How I Got Into Princeton – Story #3

Alonso’s Story

Profile Photo Alonso“Coming from a unique background with two very different parents (my American mother is an Harvard graduate, while my Costa Rican father never graduated High School), allowed me to see both of their worlds, while not fitting completely in either.”

Alonso entered a private boarding school in Massachusetts as a “scrawny, terrified freshman”.

He succeeded due to the support of his fellow students, teammates, coaches and teachers. The lessons he learned from his parents allowed him to develop a healthy attitude toward academics and failure. He eventually became a dorm leader and wrestling team captain whose writing was the best his creative writing teacher had seen.

Please read below to learn more about Alonso 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.

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.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

SECTION 1 – FAMILY
SECTION 2 – SCHOOLING
SECTION 3 – ACTIVITIES
SECTION 4 – ACADEMICS
SECTION 5 – THE COLLEGE APPLICATION
SECTION 6 – DAY IN THE LIFE
SECTION 7 – WHAT MAKES YOU YOU
SECTION 8 – CONCLUSION

Disclaimer

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.


SECTION 1 – FAMILY

Be an interesting person

Geography

Birthplace: Costa Rica
Where did you grow up? Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Siblings

# of older siblings:  2
# of younger siblings: 1
Sibling Education Levels: Both older siblings have undergraduate degrees
Where did your siblings go to college?  Swarthmore and Haverford

Parents

Parent’s Marital Status: Divorced
With whom do you make your permanent home? Mother
Parent 1 Current/Former Occupation: Professor
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: PhD from the University of Michigan
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: Taxi Driver
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: Did not complete high school

Parent Beliefs

How would you characterize your parent’s parenting style?

Laid back

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

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

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

My mom always told me she wants me to be an interesting person more than anything, so if that means doing new things in academics, or travelling, or trying new sports, or rapping, all of that was fair game. My father values hard work more than anything, be it academic or on the playing field. But both were patient and supportive.


SECTION 2 – SCHOOLING

Concord Academy

Middle School

Middle School: Colfax Accelerated Learning Academy
Type of School: Public

High School

High School: Concord Academy
High School City, State: Concord, MA
Type of School: Private Boarding
Class Size: 100

SECTION 3 – ACTIVITIES

Focus on the things you love

Jobs

Did you work in high school? No
What kind of job/s did you have? N/A
Avg # hrs/week worked: N/A

Extracurriculars/Passions & Interests

What were your major passions/ interests in high school?

Wrestling, Boarding Community Leadership, Cross Country, Track, Creative Writing

How much time did you spend on these things?

Sports – 2 hours every day of the year; Head of House (prefect) – an hour every day

When did these passions/interests first come about?

At boarding school sports were mandatory so I was able to dedicate myself to them there.

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

At our school, wrestling was structured so that every younger student could learn from a more experienced wrestler on the same team. I joined as a scrawny, terrified freshman (the only one on the team), but my teammates embraced me and taught me both moves and the confidence of experienced wrestlers. This was a major breakthrough in my life. I continued wrestling all four years, eventually becoming team captain and helping freshmen gain the strength and confidence that I had.

What level of achievement did you reach?

I was league runner-up at my weight class in wrestling several times and qualified for regionals at my event in track during my only season.

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

I loved sports and found them a respite from my academics. I was motivated out of a love for the teams I was on and a love for the sports themselves. I don’t think I will ever feel another rush like the one you get after winning a wrestling match. I think chasing that sense of achievement was what kept me going.

What kind of support did you have?

My coaches and the teachers who lived in my boarding house were always encouraging. I formed close bonds with many of these people, often staying up past midnight discussing my aspirations with my house parents. Though I was living away from home I felt very loved and supported.

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

One message I always emphasize to younger students seeking to do impressive things is that their focus should be on things they love. This was true for me in the classroom and in sports as well. I can honestly say that for all of the things I am proudest of that I achieved in high school, my fondest memories come from the process, be it combing through archives to write an oral history of the Vietnam War draft lottery or doing laps of the track until I could barely walk. Though I devoted immense amounts of time and effort to these projects, it never felt like a sacrifice. Sometimes you will succeed, and sometimes you won’t, but if you get something from the process you will never feel like a failure.

Service

What were your major service-related activities?

Besides a school service trip to Honduras which I found highly problematic, I did not do any service during my high school years. I chose to go to Honduras to continue my education in terms of Latin America. It was educational and heartbreaking.

How much time did you spend?

N/A

Summers

What did you do in the summers during high school?

In the summer after 9th grade, I stayed at home and took care of my baby sister, who was still a year old at the time. I also accompanied my mother on a research trip to Grenada in the Caribbean.

In the summer after 10th grade, I watched most every game of the World Cup that summer and went on a trip to Barcelona with my brother. The World Cup is very important to me.

In the summer after 11th grade, I went on a school trip to an orphanage in Honduras, then went on a scholarship-sponsored, month-long, photography study program in Argentina. Done through the Experiment in international Living, this program marked perhaps my favorite month of my life. I was able to gain deep insights into Argentine culture and the common pulses that all Latinos have. My Spanish improved immensely and I met people that I will not soon forget.


