How I Got Into Princeton – Story #14

Aja’s Story

“Being surrounded by other motivated, intellectual students makes me want to work harder.”

Meet Aja, a member of Princeton’s class of 2020.

In high school, Aja participated in numerous academic activities, in and out of the classroom, including Mock Trial, research programs, and peer tutoring. She earned various achievements in these pursuits, including regional finalist in the Siemens Science Competition, first place in the Gildor Family Projects and Inventions Competition, and a Salutatorian Award from her high school.

Aja attributes her success to her capacity to use challenge as a strength.

“Really challenging myself actually improved my focus in school and I was able to accomplish more once that pressure was put on me,” she reflects.

Please read below to learn more about Aja and the personal qualities, values, and support system that have allowed her to succeed.

We recommend reading from beginning to end but feel free to skip around. Our favorite section is the “Activities” section, where Aja describes her impressive array of activities that eventually cultivated her career interests.

About this Series

In our “How I got Into” series, we share the stories of successful applicants to Princeton and other great colleges.

Our profiles go beyond a simple list of academic and extracurricular achievements. We also delve into the “how” and the qualities that successful applicants exhibit.

We provide a rare look into what drives these students, how they’ve overcome their challenges, how they’ve been shaped by significant events in their lives, how they deal with the pressure to succeed, and much more.




Here’s what we’re NOT doing with this series:

  • We are NOT prescribing an over-engineered approach to college admissions
  • We are NOT presenting a blueprint for how you should get into college
  • We are NOT suggesting that you must gain admissions to a selective school to be successful (you most certainly do not)

Here’s what we ARE doing:

  • We are presenting data and sharing stories
  • We are providing context that you usually don’t see to highlight that we are more than just our grades and GPA
  • Our ultimate goal is to uncover the values and personal qualities that drive successful applicants

Whether you are considering selective colleges or not, it is our unwavering belief that our values and personal qualities (and luck) are the major contributors to success.



Birthplace: Bergenfield, NJ
Where did you grow up? Bergenfield, NJ


# of older siblings:  1
# of younger siblings: 0
Sibling Education Levels:  Undergraduate
Where did your siblings go to college?  Stern College for Women (of Yeshiva University) and transferred (3-2 program) to Columbia School of Engineering


Parent’s Marital Status: Married
With whom do you make your permanent home? Both Parents
Parent 1 Current/Former Occupation: Project manager for Bank of New York Melon
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: Masters
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: High school teacher
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: Masters

Parent Beliefs

How would you characterize your parents’ parenting style(s)?

Relatively laid back – moderate

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most important), how important to your parents was:

Academics 2
Extracurriculars 1
Service 2
Family 3
Friends 3
Physical Health/ Fitness 4
Mental Health 5

Did your parents have specific philosophies regarding any of the areas above?

They strongly believed in not pressuring us to get good grades, but rather to just try our best and enjoy learning. They thought challenging ourselves in math and science was important, but not necessarily other subjects, and encouraged us not to take on too many extracurricular activities in order to have time for our school work and maintain a balanced lifestyle.


Middle School

Middle School: Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey
Type of School: Private

High School

High School: Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls
High School City, State: Teaneck, New Jersey
Type of School: Private
Class Size: 70



Did you work in high school?  No
What kind of job/s did you have? n/a
Average hours/week worked? n/a
Why did you work? n/a

Extracurriculars/Passions & Interests

What were your major passions/ interests in high school?

Mock trial, track team, peer tutoring, remembrance committee, math team, ice skating, Garcia Summer Research Program (but went beyond summer and into the school year), Science Research elective course.

How much time did you spend on these things?

In-School Activities

Mock trial: grades 11-12, 3 hours per week; Track team: grades 10-11, 1 hour per week; Peer tutoring: grades 10-12, 4 hours per week; Remembrance Committee: grades 11-12; 1 hour every month; Math Team: grades 11-12, a few hours preparation and one competition annually for a full day

Co-curricular Activities

I took an elective course in 10th grade titled “Science Research,” and the entire course was spent preparing for and participating in an engineering competition called the Gildor Family Projects and Inventions Competition, through a Jewish organization. There were ten of us in the class who worked as a team, and we also spent a lot of time after school, several hours a week (varying from 1 – 5 hours depending on how close to competition time it was).

