How Daniel Got Into Columbia University

Rita Lai. 12/10/2022

As a freshman at Columbia University majoring in biochemistry, Daniel Moon has already lived through the grueling experience of highschool and college admissions. He hopes that he can provide insight for anyone currently going through the application process.

How did you make a college list? How many colleges did you apply to?

I applied to around 20 schools. I actually wouldn’t suggest this, instead I would recommend narrowing down your list and lowering the number of schools you apply to, otherwise it’ll create a lot more work that you don’t necessarily need. I just ended up being super indecisive so instead of narrowing it down I just submitted a bunch, which in the end probably lowered the quality of my essays and applications, so I’d recommend going lower in terms of the number of schools. Making a college list involves considering a lot of factors: Location, academics, student community, etc. Take into consideration what you really want from a school and what you absolutely wouldn’t want and go from there.

How did you choose which prompt to answer on the Common/Coalition App?

I’d recommend actually writing everything out first and then choosing a prompt. The essay should be the best reflection of you that you can give to admissions officers, so write whatever suits you best and then AFTER you write everything out in an essay that is more freeform, match that with an essay prompt and adjust accordingly if necessary.

Do you have any tips on essay writing?

Don’t over-edit your essays to the point that it isn’t your voice speaking in the essay anymore. If you edit too much, or let someone else adjust your essay so much that it’s unrecognizable, then it’ll have a noticeable difference from other essays you write and it won’t be an accurate reflection of you.

What is the most important part of the college application?

Presenting yourself genuinely. I cannot stress this enough, in a culture where admissions to the top schools are revered as they are, there is a tendency to create applications that have focus on the achievements. It isn’t wrong to show off those accomplishments in your application, but in the midst of it all your personality and character should still shine through the most. Your activities, essays, and all other parts of your application should provide admissions officers with a person, not a walking pile of accolades.

How should students approach tackling so many applications/essays?

Create a manageable schedule. Make sure that you plan to have things done two weeks in advance of deadlines. This will give you plenty of time to work on your essays and revise as necessary, accounting for any delays or unexpected happenings. Essay writing is a slow and inconsistent process, depending on the day you could write out 6 essays in rapid succession or barely write a single paragraph within the same period of time. Take those inconsistencies into account and make a plan that you can stick to.

How confident were you when applying to the school you currently attend?

Not at all confident! Admissions can be so arbitrary sometimes and the truth of it is that you also need a decent amount of luck. I’m not an exceptional student, so I didn’t expect my admission. I think in the end it goes to show that even if you don’t think you have a chance, throwing an application in can be worth it.

What extracurriculars did you focus on? How should high school students choose their extracurriculars?

As mentioned before, your application should represent you, so when selecting activities you should do what YOU want to do. Highschool should be an exploratory period where you look into what you want to do and try new things. If you try your best in the activities you care most about, and strive to prepare for the future career you want, your application will build itself. Make sure you’re having fun with what you do too! I put Tetris down as my 9th CommonApp activity because I just loved playing the game so much throughout highschool.

What should students do during summer? What did you do during your summers?

Make sure you’re spending your summer break ACTUALLY taking a break. Of course it doesn’t hurt to take one course or learn new things during the summer, but don’t bend over backwards to build your application over the summer. I didn’t really do anything the summer after freshman year other than taking a vacation, my sophomore year summer was a special case because of the pandemic so I had ample time to both rest and also study ahead a little bit in math which allowed me to test up into a higher level math class my senior year. The summer of junior year I spent working a job for the most part while also being indecisive about colleges. To be completely honest, most of the work I’ve done has taken place over the course of the school year. That’s not to say that you can’t attend prestigious summer experiences or work hard over the summer, just make sure you’re not forcing yourself to do things just for college.

Why did you choose your major?

I personally wish to pursue a career in research. I am not entirely sure which direction that research will take but I do know that it will be deeply involved in cell biology and as such I chose to study biochemistry. I find biochemical processes fascinating and that is the reason why I chose to pursue the major.

How can students practice better time management?

Scheduling out times for you to do tasks and leaving adequate amounts of time for breaks will help a lot. Taking breaks will generally make keeping on schedule easier. Make sure not to overschedule or overwork yourself.

How is school different from what you expected during COVID?

Virtual school was about up to expectations, I will say that virtual school provided a good environment to step back and think about where I was putting my time. This is where I dropped a lot of my superfluous activities that I had picked up for the sake of college.

What was your GPA and SAT/ACT score?

My unweighted GPA was a 4.0 and my weighted GPA was a 4.7. My ACT score was a 36, with 36s on all subsections.

How did you think these impacted the strength of your application?

Well they were both extremely impactful and not at all impactful. It is true that many colleges value a high test score and high GPA. However, past a certain point they have little impact. There is really not that much of a difference between a 34 and a 36 or a 1520 and a 1600. If you took one test and ended up with a similarly high score, there’s no need to keep retaking for a perfect score because it won’t impact your application to a significant extent if you already have a top score.

What can students do to maintain a high GPA and score well on exams?

For each person and situation it’s different. Generally though, learn to work with peers and teachers in your classes and give each class their due diligence. Don’t waste your effort being a perfectionist and use your time efficiently. When studying for exams, practice exams are key. Make sure you review which questions you get wrong and understand why you got them wrong.

What is your take on working during high school? Would you recommend it for job experience or should students focus on their studies?

I think it depends from person to person. If your studies are going well enough and your extracurriculars allow for extra time for you to work without overloading yourself, I would recommend doing so. But in the end it all depends on your preference, weigh what things in your life need attention and decide accordingly.

How many APs did you take? Do you think this had a large impact on your application?

I took 13 APs in total. I don’t think the fact that I took a large amount of APs is all that impactful in and of itself but you also have to keep course rigor in mind. A lot of the time, many colleges will take course rigor into account, which essentially asks how much the student in question has challenged themselves. Taking AP classes is one way of showing that you are taking rigorous courses.

Do you have any advice on staying on top of application deadlines?

Plan to be done two weeks in advance and stick to that plan, after you’re “done” you can continue to revise and edit the application until you have a far more refined final product.

Did you apply with REA/ED? If so, how did you choose which one(s) to apply for?

Nope, I was far too indecisive to do that.

Did you have a specific approach when deciding who to ask for letters of recommendation? Such as one humanities and one STEM teacher?

As trivial as this is, just pick the teachers that know you best. There’s usually a humanities and STEM requirement for the 2 letters of recommendation that most schools usually ask for, but outside of that restriction just ask the teachers that you’ve worked with the most. These teachers should know you beyond you as a student in their classroom: they should know who you are as a person, how you work in leadership positions, etc.

Rita Lai