by Mr. Robbie Shields
College Counseling & Alumni Outreach
In 2017, the first class of QDHS graduates earned their diplomas and embarked on university education abroad. Three years on, some of our 2017 graduates are finishing their undergraduate studies and have decided to pursue graduate degrees. The list of universities our alumni have received offers from is impressive, including, Cambridge, Stanford, UPenn, Cornell, Northwestern, Imperial College London, and Carnegie Mellon to name a few. We recently spoke with three QDHS alumni about their experiences and recommendations regarding graduate school and they shared many interesting insights.
David Shi (Aristotle class of 2017) is a Computer Science major at the University of Durham and will begin his Master’s in Computer Science at Imperial University beginning in the fall of 2020. In addition to receiving an offer from Imperial, he also received an offer from Cambridge for their Master’s in Technology Policy, as well as offers from Edinburgh, Manchester, and Durham for Computer Science.
Dylan Wang (Da Vinci class of 2017) is a double major in Computer Science and Mathematics with a minor in Economics at the University of Miami. He currently has an offer from UPenn to pursue an interdisciplinary Master’s of Science Education in Computer and Information Science, which allows him to take courses in both the school of Engineering and the Wharton College of Business. Additionally, he has an application pending to Columbia University.
Xintong Yu (Buck class of 2017) is majoring in Mathematics with minors in Art & Design and Statistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne (UIUC). In fall 2020, she’ll be attending Stanford University’s Master’s of Financial Engineering with a concentration in Financial Computation. In addition to receiving an offer from Stanford, she was accepted to master’s programs at Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Chicago, NYU, and Northwestern.
When high school students are asked why they are interested in a specific university the most common response is “ranking.” Parents and students perceive higher rankings to be synonymous with a better education and experience and better future prospects. But an interesting commonality between these three alumni is they all had a wonderful university experience and received a fantastic education despite not attending universities ranked in the top 40.
The University of Durham wasn’t David Shi’s first choice when he was at QDHS. “Initially, I had Durham as my insurance choice and another school as my firm offer. But when I fell one point short of my condition, I decided to attend Durham rather than wait for the possibility of an approved appeal” David said in a recent interview. It turned out to be a smart decision that has served him well socially and academically. “Durham is a great place to study. The town is very university focused, with 80% of the town being connected to the university. When I first arrived, I was nervous not knowing anybody, but I got a great British roommate and the college system at Durham made it easy to make friends.”
Xintong Yu also found success at an undergraduate university that wasn’t her first choice. Although rejected from her ED school, Xintong went on to have a positive experience at UIUC. “I had thought about transferring after my freshman year, but it takes a semester to adjust to a new school and at UIUC I already knew professors, the classes, and the opportunities, and I like the balance that the school has provided” she remarked. During her three years in Illinois, she’s managed to work with professors on research projects, including one that combined mathematics and architecture. Additionally, she appreciated the flexibility UIUC gave her, allowing her to take courses in disciplines outside of Mathematics.
Like Yu, Dylan Wang initially thought about transferring from the University of Miami to a higher ranked school. “When I thought about it, I didn’t really have a good reason for wanting to transfer except to prove to myself I could get into a higher ranked university” Dylan recently shared. But in Miami he found a home and a community. “I was impressed by the enthusiasm for the institution and the passion for the school. There was a sense of unity and diversity to the community that I probably couldn’t have found anywhere else.”
The experience of these alumni reflect the reality that top graduate schools take students from many universities. Kelly Wilson, the Executive Director of Master’s Admissions at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, recently told US News and World Report that “[a]n applicant doesn’t have to have attended the most prestigious institution. They need to demonstrate success relative to the institution they’re attending.” Erin Skelly, a former Associate Director for Admissions at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) echoed this sentiment, stating that “I would tell prospective grad students that where they completed their [undergraduate] degree is less important than how they challenged themselves academically and how they made the most of the opportunities available to them.” Consequently, students going overseas to schools who think they will want to pursue further education may want to focus on excelling at their chosen university rather than fixating on transferring to a higher ranked school.
The decision to go to graduate school is not one to be made lightly. While further education and a higher degree may enhance your career prospects and further your knowledge in a field, it also comes at a price. Besides the cost of tuition there is also the opportunity cost of time spent not working to pursue further studies. Given the relative pros and cons, it’s important that students considering graduate school have a clear vision as to why they are pursuing further education.
For the three alumni we interviewed, all indicated that they knew fairly early on in their studies that they wished to pursue further education and it came from interesting inspirations and moments of realization. Yu Xintong indicated that she decided in her sophomore year that she wanted to pursue a master’s. She recognized that while she was good at Math, she didn’t want to do further research in it but instead use her abilities to study Financial Engineering or Business Analytics.
For David Shi, he decided to pursue a master’s in part because of his love for Computer Science and in part after being unsuccessful in his internship applications in his second year. “When I applied to internships and was asked questions about specific areas of Computer Science, I didn’t provide answers that were satisfactory. I realized that at undergraduate we wouldn’t go deep enough to meet the knowledge requirements for these companies.” Hence for David, career aspirations and further knowledge were the motivating factors.
Like David Shi, Dylan Wang was motivated to pursue further knowledge in certain areas of Computer Science. But like Xintong, he also wanted to combine his abilities in his major with other disciplines, looking for programs that were the intersection between technology and business. “UPenn is a great fit for me because it has Wharton and it allows me the chance to take courses in engineering and business.”
For all of these students the decision to go to graduate school came early but also after having experiences that helped them identify specifically how their graduate education furthered their interest in a field and their career prospects.
British author Oscar Wilde once said, “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” In that spirit, we wanted to ask our alumni what advice they would share with other QD Alumni who are considering applying to graduate school. Here is what we found:
A bad reason to attend graduate school is because you don’t know what you want to do after you finish your undergraduate studies. Choosing to go to graduate school should be a choice made with a goal in mind rather than a way to avoid difficult decisions or entering the workforce. Dylan shared that students should try to have many experiences prior to going to graduate school so they have a better sense of what they wish to do. So, a good tip is to be able to articulate your goal and explain how the graduate program helps you accomplish your goal.
Our interviewees stressed the importance of planning applications well in advance. Xintong recommended that students take the GRE in their sophomore year of college, because in your junior and seniors years things get busier. This sentiment was also shared by Dylan, who shared that students should take time in summer to get materials in place. So, a good tip for students is once you’ve made the decision to attend, make sure you give yourself at least a year before the application deadline to prepare a strong application.
To be competitive for graduate school applications, you must build a successful candidate profile. This includes taking challenging courses at your undergraduate university, earning strong grades, developing relationships with your professors who will serve as your recommenders, participating in internships or research opportunities, and crafting a compelling personal statement. Additionally, some schools may have standardized tests that you must complete as part of the application. So, a good tip is to make sure that from the first day you arrive at your undergraduate university campus, you’re building a foundation that will allow you to be competitive in your applications.
Sometimes students read statistics about the competitiveness of top school admissions and they choose to not apply, thinking they won’t likely be admitted. But the only sure way you’ll know you won’t be admitted to a school is to not apply. In examining our three alumni interviewees experiences, all three earned offers to many top universities in part because they took full advantage of their undergraduate opportunities but also because they chose to apply. So, a good tip is to be bold, be smart, and put in applications to the places you wish to study.