SECTION 4 – ACADEMICS

Know When to Stop

Grades/GPA/Awards

Class Ranking: Top 7
GPA – Weighted: 3.81
GPA – Unweighted 3.81

SAT/ACT

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? 2330 (Writing 800, Reading 790, Math 740)
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? I was part of a 20 person SAT class that my school offered, which ended before the first time I sat for the SAT. Afterwards, I had one private tutoring session for the math section before the second time I took the SAT.
How many hours did you study in total? 20
When did you start preparing for the test? Fall of my junior year
When did you take the test? 11th and 12th 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? 

  • SAT2 Math: 730
  • SAT2 English Literature: 760
  • SAT2 Spanish: 770

Which AP/IBs did you take?

I took 1 AP test – AP Spanish: 5

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

While my school didn’t give awards, I was awarded by the National Hispanic Recognition Committee and was a semifinalist for National Merit Scholarship

What do you attribute your academic success to?

Since my school did not give academic awards, I just got these awards through putting in some effort into the PSATs. Thus I am not particularly proud.

What kind of support did you have?

My mother, a published author and historian, proof read many of my essays. I was also nurtured by teachers in a small classroom setting. Many of these teachers took time to get to know me as a writer and also as a person. These talks led me to new interests, new books, and new opportunities. My High School had an office hours system (it was a boarding School) so I often sought out teachers for help and advice.

Did you ever receive private tutoring?

No.

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

Do the reading. While this sounds like a simple recipe for success I achieved remarkable success in my English and social studies classes simply by doing the reading assigned to me, which allowed me to participate more fully and write more engagingly on the subjects described. Many of my more intelligent friends sought ways to circumvent our workload. By just piling through my assigned work in study hall, and doing what was asked of me, I was able to stand out.

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

Never compare yourself to others and know when it is time to declare work finished. For instance, is staying up another hour going to drastically improve this essay? If not, stop.


SECTION 5 – THE COLLEGE APPLICATION

Bad at math

Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? Domestic
Did you apply regular or early? Early
How many schools did you apply to? 2
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 a sociology major, though I don’t think I will stick with that.

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

Princeton University, University of Pittsburgh

Which schools did you get into?

Princeton University, University of Pittsburgh

Letters of Recommendations

Who did you ask for letters of recommendation?

My math teacher and my creative writing teacher.

Why did you ask these specific people?

My Creative Writing teacher regularly told me that my writing was the best he had ever seen as a teacher. He offered to teach me Creative Writing further as a once a week meeting to discuss my work. Given that this is perhaps my biggest academic strength, he was an obvious choice. I am bad at math and labored to a few B+ grades. However, I was proud that I had earned these marks, and I had often sought out my teacher for help. I chose him because he had seen my hardworking side.

Common App Essay

What did you write about in your common app essay?

My common app essay was about an embarrassing experience wearing an old pair of my mother’s running shoes to school, but it was really about how my parents’ vastly different backgrounds led them to different priorities when it came to spending money. These differences were particularly stark when our family fell into debt during the late 2000s.

Why Princeton

Why did you choose Princeton?

Princeton gives fantastic financial aid. This means that I could go without taking out loans. It also means a vibrant and diverse student body, many of whom share experiences with me, and many of whom don’t. Princeton has a fantastic school of foreign affairs, and strong departments full of renowned names in sociology and economics as well. It is a beautiful campus, not too far from home, and not too far from where my brother went to college. I also was enticed by the Bridge Year Program, which is a fully paid yearlong immersive service experience in another country. Though this program is quite selective, it was still a powerful draw.

Gap Year

Did you take a gap year?

Yes.

If so, why?

I was admitted (off the waitlist) into Bridge Year, a fully paid yearlong immersive service experience in another country. Though I had wanted to go to somewhere in Latin America, I was sent to India, a country I knew precious little about. I wanted to take a year away from the academic grind to see the world, but in an organized and purposeful way.

What did you do?

I landed in India with 7 other future Princeton freshmen and a professional program leader, dedicated to enriching and maintaining us for the next 9 months. Initially we travelled throughout the northern reaches of Bengal, to the Himalayas, taking time to stop and learn about the local cultures at each stop but also to orient ourselves to the country, through Hindi and cultural lessons like what to do when approached by a stray dog (yell and throw a rock at it). After a month we went to our base in Varanasi. There we were given jobs (I was a teacher of English and Indian History at a private school) and families to live with. This was the rest of our time, punctuated with trips to other parts of India. I also joined a local boxing team and read nearly 50 books.

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


SECTION 6 – DAY IN THE LIFE

Soccer

Typical Day

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

Wake up at 7:30. Breakfast at 8. At 8:30 attend a chapel talk, in which a high school senior is given a 15-minute platform to talk about anything they want. Class at 9. Sports begin right after class ends, at 3:15. Practice ended at 5:30, but I would often supplement that with some time in the gym until 6. Dinner until 7. Study Hall from 7:30 until 9:30. 9:30-10:30 watch TV in the common room with the other boys in my house, often basketball or WWE. Sleep at midnight.

