High School Reflections

Posted by William Zhang on April 14, 2022 · 10 mins read

It’s hard to believe that I’m going to be graduating high school in a couple of months. I have so many thoughts floating around in my head - as of late, I’ve tried to clear my commitments so I get some time in between now and summertime to take it slow and reflect.

Senior Year and My High School Mentality

I’m really happy with how my senior year and overall high school mentality (at least my upperclassmen years) left me.

In freshman and sophomore year (before COVID started), I was more or less following the crowd of my academically-motivated peers with a heavy school workload. I studied a ton and didn’t even have a lunch period. Looking back, I’m honestly amazed how I handled that.

After COVID hit and school went remote, I had the time and freedom to pursue what I was really interested in. Piggybacking off of winning an international computer science award, I was able to land awesome opportunities working at startups, researching, competing in cybersecurity, launching nonprofits, etc. all during quarantine.

I kept the same mentality during junior year. My school (public school in NY) gave us the option of taking the year completely virtually, and I jumped at the opportunity to do so. I was able to do so much cool shit (work, research, get 8+ hrs of sleep a night and wake up at 7AM for the 7:05AM start) while just having a Google Meet playing in the background.

I’m grateful to be back in person during my senior year. Although I’m MUCH less productive (ironically), I really enjoy spending the last year with my friends and classmates. I dropped Spanish and History, have so many free periods and chill classes - it’s great! I kinda feel bad for some (most) of my friends who still are grinding grades and furiously studying, but to each their own I guess. I’m relaxed putting less effort into grades and more into what I’m passionate about. I can sleep 7-8 hrs a night easily, and overall I’m just less stressed.

Second semester senioritis has hit me hard, but I’m embracing it. I got my first B’s and C’s last quarter, but I have good grades in my first two quarters to balance it out - colleges pls don’t rescind me thx :)

College

I’ve gotten into a handful of great schools, and as of now I’m most likely going to be committing to Harvard c/o 2026.

Going into college application season as an Asian-American male from New York gunning for computer science, let’s just say the demographics were not in my favor. Nevertheless, I decided not to do what some other people I know did, which is applying to a less competitive major in the hopes of transferring to CS. Taking a gap year(s) and not going to college altogether were all possibilities I was considering. In the end, I decided to apply to 5 schools early (Stanford + 4 state schools) and get it over with.

In mid-December, I got rejected by Stanford’s restrictive early action program. This was a giant wake up call - humbly, I thought I had a great shot of going there. In a frenzied panic fueled by my fellow classmates’ early action/decision rejections and deferrals, I added 10 schools to my college list and decided to grind them over winter break.

It just so happened that during winter break my parents decided to take the entire family to Texas. I promptly caught COVID and was completely clonked out. I spent a grueling week high off my ass with cough drops, Tylenol, and the sorest throat possibly imaginable. During that time, I pretty much just wrote whatever came out my head for those college supplementals and submitted them right then and there.

Going into January I got into UIUC/Georgia Tech (CS), which I was happy about. However, in February and early-mid March I got deferred => waitlisted at UMich, rejected from UCSD CS, waitlisted at both MIT (which I literally did research and published a first-author paper with!!) and CMU, and rejected from Berkeley. At this point I thought Georgia Tech (my top choice) wasn’t really worth it, and I was just going to skip college and go directly into industry.

Finally, on Ivy Day (March 31st) I was pleasantly surprised. Here’s a rundown of my results:

Acceptances

  • Harvard
  • Yale
  • Columbia
  • Georgia Tech (CS)
  • UIUC (CS)
  • UMD (Undeclared => rejected CS)
  • UCSD (Undeclared => rejected CS)

Waitlists

  • MIT
  • CMU (CS)
  • Cornell
  • Princeton
  • UPenn
  • Duke
  • UMich

Rejections

  • Stanford
  • Berkeley

Thoughts

The main selling point of college for me is just to hang out, make new friends/connections, and be exposed to more opportunities. I mean, it’s not like the binary search algorithm taught at a community college is going to be any different than the binary search algorithm taught at Harvard.

What makes top colleges stand out is simply the talent density; having so many young ambitious people living together allows for amazing things to happen. It’s important to note that talent density isn’t only limited to college. Joining a startup, working at a nonprofit, etc. are all valuable ways to be exposed to these networks. However, I think compared to the alternatives, college in general is still the place with the strongest sense of community, camaraderie, and free will - students are working on bettering themselves rather than bettering the companies they work for.

Ultimately, for deciding what to do after high school, I think the most important question is whether or not the community and talent density at the school you want to go to outweighs the talent density at another endeavour (startup, nonprofit, etc.), factoring in the cost of college.

I used to be quite anti-college, however upon talking to so many students at Harvard and other top schools, I’m quite excited to immerse myself in these environments. If you think about it, it’s truly the only time in your life you will be so closely subject to different cultures, viewpoints, and ways of thought on a daily basis.

Currently, I’m planning on concentrating in CS and taking a relatively easy workload so I have time to socialize, time to sleep, and time to myself. I know I can work, research, create a startup, etc. whenever I want. I want to give college a shot before throwing that opportunity away. After all, I can always drop out if I believe what I’m building can’t wait until graduation.

Addendum:

Regarding gap years, I totally support them. I was originally planning on working in the Bay for a year to establish California residency (because I thought I was gonna get into UC Berkeley’s MET program, silly me); that plan went out the window. However, now I’m really excited to go to college and meet new people, which is why there’s really no need for me to take a gap year.

Advice

Am I qualified to give advice? I’ve gotten a lot of cold DMs on Twitter and emails about advice, wanting to call/chat, etc. Maybe I’ll direct some to this post. With further ado, here’s some of my tips for young, smart, motivated high schoolers:

  • Don’t spend too much time on academics (grades, classes, etc.). Law of diminishing returns - obviously take “hard” classes, but if it gets to a point where you are spending significant amounts of time studying and staying up late because of academics, it probably isn’t worth it.
    • I just realized I didn’t talk about grades or test scores at all - go figure. I was able to coast by most classes with an A, got 5s on the APs and ~1500 on the SAT.
    • I hate studying (maybe I should write another blog post on why studying for tests and shit is completely useless in the long run), so honestly if you can do decently great on tests with little or no studying you’re in an amazing position. That being said, I didn’t just “not study” throughout high school. I wish I could’ve done that, but I did a fair amount of “learning the unit right before the exam”.
  • Do what you love. If you don’t know what your “passion” is, then spend meaningful time finding it. Don’t just fall into the workaholic academic hellhole to distract yourself. I’m sure most people reading this post, however, have got this tip figured out already.
  • BE ACTIVE AND HEALTHY. Nobody likes a couch potato. Work out. Run. Lift. Go outside. Touch grass. Eat your protein.
  • Some generic tips that I still like:
    • Find communities.
    • Do competitions.
    • Work.
    • Connect with likeminded peers.
    • Don’t be afraid of failure or rejection.

Thanks to my good friend Uzay Girit for reading and reviewing this post.