How I Got Into Princeton – Story #4

Justin’s Story

“What was originally just me wanting to wear a military uniform for fun became an intense hands-on leadership experience.”

Leadership, courage, respect. Justin learned all these the hard way.

In his first year of high school, Justin joined the California Cadet Corps, a paramilitary youth organization for students from elementary to college. This training became his defining experience throughout high school, within which he ascended to become the highest-ranking officer in his school and county. Meanwhile, he stayed grounded in volunteering for his church and making it through his intense schoolwork.

Please read below to learn more about Justin 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 “Your Activities” 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.




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: Busan, South Korea
Where did you grow up? San Bernardino County, California


# of older siblings:  0
# of younger siblings: 0
Sibling Education Levels: N/A
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: International Trader 
Parent 1 Highest Level of Education: PhD
Parent 2 Current/Former Occupation: Homemaker
Parent 2 Highest Level of Education: PhD

Parent Beliefs

How would you characterize your parent’s parenting style?

Somewhere between helicopter and laid back. They were caring enough about my education that they kept track of my grades and how my studies/classes were in general, but they also didn’t completely cut off social contact for me either.

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

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

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

My parents always said that success inherently depends on how much effort I put into whatever I’m doing. Thus, I personally always strive to go above and beyond the call of duty, giving 110%.


Middle School

Middle School: Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School
Type of School: Private

High School

High School: Cajon High School
High School City, State: San Bernardino, CA
Type of School: Public
Class Size: 750



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?

My main extracurricular was the California Cadet Corps; this was where I spent almost all of my free time outside of school related subjects.

How much time did you spend on these things?

I was a part of this program for all 4 years of high school, and as I gradually gained higher ranks in the program, I would spend at least 10-15 hours a week after school writing reports, practicing for drill competitions, and training cadets in various activities.

When did these passions/interests first come about?

I’ve always been interested in the military ever since elementary school (most likely because of my utter and complete fascination with Star Wars). So when I got the chance to be a part of the California Cadet Corps, it was the closest shot I had to the real thing. Believe it or not, that was my initial reason to join. I later realized it was a very smart decision because of the various things I took away from my experiences there.

How were these passions/interests developed over time?

As I slowly went from the rank of Recruit to Lieutenant Colonel, I gained more responsibility within my Battalion and Brigade. What was originally just me wanting to wear a military uniform for fun became an intense hands-on leadership experience. I was initially made a Squad Leader who was responsible for around 3-4 cadets. Then I became a Company Commander, who was tasked with roughly 25-30 cadets in terms of their weekly schedule and their instruction/training. By my senior year, I was the Battalion Commander (the highest-ranking officer at my high school) and simultaneously the Brigade Commander (the highest-ranking officer in San Bernardino County). Throughout this time, I gained people skills and the know-how to manage large groups of people to accomplish a given set of tasks via delegation and thorough planning.

What level of achievement did you reach?

As I sort of explained above, by the end of it all I held the second-highest achievable rank of Lieutenant Colonel and held the positions of Brigade and Battalion Commander.

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

A lot of my achievements in the California Cadet Corps came from trial and error. I would sometimes have no precedent to work with, so I’d have to try something completely new just to see it crash and burn immediately. After a stern talk with my Commandants about my performance, I’d revise my plan, try again, and repeat this process until I successfully completed the mission.

What kind of support did you have?

I had the support of my parents throughout my time in the Corps, as well as the support of my fellow friends and staff in the Corps itself. The friends I made in the California Cadet Corps are still close friends of mine today, and I’m so glad I was able to go through this experience with them.

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

I lost so much sleep in High School; it was not a fun time in that regard. One mess-up meant critical failure of the operation and it was always my full responsibility if something went wrong. Because of these tough conditions, I learned (the hard way) to better schedule my day and plans in general. I’m glad to say that I’m on a normal sleeping schedule now.


What were your major service-related activities?

I volunteered a lot at my church, Our Lady of the Assumption. From Altar Serving to helping to distribute food to the local needy and less-fortunate.

How much time did you spend?

Around 3-5 hours a week.

Why did you choose this activity?

It felt like a good way to give back to both my middle and elementary school as well as gain experience in service. I’m a firm believer that one can never be too humble, and this helped me give back to my local community in a direct way.


What did you do in the summers during high school?

In the summer after 9th grade, I completed Officer Candidacy School and gained the rank of Cadet 2nd Lieutenant. This felt like the first logical step for me as I wanted to get more leadership experience, and the fastest way to do that was gain rank.

In the summer after 10th grade, I completed Survival Training and earned my beloved Red Beret. Basically, this was considered the hardest level of training a cadet could undergo in the corps. You were dropped off in the desert in teams of four with minimal supplies and expected to survive for a week (find shelter, water, food, etc.). If you did so, you would earn the Red Beret, which is one of the highest awards possible in the Corps. I primarily wanted to do this just for the experience as well as to prove to myself that I had the mettle to do something like this.

