The College Essay That Conquered the Ivy League

Applying for college is a long, difficult, even painful process. Young people work so hard to paint themselves as desirable candidates for universities that are all but guaranteed to receive far more applicants than than they can ever hope to approve. Indeed some schools only accept fewer than 10% of qualified applicants. This is certainly the case in the fabled Ivy League, the elite assembly of schools with an admissions process so notoriously difficult as to be effectively out of reach for most young people. Well, wait a minute! Maybe that’s not true. One amazing teen in the Los Angeles suburb of Walnut, managed to gain acceptance to the entire Ivy League — plus Stanford and UC Berkeley. The key to her achievement? A dynamite admission essay.

Cassandra Hsiao is a first-generation immigrant to America of Malaysian/Taiwanese heritage. As a recent arrival, she has struggled to fit in. She has had to learn a new language, of course, and this involves not just vocabulary and grammar but cultural context and slang, which can be so very difficult to grasp. There is also the effort required to adapt to new ways of performing basic tasks we so often take for granted, ranging from banking to driving to doing well in school. And if all this wasn’t enough there is the contrast between daily life out in the world and daily life at home, where older cultural and linguistic norms often stick around for years.

This struggle, and the resulting feelings of alienation, served as the topic of Ms. Hsiao’s admissions essay:

“We were both crying now. My mother asked me to teach her proper English so old white ladies at Target wouldn’t laugh at her pronunciation. It has not been easy. There is a measure of guilt when I sew her letters together. Long vowels, double consonants — I am still learning myself. Sometimes I let the brokenness slide to spare her pride but perhaps I have hurt her more to spare mine.”

Ms. Hsiao really knocked the socks off the admissions officers who read it. Worth noting, however, is the fact that Hsiao is no ordinary high school student. Though still only seventeen years old, she is a practicing entertainment journalist, and has interviewed movie stars. In other words there’s more to her applications than just the essay.

The bottom line, however, is that her applications were accepted on their merits — she had no strings to pull. This is worth considering for ambitious students who might be too intimidated to aim for the top. The truth is, you never know what might happen.

Read the full essay here.