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

3.5

What time did you usually go to sleep?

Midnight.

What was a typical weekend like in high school?

I generally took Saturday to rest and play soccer. Sunday I would watch football and pile through my homework, and often do my laundry for the week.


SECTION 7 – WHAT MAKES YOU YOU

Princeton has normal people

Drive/Motivation

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

I am very self-motivated. More than anything I hate knowing that I could have done better by working harder. Some of my proudest grades have been C+s, and I have hated myself for getting A-s. I always figured that if I worked my hardest I would be ok, so I focused more on the process than on my goals.

Pressure/Stress/Expectations

What kind of expectations did your parents have for you?

Though of course my mother expected me to go to college and do the best I could, she never talked about my grades, instead asking “but what did you learn”. I loved this attitude as it allowed me to flourish.

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

The only pressure on me was self-inflicted.  I put pressure on myself to reach my potential academically and athletically once I realized that my goals were very much in reach. 

The pressure came from myself primarily.  The culture of high achievement at Princeton High School normalized hard work as opposed to making me feel pressure.

How did you deal with this pressure?

If I felt any pressure it was from myself. I am motivated, but generally calm.

Balance

How did you balance everything going on in high school?

I have an attitude of generally choosing to do something that will make me happy, something I remember, over something that will help my grades in the short term. This meant late night conversations with friends and house parents about race and gun violence issues, even when I still had a math problem set to finish. I think having a balanced, busy life was an absolute blessing. Focusing only on academics leads to burnout, so my varied schedule always kept me fresh and engaged. Keeping time for friends also gave me many interests and ideas that doubtless helped me academically.

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

Start journaling. It will inspire you to do exciting stuff and put yourself out there so that you have interesting days to write about.

Significant Events

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

My life as an immigrant and the unique perspectives this offered set me apart from many of my peers. This was a topic I wrote about a lot. Also a traumatic event my freshman year inspired me to speak out about similar situations and seek strength from myself, rather than others.

Other Challenges/Struggles

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

No.

Culture/Identity

How do you identify yourself? Latino
Which languages does your family speak at home? Spanish (my dad), English (my mom)
How many languages are you proficient in? Spanish, English, Hindi
Do you identify with multiple cultures? Yes. I love Costa Rican culture, pan-Latinx culture, and I am also fascinated by the culture of India.

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

My high school was diverse and while there were not any people with my specific background, I was able to connect to peers over similarities, talking with my Asian peers for instance about the harms of colorism in latinx and Asian culture. I was also able to learn and appreciate so many different cultures I had never seen, particularly wealthy New England culture.

Character/Personal Qualities

What values were most important to you in high school?

Love, hardwork, fun, spontaneity.

What was your #1 core value?

Love, in all of its forms. Love, in all forms, takes tremendous amounts of work. 

How did you demonstrate those values in high school?

I practiced love as a leader in the boarding community. As a head of house I was in charge of the emotional well-being of 30 boys, many of whom had never lived away from home before. I tried to create a loving community, through food events, watching horror movies together, freestyle rapping together, and discouraging bullying and insensitive humor. I tried to build a trusting atmosphere, so that, say a freshman felt comfortable with banging on my door at midnight to ask me how he could get a toned six pack.

What do you consider your most important personal qualities?

I would say I’m a calm person, and I’m a happy person who tries to spread his happiness to others.

How would you characterize your personality growing up?

I am very comfortable around other people and am very confident, if not super extroverted.

Uniqueness

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

Coming from a unique background with two very different parents (my American mother is an Harvard graduate, while my Costa Rican father never graduated High School), allowed me to see both of their worlds, while not fitting completely in either. This was a blessing, as it gave me a unique ability to adapt and also keen observational skills about the aspects of the people around me.

What do you think makes you unique?

I am a levelheaded, balanced person. Once I got into Princeton a friend congratulated me and told me that this was great news since it proved that a normal person could get into such an elite school. I am able to bridge my interests, which is particularly helpful as a writer. This means things like looking through Reggaetón lyrics for clues as to the differences in Latinx racial identity in the immigrant diaspora.

Influences/Mentors/Support

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

My mother’s family is full of academics who taught me to analyze everything I see and be able to argue about it. Reading and my love for international soccer, along with frequent travel with my mother on research trips, gave me a keen interest in the world and understanding global cultures.

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

My brother.  


SECTION 8 – CONCLUSION

Stepping Stones

Important Lessons

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

If you focus too much on your goals, nearly every phase of your life will just be a stepping stone to something else. Take time to appreciate and embrace these stepping stones, because that process is what our life is. You never know what someone else is going through.

Advice

Any advice you would give to your high school self?

Cherish every moment.

 


NEXT STEPS

Check out our next profile and read about Justin’s story. Haven’t read our 1st profile yet? Check out Destiny’s journey here. Alternatively, you can also view a summary of all our other stories here – How I Got Into Series.

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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 Wong and Kevin Wong

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.