Getting accepted into one prestigious Ivy League university is already quite an achievement.
But for Cassandra Hsiao, a Malaysian-born student now living in the United States, she has been accepted not by two or even three universities, but by all eight Ivy League schools this year.
"It's totally surreal. It's still sinking in. I had a moment to myself yesterday where I was just sobbing. I celebrated with my parents.
"This is quite the honour, to have these fantastic institutions accept me. It's really something," she said in an interview published on the US website The Tab.
The Ivy League is a group of eight private institutions of higher education in the United States comprising Brown University, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale.
They are among the most prestigious and highly-ranked universities worldwide, and are often associated with academic excellence and high selectivity of admissions.
She has also been accepted by Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and several others.
Cassandra, 17, was born to a Taiwanese father and Malaysian mother in Johor Baru. She emigrated to the United States when she was five years old and now lives in southern California. She was also her school magazine's editor-in-chief.
She attends the Orange County School of the Arts.
"I enjoy the food and the vibrancy of the culture of Malaysia. I go back every two years," she said in an e-mail interview with The Star on Friday (April 7).
Two literary pieces on her Malaysian experiences, Pasar Malam and Ode to the Night Market, have been published in the online arts journal Rambutan Literary.
Her applications essay played a big role in her acceptance into the universities, where she wrote about learning English while growing up in a house of immigrants.
"I wanted to explore the differences between the way we talk inside and outside the house.
"Many readers, and not only immigrants, were able to connect because our language and speech patterns are different when we talk with people we love and are comfortable around," she said.
Cassandra is already a star reporter, having interviewed celebrities such as Chris Evans, Morgan Freeman and Octavia Spencer.
She plans to go into the storytelling arts.
"In the next couple of weeks, I will be visiting certain schools and exploring their programmes, learning from professors and talking with students to find a place that will be a comfortable, lovely and supportive home for the next four years," she said.
This is the essay that got her into all eight colleges:
"In our house, English is not English. Not in the phonetic sense, like short a is for apple, but rather in the pronunciation - in our house, snake is snack. Words do not roll off our tongues correctly - yet I, who was pulled out of class to meet with language specialists, and my mother from Malaysia, who pronounces film as flim, understand each other perfectly.
"In our house, there is no difference between cast and cash, which was why at a church retreat, people made fun of me for "cashing out demons." I did not realise the glaring difference between the two Englishes until my teacher corrected my pronunciations of hammock, ladle, and siphon. Classmates laughed because I pronounce accept as except, success as sussess. I was in the Creative Writing conservatory, and yet words failed me when I needed them most.
"Suddenly, understanding flower is flour wasn't enough. I rejected the English that had never seemed broken before, a language that had raised me and taught me everything I knew. Everybody else's parents spoke with accents smarting of PhDs and university teaching positions. So why couldn't mine?
"My mother spread her sunbaked hands and said, "This is where I came from," spinning a tale with the English she had taught herself.
"When my mother moved from her village to a town in Malaysia, she had to learn a brand new language in middle school: English. In a time when humiliation was encouraged, my mother was defenceless against the cruel words spewing from the teacher, who criticised her paper in front of the class. When she began to cry, the class president stood up and said, 'That's enough'.
"Be like that class president," my mother said with tears in her eyes. The class president took her under her wing and patiently mended my mother's strands of language. "She stood up for the weak and used her words to fight back."
"We were both crying now. My mother asked me to teach her proper English so old white ladies at Target wouldn't laugh at her pronunciation. It has not been easy. There is a measure of guilt when I sew her letters together. Long vowels, double consonants - I am still learning myself. Sometimes I let the brokenness slide to spare her pride but perhaps I have hurt her more to spare mine.
"As my mother's vocabulary began to grow, I mended my own English. Through performing poetry in front of 3000 at my school's Season Finale event, interviewing people from all walks of life, and writing stories for the stage, I stand against ignorance and become a voice for the homeless, the refugees, the ignored. With my words I fight against jeers pelted at an old Asian street performer on a New York subway. My mother's eyes are reflected in underprivileged ESL children who have so many stories to tell but do not know how. I fill them with words as they take needle and thread to make a tapestry.
"In our house, there is beauty in the way we speak to each other. In our house, language is not broken but rather bursting with emotion. We have built a house out of words. There are friendly snakes in the cupboard and snacks in the tank. It is a crooked house. It is a little messy. But this is where we have made our home."
He also gained acceptance into Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago.
The high-school senior had stellar standardized-test scores — a 35 on the ACT — and a demonstrated interest in the sciences, attending a selective program at MIT during the summer of his junior year.
For his Common Application admissions essay, Altenburg, who also competes in cross country, track, and swimming, chose to write about the thoughts that race through his head on a distance run.
He graciously shared his essay with Business Insider. It's reprinted verbatim below.
My favorite time to run is at night.
This particular run in early August brought a break to the humid, muggy weather I left on the East Coast. I used my body as a human psychrometer, knowing that the cold feeling of evaporating sweat signaled much needed dry air.
I cross over the bridge into Minnesota. Out of my three sports, cross country is definitely my worst — but I continue to be hooked on it. Unlike swimming and track, my motivation to run is heavily intrinsic. I live for the long runs I take on by myself. While they rarely happen during our season, we were assigned a long run to complete over our first weekend of cross country. In reality, I was supposed to go six miles, but felt eight gave me more time to explore the home I had just returned to. My mind begins to wander as I once again find my rhythm.
My train of thought while running is similar to the way one thinks in the minutes before sleep — except one has more control over how these thoughts progress and what tangents they move off of. While special relativity would be the "proper" thing to think about, especially at MITES, I revive the violin repertoire I had turned away from for so long and begin playing it in my head. I'm now at the edge of town in between the cornfields. The streaming floodlights on the open road give me a sense of lonely curiosity, reminiscent of the opening lines of Wieniawski's first violin concerto. I come up with adaptations of the melody in my head, experimenting with an atonality similar to Stravinsky's.
I turn south onto a highway heading towards downtown. The dark night sky is broken by the oncoming light pollution. While I've longed for a road trip across the country, the neon lights from Sunset Lanes will have to do for Las Vegas. Turning west, I see a man and perk up as I try to look more menacing than I really am. But I relinquish. I realize that I did such an act simply because of the color of his skin. I kick myself for reverting to passive racism — something I spent much of the summer trying to overcome.
The bridge over Main Avenue leads me back into North Dakota and downtown Fargo. My city is on the eve of its annual pride week — the largest in North Dakota. Beyond the rainbow flags lining downtown, I see the Catholic cathedral I attend every Sunday outside of the summer. The juxtaposition brings back memories of trying to come to terms with my own beliefs. The conservatism on my mom's side of the family often clashes with the more liberal views of my dad's family. Fargo is known for its "nice" attitude, but the discussion of controversial issues is often set aside in favor of maintaining peace. On the surface this can be good, but it makes change a long and cumbersome process, and has caused me to become very independent in finding my own belief system — something especially difficult when these beliefs may have to do with your future identity.
The remaining part of my run is short and uneventful. The fact that the traffic lights have switched to blinking yellow and red means that I have been out later than usual. When I get home, I find that my run took somewhere around an hour — I honestly don't care about time during my distance runs. Longs runs are often seen as a runner battling the distance rather than time. But for me, long runs are a journey — both physically and mentally. Each time I run a route, I understand my surroundings and city more and more, and couldn't be more excited and sad to know that I'm leaving this place in a year's time.