How I Got Into Princeton – Story #17

Martin’s Story

“I always strive to make people proud of me.”

Meet Martin, a member of Princeton’s class of 2021.

In high school, Martin pursued a robust schedule of academics, extracurricular activities, and community service. He graduated in the top five percent of his high school class, held the role of Vice President in his school’s Lobo Unity service club, and became a California Scholarship Federation (CSF) lifetime member. Martin is also a Questbridge Match recipient.

However, Martin’s achievements were not without challenge, as he describes in this post.

“Being a first-generation Latino low-income student was not easy,” Martin reflects. “Going to an Ivy league school seemed like an unreachable dream, but with hard work and a good support system, I was able to achieve that.”

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

We recommend reading from beginning to end but feel free to skip around. Our favorite section is the “What Makes You You” section, where Martin describes his unique qualities and how they contributed to his personal and academic success.

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: Mexico
Where did you grow up? Santa Rosa, CA


# of older siblings:  2
# of younger siblings: 1
Sibling Education Levels:  Older sister: community college; older brother: high school; younger sister: elementary school
Where did your siblings go to college?  N/A


Parent’s Marital Status: Married
With whom do you make your permanent home? Both
Parent 1 Current/Former Occupation: Disabled but used to be a factory worker
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: Elementary School
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: Factory Worker
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: Elementary School

Parent Beliefs

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

Laid back, but sometimes strict.

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

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

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

They valued family above all else because you’ll always have family with you. Also, they valued academics for me so I can have a good career and “not be like them.”


Middle School

Middle School: Lawrence Cook Middle School
Type of School: Public

High School

High School: Elsie Allen High School
High School City, State: Santa Rosa, CA
Type of School: Public
Class Size: 291



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?

Theatre, choir, and music.

How much time did you spend on these things?

I had both choir and theatre classes during the school year for 5 hours a week. It would be more if we had a performance or extra rehearsals.

When did these passions/interests first come about?

I first started singing freshman year of high school after I was in a choir class. I started theatre sophomore year of high school when I was in the class.

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

I was dedicated to these passions and would sing solos during concerts. I was also motivated by performing in plays and scenes. I performed until senior year and continued to strive for improvement.

What level of achievement did you reach?

I sang solos in choir, the school produced my original play, and I performed a musical theatre solo at the Lenaea Theatre Festival.

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

I had a lot of support from my classmates and teachers. I enjoyed performing so improvement and stepping out of my comfort zone were something that satisfied me.

What kind of support did you have?

My main support for these passions were my classmates, friends, and teachers.

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

I was taking very challenging classes and had to manage my time well in order to calibrate academics, theatre, choir, other extracurricular activities, and time with friends and family. Sometimes my family felt I wasn’t spending enough time with them and I had to reassure them that theatre, choir, and my activities were important to me.


What were your major service-related activities?

At school, I was in Rotary Interact Club and was also Vice President of Lobo Unity, a club dedicated to fostering unity and providing service within the community. I participated in various community service activities, from helping in community festivals to food drives and visiting elders at retirement homes.

How much time did you spend?

4-5 hours per week.

Why did you choose this activity?

At first I chose this activity to add to my college resume, but I discovered I really enjoyed helping people. It pleased me to do things to benefit the community and other people.


What did you do in the summers during high school?

Summer after 9th grade, I went with my family to Mexico to visit family for a few weeks. I also worked out to feel more comfortable about my body image.

Summer after 10th grade, I participated in a 14-day Sierra Mountain alpine backpacking trip funded by Summer Search, a program to foster independence and college preparedness. I worked out beforehand to condition myself for that trip.

After 11th grade, I participated in the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, where I interned at the Stanford Hospital and lived at Stanford University for 7 weeks. Additionally, I took an anatomy class, researched health disparities, and learned about applying for college. Afterward, I participated in a 2-week program in Moca, Dominican Republic, funded by Summer Search. I learned about the Dominican culture and worked on a community action project to better the community.