In the summer after 11th grade, I completed Marksmanship Training and earned my Expert Marksman Badge, the highest qualification possible in this field. This program was taught by United States Marines and Local Sheriffs. It covered the importance of firearm safety as well as training us in the use of firearms of competitive target shooting. This was the same exact program given by the US Army to its soldiers, so it was quite the experience in that we were basically doing actual Army training. Furthermore, besides my Expert Marksman badge, I also earned the designation of “Top Shot” within my company. This meant I consistently scored the highest on any given test on the live-fire range. I wanted to do this program primarily because I found it very interesting and thought that now was a good time for me to learn how to handle a firearm safely, especially in light of the then-recent tragedies in San Bernardino.



Class Ranking: 2
GPA – Weighted: 4.90
GPA – Unweighted 4.00


How many times did you take the SAT? 1
How many times did you take the ACT? 1
What were your SAT and/or ACT scores? SAT: 1510, ACT: 35
Did you take a class or receive private tutoring? No
How many hours did you study in total? Around 36 hours for both
When did you start preparing for the test? As soon as 10th grade was over
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? 

  • 750 Math Level 2
  • 710 Chemistry
  • 660 US History

Which AP/IBs did you take?

5 AP tests, 6 IB tests

What were your major academic achievements in high school?

Honor Guard for 4 years, Valedictorian, 1st place for State Individual Major Awards in category of Outstanding First Year Cadet Senior Division, 1st place for State Individual Major Awards in Outstanding Warrant/Junior Officer Senior Division, 1st place for State Individual Major Awards in Outstanding Senior Officer Senior Division, total of 48 ribbons, 3 medals, and 5 shoulder cords during service in California Cadet Corps, Certificate of Scholarship No. 14091715 from The Korean Real Estate, Brokers Association of Southern California, Certificate of Appreciation from Olympic Division of Los Angeles Police

What do you attribute your academic success to?

Most of these achievements came with brute determination and my will to just get things done. For the most part, I had this drive in high school which kept pushing me to go above and beyond. My parents had a huge role in this, they had my back every step of the way and I seriously doubt I would have gotten this far without them. So in a sense, they are who I attribute my academic success to.

What kind of support did you have?

(See above) In a main sense, my parents were my greatest support. That plus the wonderful teachers I met as well as the great friends I had in high school made this support net I could always fall back on.

Did you ever receive private tutoring?


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

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I lost so much friggin’ sleep in high school that I practically lived off Monster energy drinks and boxes of 5-Hour Energy. What got me through is the constant thought that me working hard right now and right here would pay off in huge dividends in the future. As cliched as it sounds, hard work does indeed pay off.

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

Personally, writing down a to-do list along with a weekly schedule helped immensely. That way, I could set up a daily schedule to divide and conquer the amount of work I had to do every month. Speaking of which, having a yearly calendar for those large, end of the semester assignments helped with planning my thoughts out as well.


Applications & Acceptances

Did you apply as an international or domestic student? Sort of… Since I was born in Korea but lived in CA with permanent
residency, I was treated as a domestic student even though I’m technically
Did you apply regular or early? I applied to one school: Stanford
How many schools did you apply to? 10
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? Computer Science; I’m a rising sophomore now and I’m confident this is my major. 

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

Princeton, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, CalTech, Columbia, and Cornell

Which schools did you get into?

Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD

Letters of Recommendations

Who did you ask for letters of recommendation?

Specifically, I asked my Calc teacher, Mr. Srikrishna Udupa, and my English teacher, Mr. Jerry Tivey.

Why did you ask these specific people?

Mr. Udupa was just a wonderful teacher overall. He was funny, quirky, and knew the class material like the back of his hand. He taught a high school senior class like a tenured college professor. In fact, I have a cup on my desk that he signed saying, “Dear Justin, you are indeed the smartest student in the class. Keep up the good work! Best, Skr. Udupa.” Needless to say, we were very close and I couldn’t think of a better person to ask.

Mr. Tivey, we weren’t as close. But, he and I still got along as much as a Computer Geek and a Literary could. We had similar tastes in music, and the same favorite book (The Great Gatsby). I particularly enjoyed how he taught his class as a mostly self-driven curriculum. I was able to excel at my pace comfortably while not “going ahead” or “falling behind.”

Common App Essay

What did you write about in your common app essay?

My common app essay was primarily centered around my experiences in Survival Training and how I grew as a person from it.

Why Princeton

Why did you choose Princeton?

Oof, this is a hard question. From the schools that I got accepted to, all of them had great departments centered around Computer Science so I didn’t have to nitpick education-wise. I knew I would get a quality education. Personally, the appeal of going to school in a completely different state interested me extremely, and I also loved the locale of Princeton. Harvard and Stanford are great sure, but they’re too close to large cities for my taste. From my research, I also knew that Princeton gave a lot of attention to their undergrads, and while I’m not pointing fingers, this is what put me over the fence. Knowing I would get an Ivy League education from the best university in the country in a major that I love, how could I ever say no?