Outside of School Activities

The Garcia Summer Research Program continued into my senior year as I came back to the lab a couple of times; my lab partner and I wrote up our research and analyzed the data from our homes on the computer, which we worked on for about 12 hours per week, September – early November.

I also took ice skating lessons my junior year for 1 hour every Sunday.

When did these passions/interests first come about?

My interest in tutoring began my second year of high school after I had completed courses the previous year that I could help other students with. It picked up pretty rapidly – I first started tutoring some friends of mine who had learning difficulties and spent time in the “learning center,” and then the learning center head coordinator started assigning me to more students in other grades who needed help in various subjects. Initially, I just tutored math and science, but some of my students asked if I could help in History and English, so I began tutoring in those subjects as well. Soon after I started, I was working with several different students once or twice a week in the mornings before class or during my lunch break.

I joined the mock trial team in 11th grade. It had always been an interest of mine, but in my first two years of high school, I was very quiet and nervous to try out. By my third year, I felt very comfortable in my school and wanted to get more involved in activities outside of class (and specifically something non-science related). I tried out as a witness and played the role of an expert witness once I was on the team. I soon discovered that this was a strong passion of mine (both public speaking and the mock court/legal process).

I joined the track team in 10th grade with a few friends because we thought it would be a fun way to get exercise and practices were conveniently on Sunday mornings. The team was the only athletic team that did not have try-outs, which was why we picked it.

I applied to the Garcia Research program because I wanted something to do for the summer and enjoyed science research. I also wanted to see if engineering/research was a career I would be interested in. I did the Science Research elective because I was interested in science competitions and science research and had to pick an elective class anyways that year in school, and that was the one I was most interested in.

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

I continued to do a lot of tutoring throughout high school, sticking to some of the same students and taking on some new ones every year. I also got some private tutoring jobs for pay outside of school.

Mock trial was a really enjoyable activity for me – I became more comfortable with public speaking and learned more about the (“mock”) law field. We had many after school practices leading up to the competitions, and I thoroughly enjoyed those.

Track became less of a central activity as I got busier with mock trial and schoolwork.

The Science Research elective course was geared towards preparing for and participating in this engineering competition. We had to build a model system to prevent collisions between trains and cars at intersections. Initially, the team had trouble working together as our teacher provided little guidance and we did not know where to begin, but eventually we split up the tasks and learned how to work together. A mentor sent from the competition to guide us was also helpful in teaching us the engineering principles.

The Garcia Summer Research program really fueled my interest in science, as I spent much time in the lab that summer. My partner was very motivated to enter competitions, which motivated me, and together we advanced and it made me realize I wanted to pursue a career in science.

What level of achievement did you reach?

I never placed in track competitions and our mock trial team did not advance. My lab partner and I submitted our summer research from the summer before my senior year in high school to the Siemens Competition and advanced to the Regional Finals. My team in 10th grade that worked on the engineering project won first place among several Jewish high schools that competed in the United States and flew to Israel to compete against Israeli schools, where we tied for first place (an American school was not allowed to be the sole winner).

Tell us a little bit about how you achieved these achievements?

For my science research elective class, we had help from a mentor sent from the competition, but mainly we were able to progress further in our project when we realized our individual sub-teams within the main team had to work together more. We initially thought we were behind because we had difficulty getting our system to work, but in the end, the struggles implementing it paid off. We built a lot of the materials from scratch. In the Siemens Competition, my lab partner and I spent a lot of time writing up our research after we finished it, and read previous papers from students who participated in the year before us. We also read a lot of online literature to write about the context of our research in the paper we wrote. We had some guidance from our research mentor and the head of our program in writing up and presenting our research.