Class Ranking: 6/291
GPA – Weighted: 4.42
GPA – Unweighted 3.82


How many times did you take the SAT? 2
How many times did you take the ACT? 2
What were your SAT and/or ACT scores? SAT: 1410, ACT: 28
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? No
How many hours did you study in total? 6
When did you start preparing for the test? A month before the test Junior year
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? 

Biology (Molecular): 800; Math Level II: 620; Chemistry: 560

Which AP/IBs did you take?

AP Biology: 4
AP US History: 4
AP Statistics: 3
AP Language & Composition: 4
AP Calculus AB: 5
AP Macroeconomics: 3
AP Government: 3
AP Literature & Composition: 2
AP Physics 1: 2
AP Spanish Language: 5

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

I graduated in the top 5% of my class, became a California Scholarship Federation (CSF) life-time member, and am a Questbridge Match recipient.

What do you attribute your academic success to?

I always strive to make people proud of me. I worked hard and searched for help whenever needed in order to excel in my classes and with schoolwork. There was intrinsic motivation, but I also received motivation from my friends, teachers, and family.

What kind of support did you have?

My family encouraged me to do well in school because they always thought I was intelligent and teachers would give them feedback that I was a good student. I also received a lot of support from my friends, who would mostly take the same classes as me. We would help each other understand material, so I would comprehend by being both a student and a teacher. Also, most of my teachers were really supportive. They wished the best for me and  really cared.

Did you ever receive private tutoring?


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

I definitely had to learn how to set priorities for myself. Schoolwork was a high priority for me. A challenge was not having help from parents or a tutor; my parents were supportive but they did not complete high school and did not speak English. I had my friends to help me when needed and I helped them, too, which reinforced my knowledge. My school did not have the greatest academic reputation, mainly because it was in an area that was infamous for gangs and things like that. Additionally, being a first-generation Latino low-income student was not easy. Going to an ivy league school seemed like an unreachable dream, but with hard work and a good support system I was able to achieve that.

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

Something that helped me study and reinforce my knowledge was teaching to a friend. My friends and I would help each other; if they were confused, I would teach to them and vice versa. Also, doing homework in a quiet place free of diversions would help me focus and retain what I was learning. Another thing was note-taking. I would take notes on the chapter in the book and then also take notes during class. Writing them helped me retain the information.


Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? Domestic
Did you apply regular or early? Both
How many schools did you apply to? 14
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? For some of them, yes. I put down biology, which I am still considering as my major.

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

UCLA, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Princeton University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, CSU Sonoma, CSU Long Beach, CSU San Jose, CSU Chico, New York University.

Which schools did you get into?

UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Princeton University , CSU Sonoma, CSU Long Beach, CSU San Jose, CSU Chico, New York University.

Letters of Recommendations

Who did you ask for letters of recommendation?

I asked two of my teachers. One was my AP Language & Composition teacher and Lobo Unity advisor (community service club). The other was my AP Biology teacher and University Center program coordinator (college readiness program in my school).

Why did you ask these specific people?

These two teachers saw me grow throughout high school and I had gotten close to them. My AP biology teacher knew me since I was a freshman. She saw my academic growth from afar, as well as through experience. I was her star student in her AP Biology class. My AP Language teacher got to know me my junior year. I felt she cared a lot for her students and wished for us to grow. My writing strongly improved because of her and she supported me in my roles as president of my school’s California Scholarship Federation and Vice President of Lobo Unity. Both of these teachers witnessed my determination and growth throughout high school.

Common App Essay

What did you write about in your common app essay?

For my common app essay I wrote about the different experiences that have molded me into the person I am today. I wrote about growing up in an immigrant, low-income household and the difficulties of being first-generation. I also wrote about the development of my confidence through school, my friends, choir, and theater. Additionally, I wrote about becoming more comfortable with who I am and about accepting my sexual orientation.

Why Princeton

Why did you choose Princeton?