Gap Year

Did you take a gap year?

No, I wanted to start undergrad at Princeton asap!

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 junior year of high school?

0700 – Wakeup, usually have no time to eat breakfast, quickly wash up and get in the car

0745 – Arrive to my 1st period fashionably late (but not tardy)

1430 – End of classes, but now I would go to the Cadet Corps room

1600 – Let my parents know I’m done with school and to come pick me up

1700 – After a shower and putting my bookbag down etc., I eat dinner

1800 – Start homework

0100 – Finish homework and go to sleep

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

5-7 hours

What time did you usually go to sleep?

On an early day, probably 1 or 2 am.

What was a typical weekend like in high school?

Weekends were homework time. I completed essays, wrapped up projects, finished assignments, etc. This was quite unfortunate as many of my classes had homework due Monday.



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

My primary drive was to have a successful future. I know that’s a bit of a ways off for a high school student, but that was my goal at the end of the day. I was always raised on the principle that you reap what you sow, so it only made sense that I should sow as much as I could when I can so it pays off in the future. Also by “successful” I don’t mean “rich.” Rather, success means stability and health to me.


What kind of expectations did your parents have for you?

Given that my parents both had PhD’s it wasn’t a surprise that they wished academic success for me.

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

Surprisingly, almost all of my pressure to succeed came from myself. As I said, my personal drive was enough to push me to the academic successes which I was fortunate enough to receive.

How did you deal with this pressure?

The most important thing about pressure is to never let it get to your head. Think of it as a friendly reminder, a way to remember what all this struggle and hardship is for.


How did you balance everything going on in high school?

It wasn’t particularly hard for me because I had everything planned out to the hour in my phone or in my planner.

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

I will keep saying this: get a planner or a calendar and religiously update it and follow it. Not only will this give you physical evidence of your progress, it will serve as a personal secretary/assistant. Furthermore, don’t try to do too much at a time. Pick up a new club, sport, or hobby one at a time. I have seen kids in high school who are part of a billion clubs but can’t dedicate time to a single one since they need to always be at a different club. On a similar note, it’s okay to say no. In fact if you cannot do something for someone, it’s better to say no immediately rather than get their hopes up and cancel.

Significant Events

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

For sure, the number one event would be Survival Training. But I go into much better detail about that in my essay, so I won’t put that here.

Other Challenges/Struggles

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



How do you identify yourself? Asian
Which languages does your family speak at home? Korean
How many languages are you proficient in? English and Korean
Do you identify with multiple cultures? To an extent, I would say I’m Korean by blood but heavily Americanized.

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

Well, as a Korean I was taught that respect is of utter importance. Thus, I had a habit of being too polite by American standards before I learned that I don’t need to bow to my teachers every day and just a jaunty wave or informal greeting is fine.

Character/Personal Qualities

What values were most important to you in high school?

Leadership, respect, courage, patience, tenacity

What was your #1 core value?

By far, respect. The first page of The Great Gatsby holds a great quote on this, “‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

How did you demonstrate those values in high school?

Leadership through the California Cadet Corps, respect in how I treated myself and others, courage in how I took on challenges and ventures out of my comfort zone, patience within my social skills, and tenacity in how I got through the sleep deprivation and stress of high school.

What do you consider your most important personal qualities?

My most important personal quality is respect. No matter who you are, I do my best not to assume anything about your past because as far as I know, you’re just another human being walking through life one step at a time like me.

How would you characterize your personality growing up?

Growing up, I was shy and introverted. I mostly kept to myself. However, high school changed that. I gained more friends, and also managed to work on putting myself “out there.” Overall it was a good experience in that it helped me move across the country to Princeton.


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

Besides what I mentioned earlier about being Korean, nothing really comes to mind.

What do you think makes you unique?

I would say my drive to always be the best person I can be at any time is what got me here and what hopefully keeps me going. Also, my music taste is all over the place; I’ve listened to Gershwin and Eminem one right after the other. I think that’s something which is pretty rare.


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

My mom. She taught and raised me into who I am today. Don’t get me wrong, my dad played a huge role too, but the fact is I spent the vast majority of my childhood with my mom, so it only makes sense that she rubs off on me.

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

My mom for the reasons above.


Important Lessons

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

-Always give 110%

-If you have a choice between doing an easy thing or a hard thing, pick the hard one

-Hold yourself to a higher standard than which you hold others


Any advice you would give to your high school self?

Don’t worry about getting accepted to x, y, or z. Just know that trying your best is never the wrong thing to do.


Check out our next profile and read about Amanda’s story. Haven’t read our 1st profile yet? Check out Erica’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.