What kind of support did you have?

See the previous answer.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these extracurricular results?

Participating in the Siemens Competition took a lot of time out of my school-work senior year, and I also missed some class time preparing for and partaking in the competition. For the Gildor Competition, we struggled and overcame a lot. After winning, our mentor even told us this was the team he least expected to do so, as we were working with so few materials and made most of our headway close to the deadline. He said we were like a plant that grew underground and then suddenly sprouted…I think what he meant by that is that in coming up with creative and complex ideas we struggled with technical stuff and our team dynamics, but overcoming those obstacles is what made our finished product so special and unique.


What were your major service-related activities?

I did a summer program called GIVE USA through an organization called NCSY, in which 40 girls traveled together over the course of a month to several states in the southern United States doing various volunteering work in different communities.

How much time did you spend?

4 weeks in July, summer before 11th grade, most hours of the day (so around 40 hours per week)

Why did you choose this activity?

I wanted to explore different communities in the United States (I had never been to many of the states we traveled to, including Atlanta, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana), and had also never done much service before, aside from tutoring or food packaging with my high school, and working with special needs kids a few times. We got to do both physical labor such as farming, painting, food packaging, working for Habitat for Humanity building homes, and visiting old age homes and special needs children. I also wanted to meet more girls my age outside of my high school who were from places besides NJ and NY. I  made very diverse friends.


What did you do in the summers during high school?

Summer after 9th grade, I was a counselor in a local day camp. I did this because I wanted to make some money and have a relaxed summer while spending time with friends, some of whom also worked in the camp with me.

Summer after 10th grade, I volunteered for GIVE USA Volunteering Program.

Summer after 11th grade, I attended the Garcia Summer Research Program (see “activities” section), I wanted to get lab experience in the engineering field (the program took place in several materials science engineering labs) to explore potential career interests and determine whether I wanted to apply to engineering schools for college–and because I really enjoyed science!



Class Ranking: 2
GPA – Weighted: n/a
GPA – Unweighted 97 / 100


How many times did you take the SAT? 2
How many times did you take the ACT? 0
What were your SAT and/or ACT scores? 730 critical reading, 760 math, 760 writing
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? Yes
How many hours did you study in total? 60
When did you start preparing for the test? A few months before I took it for the first time
When did you take the test? 11th grade

Do you know which test to take? Check out our recommendations here – Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started

SAT Subject Tests & AP/IBs

Which SAT Subject tests did you take? 

Chemistry (800), Math 2 (780)

Which AP/IBs did you take?

Chemistry (5), Calculus BC (5), Physics 1 (4), English Literature (5)

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

Regional finalist in the Siemens Science Competition, first place team for Gildor Family Projects and Inventions Competition, Salutatorian Award and Bausch and Lomb Honorary Science Award awarded by my high school

What do you attribute your academic success to?

The support of my mentors in those competitions/programs was very helpful, but I think what most motivated me to submit my summer research to the Siemens Competition and in writing a good research paper was my lab partner. She was very intent on submitting to as many competitions as possible and spending many hours on our entry, and that made me more motivated to work hard and want to do a good job. Once I got into the work, I started to enjoy it and wanted to work hard and spend many hours–for myself. I attribute much of my success to having her as a motivator, as well as the other students around me on the Garcia Summer Research Program. Being surrounded by other motivated, intellectual students makes me want to work harder. Also in the Gildor Competition, I was working with a team of classmates. It made the work more fun and made me not want to let anyone down, leading me to try harder.

What kind of support did you have?

My school supported me when I was participating in the Siemens Competition – I spoke to my assistant principal who excused me from classes for a week to prepare with my lab partner. My research mentor and program director looked over our presentation and gave us ideas to prepare. The week of the competition my lab partner and I met up to prepare, and her father, who has experience presenting through his work in business, worked with us for many hours to prepare our presentation. In the Gildor Competition, I had mostly the support of my peers participating, and a little bit from our teacher (though not that much guidance). 

Did you ever receive private tutoring?

