3 Things I Learned Applying to U.S. Colleges as an Asian American Student (and How I Got In)

As an Asian American, my life has been filled with “firsts.”

My parents uprooted their entire lives to immigrate our family from South Korea to the United States when I was in second grade. I experienced a new “first” day of school in an entirely new school system, and remember my first time speaking an entirely new language.

When I set foot in the hallways of my American high school, I was the first person in my family to do so.

And there, I experienced a whole new “first”: being the first person in my family to apply to a U.S. college.

As an Asian American student applying to college, I felt completely lost.

No one understood how difficult it was to start over in the U.S. education system as a first-generation student. My teachers and peers didn’t. Even my parents didn’t, because they’d already completed their education in Korea.

But I couldn’t let them down when they had already sacrificed so much for me to be there.

So I decided I wouldn’t let the barriers of being a first-generation student hold me back. I couldn’t let anyone see me struggle.

In high school, I pushed myself to keep up with my American peers. I pretended to be someone I was not in order to fit into what I thought were more “American” values. I got involved in all these extracurricular activities, clubs, and leadership opportunities to look impressive to the colleges I wanted to attend.

Eventually, after all that effort to keep up, all I did was completely burn out.

I had spent so much time trying to set myself apart from my immigrant status that I lost myself, and my motivation, completely.

In order to improve my chances of getting accepted into a top-tier college, I knew I needed to improve my relationship with my identity.

Yes, I was a first-generation student. Yes, I faced many barriers that other students never had to go through when applying to college. But I also knew those barriers gave me something the other students could never have.

I spent the next year networking with college professors, developing a Passion Project, and actively exploring my interests. I applied to my dream school.

And I got in.

Now, a bachelor’s degree from USC and a master’s from Harvard later, I’m finally living my dream. I’m the founder & CEO of my very own company. I’m coaching amazing students to get accepted into their dream top-tier colleges. I get to see my students light up when they find their own unique wow-factor.

I would never have gotten to this place without the experience of applying to U.S. colleges as a proud Asian American student.

The three lessons I learned from my upbringing as an immigrant stick with me in every aspect of my life and career, and I can’t help but wonder how my life would have been different if I’d learned them sooner.

Whether you’re a first-generation student like me or just feeling totally overwhelmed in your college admissions process, I’m certain these lessons can help you, too.

3 Lessons from Applying to U.S. Colleges as an Asian American
Lesson #1

Find Your Strengths, Personality, and Values (SPV)

To get accepted into my dream college, I had to know who I was and embrace who I was.

So many students tend to do what looks good on their resume, but everyone’s strengths are so different.

And that’s the thing, top-tier colleges actually want to see what makes you different!

I coach my students to deliver what top-tier colleges really want — a defined set of interests and achievements that will set them apart from other applicants and contribute to a “well-rounded class.”

Needless to say, you’ve got a lot of competition.

Acceptance rates are extremely low. The Class of 2020 saw the lowest acceptance rates in a decade, with little to no improvement in the past few years. In spite of that, many top-tier colleges reported an increased number of applications in 2020. Harvard University reported a record-breaking 57% increase in early applications alone.

In order to stand out, you need to demonstrate your unique set of values and personality. If you don’t show that through strong evidence and a compelling story, who you are can get completely lost in the process.

If you know what your values are, you start choosing to do things that fulfill you instead of drain you. Students with strong values tend to get accepted at a much higher rate because they can convey what’s important to them in a more confident and compelling way.

If you don’t know your values, it’s really hard to know what you need to be working on as a high school student.

When I applied to USC, I cited my very own Passion Project in my application. I stayed true to my values to create something I truly cared about, which really came across in my application.

I found that if I honor my values, I will get results.

Lesson #2

Challenge the Norm

After my college graduation, I started my career working for a few larger college consulting companies. And I hated it.

At these more traditional consulting firms, students were evaluated for their GPA and SAT/ACT scores alone.

They would assess a student’s stats and design a college admissions plan that fit within the confines of their academic standing. If a student didn’t have great stats, they weren’t recommended to reach for any top-tier colleges.

But I didn’t want students to just accept things how they were. I wanted to develop a process that would enrich and expand the student to tap into their true potential.

Consulting services that only focused on stats and scores would not have helped me in high school. And I knew there must be plenty of first-generation students in my same situation.

So I quit.

My own experience as an immigrant in the college admissions process helped me discover a niche that disrupts the traditional approach to college consulting.

I learned to challenge the norm to give students like me a chance to showcase their potential, regardless of their academic standings.

When you challenge the norm on your own college application, you’re showing colleges that you’re more than just stats. You can leverage your weak spots like I did to still convey your greater potential to admissions officers.

Lesson #3

Be Honest

Honesty is the best policy in life, and that’s especially true in your college application.

If you start your college admissions process by being dishonest about your achievements or what’s important to you, you lose yourself. That’s where feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear can start to creep in.

Once those feelings creep in, you can lose a sense of why you’re even reaching for a top-tier school in the first place.

Before I was able to be honest with myself about what I actually wanted to do, I got lost in trying to do too much and eventually burned myself out. What’s worse, I hid behind the excuse of falling behind because of my immigrant status.

But when I was finally honest with myself about what I wanted to do, I created my very first Passion Project.

The experience forced me to be honest with my college admissions officers. I told them in my application that I didn’t have a perfect beginning, but I showed them who I really was and what I wanted to do.

That honesty created the application that got me accepted.

To reach your full potential, you need to be completely honest with yourself about what you really want to achieve from the college admissions process.

As I work with first-generation students like me, I reflect on how my own experience as an immigrant completely changed how I viewed my college admissions process and, ultimately, my success.

I feel so honored to help my students take pride in their own identities. When they start embracing who they are, there are no limits to who they can become.

Related: 4 Strategies to Stand Out & Get Accepted into Your Dream Ivy League & Top-tier Colleges