I applied to Princeton through the Questbridge Match program. Princeton was my second choice and I got matched to it on a full scholarship. Honestly, I did not know so much about Princeton because I thought I would not be able to get in. Aside from financial aid, Princeton captivated me when I went to visit during Preview. I had never been to Princeton and just did some research online, but being there allowed me to see myself there. I fell in love with the gothic architecture. I enjoyed their performing arts showcase and arch sing, since performing arts are important to me. I found that Princeton’s biology and pre-med programs are pretty strong, as well as all other academic programs. Furthermore, the people were nice and friendly. I feared they would be snotty and privileged. I committed to Princeton as soon as I got back home from Preview.

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 would get up at 6AM  to get ready for school and arrive at school before 7AM. I had choir every weekday first thing in the morning. The classes I had depended on the schedule for that day; sometimes we would have block schedule or other times all 6 periods (7 for me including zero period: choir). I was taking challenging classes including AP Biology, AP Language & Composition, AP Government (in Fall), AP Macroeconomics (in spring), Honors Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus, and theatre. After school, I would usually have rehearsal for a show for theatre or choir, community service, or badminton practice (in spring). When I got home I would eat and then work on my homework and usually help my little sister with hers. If I had free time, I would listen to music, go on social media, watch TV or movies, or play piano.

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

3-4 hours

What time did you usually go to sleep?

It depended on how much homework and other activities I had, but roughly around 11 or midnight.

What was a typical weekend like in high school?

On weekends I would usually sleep in unless I had to wake up earlier to do community service or take my parents somewhere. I would spend some time with my parents and go out with friends. I would also listen to music, watch TV/movies, and play piano. I would also try to work on homework earlier in the week to have the weekend free of schoolwork (although sometimes I would leave it for Sunday night).



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

I have always had the drive to succeed. I wanted to make my parents proud. My parents would always tell me to get a good education so I could get a good job and live a good life. I have followed this advice and it has become more intrinsic motivation for me to do my best in everything to succeed and live a prosperous life. Additionally, my friends and teachers have been great motivation for me. They have seen that I do great in school and I have expectations that I set for myself to meet.


What kind of expectations did your parents have for you?

My parents received comments about my good behavior and academic excellence from my teachers since elementary school. They told me to do my best in school so I can have a good, stable job and not “be like them” because they didn’t invest in their education. They expected me to do well in school.

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

I felt pressure to succeed from my peers, parents, and myself. My parents wanted me to do well in school so I could get a good job. I tried to get good grades and make them proud. Also, my peers—mainly teachers and other students—saw my good academic performance and I felt pressure to continue doing well. Additionally, I would set high expectations for myself. I wanted to make other people proud, so I set high expectations for myself.

How did you deal with this pressure?

My friends would remind me that I don’t need to be perfect in order to make people proud. My parents were already proud of me and I did not need straight A’s in order for them to be proud of me. Sometimes I would remind myself not to stress too much, and that it was important to make time for myself, to listen to music, or do other things I enjoy. Education is important, but mental and physical health should not be sacrificed.


How did you balance everything going on in high school?

One thing that helped me calibrate everything in high school was time management. I am a very organized person and made a schedule for myself either on a planner or my phone calendar. I would try to finish homework as early as possible to have more time for other things. I learned how to manage my time well, especially in busy times when I  had AP exams, an upcoming choir or theater performance, or other activities.

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

Having a schedule helped remind me of things I had to do, homework that had to be done, and about how much time to spend on something. When possible, starting homework early in the day also helped because it ensured me that I would get it done and out of the way.

Significant Events

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

My summer trip after sophomore year to the Sierra Nevadas was very influential for me. I have always struggled with my body image and did not think I would be able to go rock climbing and running, in addition to backpacking in the mountains for two weeks. I was scared going into the trip but, thanks to people being supportive, I was able to do it all. Additionally, I learned on that trip that it takes more than a loud voice to be a good leader. We had different leaders on different days and when it was my turn, I was nervous. I have always been soft-spoken and shy. I did not think I would be a good leader. My peers said they valued my empathy and that I was a good leader. This trip helped me become more comfortable with myself and gain more confidence.