Yes; for the SAT.

What kind of sacrifices/challenges did you overcome to achieve these academic results?

I overcame a few challenges in the process – in the Gildor Competition, our team struggled a lot to build our model, as we did not feel we had a proper background knowledge or guidance from mentors. We also did not have a large budget for materials, but in the end we used that to our advantage. We used few materials and very basic principles to build simple circuits that we could use in our system, and “sold” our project to the judges by telling them it was practical, economical, and easily implementable. That, I think, is what led them to choose our project to advance. I remember other teams had the car removed from the intersection through a large robotic crane, and that model certainly cost more than ours but was less practical in real life. We inserted wheels into the train tracks to move the car off.

In the Siemens Competition and, in general, in my academic accomplishments, I was never thinking about applying to schools like Princeton. (My parents always thought they were too expensive and that we were not “in that world”.) I pursued these science programs and studied for AP classes, etc. out of enjoyment for the subjects, and because I felt that it would help me determine what sort of career I wanted to pursue after high school and college (and what to study in college). In my senior year, after meeting my lab partner and other students who were very motivated, participating in science competitions, and planning to apply to ivy league schools, I began to look into some of that. The Siemens Competition took place at MIT, and while we were there we met the Dean of Admissions, which is what really led me to think seriously about applying there.

Any specific approaches/tips & tricks to studying that were particularly helpful for you?

I put a lot of time into studying in 11th grade, but less so in 12th grade when I was busy with the Siemens competition and college applications. Even though I took on more in 12th grade, I was able to succeed just as well – really challenging myself actually improved my focus in school and I was able to accomplish more once that pressure was put on me. So my advice is: never to be afraid to challenge yourself or take on “too much” (despite my parents giving the opposite advice).


Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? Domestic
Did you apply regular or early? Regular
How many schools did you apply to? 8
Were you a legacy applicant at any of these schools? No
Were you recruited for athletics, arts, music, etc…? No
Did you declare a major? Did this end up being your actual major? Yes, I applied as Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE)

Which schools did you apply to (that you remember)?

Harvard, Princeton, MIT, University of Pennsylvania (Engineering School), Columbia (Engineering School), University of Maryland, Stern College for Women (of Yeshiva University), Queens CollegeCity College 

Which schools did you get into?

Princeton, MIT, University of Maryland, Stern College for Women, Queens College, and City College

Letters of Recommendations

Who did you ask for letters of recommendation?

My Pre-Calculus teacher, AP Chemistry teacher, Talmud teacher, assistant Principal who was also my Jewish history teacher, and head of the Garcia Summer Research Program 

Why did you ask these specific people?

I’m not sure if my college guidance counselor sent all these letters to every school, but I initially only had 2-3 recommendations but needed the Talmud teacher for Stern College, as the school teaches Judaic studies as part of their dual curriculum, and my assistant Principal offered to write me an additional one later in the application cycle. I think my assistant Principal offered because she got to know me more as a person in my senior year when dealing with my missing class for the science competition. She also knew all of my academic progress from my individual teachers. I asked my Pre-Calculus and AP Chemistry teachers because I worked hardest in those course, had the closest relationships with them because of smaller class sizes, and my applications were for engineering schools or science majors. I was also told that having a recommendation from the head of the Garcia Program has a strong pull and has helped many students in the past.

Common App Essay

What did you write about in your common app essay?

I wrote about my experience attending the Garcia Summer Research Program the summer before my senior year. The program was housed on Stony Brook University’s college campus, and it was my first time dorming away from home. I had not really done a program for an extended period that was co-ed and with people who were not Orthodox Jewish like me. I wrote about how my science experiment in the lab that summer mirrored my religious “experiment,” as my beliefs were changed and strengthened from being with people whose beliefs and practices were different from my own. I talked about enjoying this diversity.

Why Princeton

Why did you choose Princeton?

I narrowed down my choices to MIT and Princeton by the end of senior year. I chose Princeton because I liked the balance between a good engineering education and strong liberal arts curriculum (as I am interested in both and was not 100% certain I would become an engineer). I also liked the larger Jewish community of Princeton.

