How I Got Into Stanford - Carly Taylor's Story
11 minute read
College admissions is a notoriously black box process that can often leave students scratching their heads at the outcomes. As elite research universities accept an increasingly tiny percentage of applicants each year, it becomes harder and harder to claim that there’s any set formula to gaining acceptance to these institutions.
Nevertheless, for high-achieving students aiming to attend a research university, hearing about the high school portfolios of current students at these schools can help spark ideas about how to make the most of your time in high school to find your passions and set yourself up for college success.
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My Journey to Stanford
I’m a senior at Stanford University, a Polygence alumna, and an intern at Polygence working in content marketing. I spent my last two years of high school at the Gatton Academy of Math and Science in Kentucky, and at Stanford I study comparative literature with a concentration in French and translation studies.
How and why did I change my academic path so drastically? It all began with what I learned about myself through the research opportunities I was fortunate enough to access in high school.
As a student in a unique residential public high school, I conducted research with a college professor, worked at a nonprofit cancer research lab over one summer, studied abroad in the U.K., presented at the American Chemical Society conference, and started my own club. Some of these experiences helped me find what I was passionate about, and others showed me what kind of work definitely wasn’t for me. Both kinds of experiences were equally important and valuable in helping me uncover my passions.
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Working with a professor
The first research I ever engaged in was during my junior year in the lab of a biochemistry professor who had previously worked with students from my high school. I cold emailed him expressing my interest in his work and then went to meet him at his lab, where I found that he was kind, easy to talk to, and had a contagious enthusiasm for his work.
I spent three semesters working in his lab for a few hours per week, conducting experiments on the mechanochemical synthesis of platinum compounds. In a literal sense, this meant I would measure out powders in precise ratios, grind them together in a mortar and pestle for a certain amount of time, and then run tests on them to see if any reaction had taken place.
My mentor made it clear to me from the start that our work had potential applications in cancer treatment — more efficient, solvent-free synthesis of platinum compounds such as cisplatin used in chemotherapy would make these treatments more affordable and accessible. It was helpful to keep this in mind as I conducted the unglamorous work of grinding away at a tiny amount of powder for 30 minutes straight alone in a lab.
I stuck with that project until my graduation because I really valued my relationship with my mentor. He was easy to talk about subjects other than the project at hand and to solicit advice from about STEM research and college. But when I realized I enjoyed talking to him more about life and about what he had read lately than about chemistry, it made me take a step back and wonder if the life of lab work in biology or chemistry was really what I was looking for in my undergraduate years or beyond.
In March of my senior year, this professor took me and another student to the American Chemical Society conference in New Orleans, where we presented a poster on our work. During our two hour session, about five people stopped to talk to us about our poster, and once it came up that we were high school students, they would smile, marvel, and politely walk away. Still, it was exciting to dress up in a business suit and feel like I was part of the scientific community. I spent much more time that weekend exploring the city that I’d never been to than attending other ACS panels and poster sessions, another sign that my interests and passions were elsewhere.
Summer Research in a Lab
During that critical summer between junior and senior year of high school, I worked in a nonprofit cancer research lab that happened to be close to my parent’s home. I was part of a group of undergraduate researchers who worked in small groups under a few different advisors. The other students and I would eat lunch together and sit in weekly lab meetings, and it was exciting to be part of this community of enthusiastic young researchers.
By the end of this 12 week program, my goal was to submit a paper to the Siemens competition on my work, but since we were working on live human cells, it took us many weeks just to grow viable cell lines that we could experiment on. Six weeks in, I hardly knew what my research question was, let alone how I would end up with enough data to propose an answer to it.
I’ll admit, my main goal in this program was not to learn about the long and winding road that is the research process, but to gather enough data to write a coherent research paper, which I was convinced would help me stand out and prove my worth to colleges. This attitude made the experience stressful and sometimes miserable rather than intellectually stimulating. If I hadn’t put that pressure on myself, I could have better appreciated the slow work of nurturing our cell lines and the intricacies of executing a Western blot.