Other Challenges/Struggles

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

I think an important struggle I had while growing up was being gay. I first came out to my best friend freshman year and I was scared as to what she would think. She supported me and said she loved me more for confiding in her. It was difficult for me to tell other people at first because I had not accepted that part of my identity. Thanks to my friends, I was able to come out to more people and become more confident in myself. My shyness minimized and I became happier with myself and my identity as a result. I have yet to tell my parents because I still need more inner acceptance; it is difficult because of their expectations of me having a family (with a wife). 


How do you identify yourself? Hispanic or Latino
Which languages does your family speak at home? Spanish
How many languages are you proficient in? Spanish and English
Do you identify with multiple cultures? Yes. Mexican and American.

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

Throughout middle school and high school, I was mainly surrounded by other Latinos, so I would not feel marginalized at school. However, because of our greater Latino population and the area where the school is located, both my middle school and high school had bad reputations. People would put down my schools as having a low success rate and high teen pregnancy. It has been hard being a Latino trying to pursue higher education, especially as first-generation. However, one must challenge the adversity and not be a stereotype or self-fulfilling prophecy.

Character/Personal Qualities

What values were most important to you in high school?

Friendship, altruism, responsibility, empathy, trust, intelligence, balance, creativity, and honesty.

What was your #1 core value?


How did you demonstrate those values in high school?

I demonstrated these values by getting involved with different activities, passions, and friendships. Theatre and choir have allowed me to foster my creativity, as well as develop balance. Being a good listening ear to my friends, community service activities, and summer programs allowed me to strengthen my empathy.  

What do you consider your most important personal qualities?

I consider myself to be empathetic, trustworthy, creative, and honest.

How would you characterize your personality growing up?

I have always been a kind, soft-spoken, and creative person. Throughout the years, I have become more confident with myself, less shy, and have added layers to my personality. I am a good listener and I love to help people, which is one of the reasons why I wish to pursue a career in the medical field.


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

My family cared for me, wished for me to do my best, and also gave me a good amount of freedom. We are close as a family and we love each other. My parents and siblings are proud of me and believe I can succeed. My parents placed trust in me so that I would be able to have fun and go out, too.

What do you think makes you unique?

I think my personality is pretty unique. I am a person who values empathy and I am also a good listener. I love helping people feel better and putting a smile on their face. Additionally, I’m creative, especially when it comes to performing arts. I love creating art for people to enjoy while it also serves as an outlet for me. Furthermore, I value friendship and have created strong friendships throughout my life.


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

My major influences have been my friends, parents, and teachers. My parents always wanted me to be a good person and to see success. My teachers motivated me to do my best and follow my dreams. My friends would believe in me sometimes more than I believed in myself; they value my friendship and have always encouraged me to shoot for the stars.

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

I would go to my best friend Luz. I have known her since sixth grade and we have been close friends since. She is the person I first came out to and I trust her with anything. I also know she cares for me and will help me choose what will make me happy.


Important Lessons

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

I have learned that hard work pays off. I have worked hard in academics to attend Princeton, in performing to be the performer I am, and to do the best I can. Also, believe in being kind to others because what you give will be reciprocated. I have secured strong friendships this way and have a system of support for myself emotionally for when times get rough.


Any advice you would give to your high school self?

I would tell myself to enjoy the little things in life more. Enjoy the moments spent with friends and family, all the jokes made, the places visited, and the people met. Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to be perfect that we forget to cherish the moment. In Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, in which I performed as Dr. Gibbs, one of the quotes that has stuck with me is “you’ve got to love life to have life and you’ve got to have life to love life,” and I think it is very true, especially in times of stress or feeling overwhelmed or overworked.


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

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At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child increase their test scores and get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.

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.