Gap Year

Did you take a gap year?


Curious about what happens after you submit your college application? Check out our in-depth guide – How Colleges Read Your Application: A 4 Step Process


Typical Day

What was a typical weekday like in your junior year of high school?

I went to an Orthodox Jewish all girls school with a dual curriculum of both secular and Judaic studies – which meant we had 11 class periods throughout the day of about 40 minutes each, and got out of school at 5:15pm everyday. First we would have prayers, 5 classes, lunch period, then another 5 classes. Junior year I spent my mornings (during prayer services or breakfast after prayers but before first period) doing peer tutoring. I would have 5 courses, which included Pre-Calc, Jewish Philosophy, Bible, US History, and AP Chem. On Mondays, AP Chem would also meet during lunch period as more periods were needed than fit into our schedule. I then had English, Talmud for two periods, Gym class, and Advanced Bible as my elective course. I would get home at 5:15pm, eat dinner and relax until 8:00pm, then do school work until around 12. Some nights I would stay later in school till around 8pm for mock trial practice.

On average, how many hours of HW and studying did you do every night?


What time did you usually go to sleep?


What was a typical weekend like in high school?

On Friday afternoon, my school let out early for Sabbath, which begins Friday night at sundown, and ends Saturday evening. On Sabbath, I ate Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch with family, went to Saturday morning services, and spent Saturday afternoon hanging out with friends. Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, I either did activities with friends or schoolwork. Most Sunday afternoons and evenings I spent on schoolwork.



What drove you to succeed in high school? Where did this drive come from?

I was not so focused on getting into college like some other students in my school but rather was driven by the pleasure I got from excelling in my math and science classes. I initially felt that I was not as good at humanities subjects, but, in school, I learned that I did have a passion for those as I connected with my teachers and enjoyed writing essays for class assignments. I did not think so much about extracurriculars until my junior year, and I think that’s when I began to think a bit about college. I was hoping to improve my application profile so I could obtain a scholarship to Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, an all girls Jewish college in New York City where my sister had gone and where many girls from my high school went. That led to some of my drive to “look good” for college applications. Once I explored clubs, I chose mock trial and stuck to it, not just for that but also because I enjoyed it. It was not until college guidance suggested I apply to schools like Penn and Princeton that I began thinking more about it.


What kind of expectations did your parents have for you?

My parents strongly believed in not pressuring me to do well in school. I should try my best and take the classes that I would enjoy, they said. If anything, they emphasized not taking on too much, as happiness and enjoyment were more valuable to them than academic achievement. My mom would say not to take too many extracurriculars like others who were obsessed with getting into college.

What kind of pressure did you feel to succeed? Where did this pressure come from?

I felt little to no pressure from my family to succeed (though my sister was already in college and a top student in her high school, so that may have motivated me). My peers’ participation in a lot of activities may have lead me to do so in my later years in high school; academically, I put the pressure on myself, but mainly because I enjoyed studying and thought it was fun to challenge myself to get good grades.

How did you deal with this pressure?

I did not feel such strong pressure, but mainly just put in a lot of time. I would turn down hanging out with friends occasionally to have more time to study.


How did you balance everything going on in high school?

I spent most nights doing schoolwork and did not take on so many extra activities in my first two years while adjusting. I used weekends to do work too. I did not find it so difficult to juggle my time, though I did find it hard getting out so late every day. In the evening I was tired from the long day but still had to do my homework. I caught up on sleep a lot on weekends.

Any strategies, tips, tools, types of support that helped you?

I would read over and recite my notes out loud. I memorized useful formulas and facts, even for non-memorization based classes like math and chemistry. I also started studying early for the SAT and SAT subject tests, so that it did not interfere too much with my schoolwork.  

Significant Events

Any major events growing up that helped shape your high school self?