Instead, I ended the summer with barely enough information to put together a paper, which I submitted to Siemens but which received no accolades unsurprisingly. I was convinced I was a failure and a fraud who was never going to get accepted into the colleges I had been dreaming of throughout high school.
At the end of that same summer, when I was feeling so frustrated and pessimistic about my future in STEM research, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to take a three week English 200 class in the U.K. with about half of the other students in my class at the Gatton Academy.
After a rather lonely junior year, I thought I just didn’t connect with my peers at Gatton, but during our study abroad, I realized it wasn’t the people, but the STEM-focused environment that I found inhibiting. When we were all together studying literature and exploring a new country for a few weeks, I found that I connected with so many of my peers more deeply than I ever thought possible. I had more long, unforgettable conversations those three weeks than I had had the entire previous year.
Going to a two hour class to discuss a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen novel didn’t leave me burnt out on books, but rather the opposite — I spent all my free time going to libraries and reading more books for fun on our long bus rides.
At the end of those three weeks, I felt I had learned more about the world and about myself than I had in a year of taking calculus, computer science, and microbiology. I wanted to find a way to carry the magic of those three weeks into my last year of high school.
Starting Story Club
I had noticed throughout my junior year that when I asked my peers about what they liked to read, they said that they loved to read when they were younger but they sadly never had the time for it now. Even as someone who valued reading deeply, I sometimes felt the same way, like there was never the time for it during school. But time isn’t something that we find for any given activity — we have to make it.
So, in order to encourage myself and my peers to make time for engaging with literature and create a space for humanistic discourse in a STEM-dominated school, I created Story Club — like a book club, but for short stories. I figured any high schooler, no matter how busy, could commit to sitting down on their own to read one short story per week and show up to a weekly conversation with some thoughts to share.
With the support of a couple close friends, I sent out an interest form to everyone at my school and I was thrilled that a couple dozen students filled it out. Nearly 20 students showed up to the first meeting, and many of them stuck around for the whole semester. I picked out the story each week from my repertoire of authors that had made a strong impact on me throughout high school and sometimes from the suggestions from club members.
Through braving awkward silences and meetings where I did 90% of the talking, over the weeks and months I slowly but surely learned how to be a more engaging discussion leader, how to ask questions that were neither too obvious nor too broad, and how to solicit participation from as many voices as possible. I was often nervous before sessions, but by the end of them I was always uplifted and energized. Through Story Club, I felt I had a space to discuss stories authentically, not for the sake of interpreting them for a test, but to use them as tools for honest exploration into difficult questions about the nature of life and human relationships.
Passion over Prestige
Although doing cancer research sounds far more impressive to most people than discussing short stories, I whole-heartedly believe that Story Club had more to do with why I got into Stanford than my lab work did. I still think back on Story Club as the single most meaningful thing I did in high school because it was entirely driven by an organic desire to harness my passion to address a problem I noticed in my school community.
This is not the most grandiose, urgent problem like climate change or racial justice, but it was a problem I truly cared about and felt uniquely positioned to address. It was an issue where I felt like I could truly make an impact in a modest time and space, and I did.
It’s easy to get involved in research where someone else is in the driver’s seat, and when you’re worried about impending college applications, it’s all too tempting to prioritize amassing accolades over your own personal growth. What’s much harder is to dive into a project without a pre-defined path, where you have to chart your own course.
My advice to high school students who feel that their interests and passions aren’t “useful” and won’t lead them to a prestigious career is to pursue them anyways! When you authentically love what you’re working on and believe in its significance, you will make a positive impact on the world around you, you will feel uplifted, and unexpected opportunities will come your way.
My Polygence project didn’t come until I was already an undergraduate at Stanford, but it was nonetheless transformative for my path in humanities research. It was exactly what I wished research could have been when I was doing it in high school. You can read about my project in this interview I did with Polygence.
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