Advice to My High School Self: Reflections From a Graduate Student
6 minute read
Hi! I’m currently a graduate student at Southern Methodist University pursuing a masters in finance, and I graduated from NYU Stern in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in business. I’m currently a content intern for Polygence.
I’ve noticed that since I got into college, the admissions process has seemingly become more opaque and competitive. Especially with the recent affirmative action ruling, it’s hard to grasp what really matters in college admissions. I have a younger sister who just went through the admissions process, so I understand just how intimidating it can be and how hard it is to stand out as a college applicant. There’s so much that you may still not be sure about - what you want to study in college, what career you want, or what kind of school you want to attend. I wanted to provide a story about my high school experience that’s a bit different from what you’re probably used to hearing: a story of failure and learning from mistakes.
I went to a public high school in New Jersey where there were a lot of immigrant families and a culture of strong work ethic. Kids in my school all wanted to go to the best universities. This environment naturally pushed everyone to be their best. I was focused on getting good grades and studying hard for exams. My other main focus was tennis. I was training about 5 days a week and playing tournaments on weekends in the hopes of playing college tennis someday. I saw my life in high school as balancing two things: getting good grades and winning tennis matches.
I was completely oblivious to the fact that my peers were doing school clubs and extracurriculars beyond sports (which is why I’m so impressed by the projects and resumes of high schoolers today!). I didn’t think I needed to join clubs and I also didn’t wasn’t very interested in any of them.
Although I don’t specifically regret not having done clubs in high school, I regret not exploring my passions or interests. Perhaps this exploration could have happened through a school club. My passion at the time (cringing at this now) was getting good grades because that’s all I knew. I didn’t take the time to fully think through what I was interested in learning about. I knew I was kind of interested in economics and business, but I thought that specialization happened only in college and I could just wait until then to learn about it seriously. I had decided in my head that becoming interested in something was something that people did much later on in life - I had time to spare!
Now, I think about why I waited around for so long to go pursue something when I could’ve spent my high school years trying to actively explore my interests. I was perfectly content with saying I was interested in economics and not actually taking the time to learn about it, and it’s a common trap that I think many high school students fall into. We have this prescribed notion that college is the time to explore your interests when in reality that exploration can and should happen much earlier.
To be fair, I was pretty busy with school, APs, and tennis, but I certainly had a lot of free time. I wish I had taken the time to explore what I was passionate about and tried to learn more about it. My fatal mistake was not realizing that learning could actually happen outside school. I grew up thinking that you go to school to learn, and that’s the one place to do it. Only in college did I realize that there was so much useful content on the Internet to help me learn more about practically anything.
Further, my lack of passions ended up hurting me in the college application process. Even though I was incredibly dedicated to school and sports I didn’t have any other projects or experiences that I could talk passionately about in my essays. Even worse,at the time I was also beginning to lose interest in tennis so I did a poor job writing about my passion for the sport. Double whammy.
I was somehow fortunate enough to get into NYU and by then I had realized some of the mistakes that I’ve described above. I decided from that point on that if I was interested in something, I should either find a class for it or just go on the Internet to learn on my own. In my first semester of college, I spent time outside of class trying to learn about finance. I was enrolled in NYU’s College of Arts and Science but attended some NYU business school club meetings and found the topics really interesting. I decided I was going to try to learn on my own, and I felt excited to learn about new topics and concepts. It felt great to take control of my own learning and decide what I wanted to learn about. It also led me to realize that maybe NYU’s business school (Stern) would be a better fit for my interests.
I was able to successfully internal transfer into Stern, and I think a huge part of that was understanding why I wanted to study business and why I was interested in it. By taking the time to learn on my own, I was able to learn more about myself and what excited me. I think this came through in my internal transfer essay in an authentic way that I wasn’t able to achieve in my initial college applications.
In my freshman year of college, I also walked onto the NYU tennis team. I felt like I was given a second chance to continue playing the sport that I had trained so hard for as a kid. This realization gave me a second wind - I was excited to practice and better myself and my relationship with the sport was much more positive. Throughout college, I became more passionate about tennis and it’s something that I view now as an important part of my life. It’s allowed me to have a healthy lifestyle while also learning critical life lessons about resilience and dedication. I think it’s a common misconception to believe that a passion is something that you’re guaranteed to be excited about for the rest of your life. There will inevitably be ups and downs in your interest levels towards different passions, and when I felt this downward trend in high school I was ready to quit. But I would just encourage you to keep pushing a little even if you feel like you’re not as interested in something as you used to be. You might be able to appreciate other aspects of the topic or activity that you weren’t able to see in the past, and this will allow you to not only develop your passions in high school but throughout college as well.
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I’ve realized that your authentic passion for whatever you’re interested in is one of your most powerful assets as a student. And by passion I don’t mean just saying that you’re interested in something or want to major in it - take some time to try to learn it on your own or do a passion project around it. Whether it’s a college admissions officer, friend, or a random stranger hearing about your passions, people love hearing what someone else is passionate about because it shows how interesting you are. And through your passions, you’ll also learn a ton about yourself, what you're good at, and what you value!
Interested in the personal journeys of other college students? Check out Polygence alumna Carly’s story of how she got into Stanford.
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