My decision to go to my particular high school, I think, is what largely shaped my high school self. My older sister went to a more religious girls school that was also less feminist in its religious practices – it did not teach women Talmud (an integral part of Jewish law which all-boys schools focus on heavily). My school emphasized the importance of girls learning this too, as it is a large part of the Jewish Law process. The school was very progressive for an Orthodox all-girls school – it was big on critical thinking, letting the students have a strong say in how the school was run, and open to students offering their own ideas. I felt that this fit really well with the way I learned, which I felt was on the more creative side. My teachers in elementary school and parents had always told me I was an out of the box thinker. When I chose this school, at first my parents were resistant because it was more progressive than my sister’s school (they were worried about religious practices differing slightly) and because my sister had not gone there. Once I decided to go, however, I felt that I fit in very well. I loved the school’s way of teaching and felt smart, which I had not always felt in elementary, where I had had much more trouble focusing in class. Socially, this was also an exciting experience for me. In elementary school, the same couple of girls with more dominant personalities than mine always wanted to do everything with me. They attended the other high school that my sister attended, where everyone had expected me to go. I came into high school with a couple of friends, but was for the most part on my own for the first time. I think coming into a place without many people who knew me and where I began to feel smarter made me more confident.

Other Challenges/Struggles

Any other struggles/challenges (that we didn’t discuss so far) that you faced in high school? While growing up?

I cannot think of any.


How do you identify yourself? White
Which languages does your family speak at home? English
How many languages are you proficient in? 2: English and Hebrew
Do you identify with multiple cultures? Yes

How has your culture or identity influenced you during your middle school or high school years?

My Jewish identity was a large part of my growing up. In middle school, I felt like I had less choice in the way in which I practice religion, but my high school allowed me to question and explore more through my religion courses and I formed a stronger religious identity.

Character/Personal Qualities

What values were most important to you in high school?

Kindness, peace, sensitivity (these made me want to maintain good friendships in high school with people who I felt were like-minded), creativity, accomplishment/achievement (because I did put in the effort to make sure my grades were good, even if I didn’t realize I cared so much).

What was your #1 core value?


How did you demonstrate those values in high school?

I tried reaching out to various people and be really inclusive of everyone around me. I liked helping peers with school work and tutoring other students (which led me to participate in Peer Tutoring a lot).

What do you consider your most important personal qualities?

I try to be very sensitive to other people and pay close attention to what other people are thinking. I’m very thorough and attentive to detail, and I think that translates into my schoolwork.

How would you characterize your personality growing up?

In middle school, I was pretty quiet and a little all over the place. I did not care much about grades, nor was I motivated to try hard until 8th grade when I applied to high school and realized my love for math (I was taking Algebra). I hung out with whichever friends seemed interested in me, but was not so proactive about reaching out to other people on my own.


Was there anything special or different about your family when you were growing up that helped shape who you were in high school?

My sister and I went to different high schools, which I felt was interesting because most families in my community had several kids who attended the same school. My parents valued doing what was best for each of us separately. Also, most of my friends’ families had several siblings in my community, while I only had one sister. 

What do you think makes you unique?

I don’t like to fit into a box like most people in my community. In general, I like to float between friend groups. I have more of a mediator personality and don’t like to stick to one extreme.

What I love most about college is finally getting to have diverse friends who are not just like me. I value many different things (including religious values, intellectualism, etc.) and try to balance them in a unique way.


Did you have any major influences growing up? If so, who/what were your they?

I really admired my mom growing up for working so hard as an immigrant and single mother. She instilled a value system that relied on hard work and diligence.

If you had a question or needed some advice, who would you go to?

I consider my friends to be my strongest support system.


Important Lessons

Most important lessons that you learned or were taught while growing up?

My mom always encouraged me to pursue what I enjoy, not care what others think, and reach out to and be nice to people who seem to need it. 


Any advice you would give to your high school self?

To pursue the academics and activities that I enjoy most (not what looks best on a college application) because that is what will enable me to succeed the most for college.


Check out our first profile and learn about Erica’s journey.

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Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.