspective of you as a human being, and your grades should be reflected on your side of the application.
Ying Hong Tham is pursuing a Computer Science degree at Stanford University under Astro scholarship. You can find him sneaking into lecture halls at night to use the chalkboards for math scratch work and random doodling.