The second Forthcoming interview is with Angela Ji!
Angela is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently undeclared but is interested in English, Economics, and Asian American Studies. At school, she is involved with various writing groups and student advocacy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you apply to UPenn? Is that normal for your high school context?
I came from a high school that is really academically intense, especially around college application season. I’m fortunate to live in a really well funded school district where a lot of the students are able to apply to and attend top tier schools.
I decided to apply to UPenn because I had submitted a piece of writing to a literary journal. They rejected it, but the editor reached out and said, You should check out the Kelly Writers House at UPenn.
They have this creative writing recruitment process, so I reached out to the Director of Recruitment for the house. It seemed like such a wonderful, cozy creative space. Penn also has such a strong English department that I actually applied to college as an English and cognitive science major — not doing that anymore, but Penn also has a really strong liberal arts program in general, which is why I felt really comfortable exploring different subjects.
I didn’t realize this when I applied to Penn. But I also describe myself as someone who really enjoys being in the city. I didn’t realize that until I visited schools that I got into and was like ooh, some of these feel too isolated for me. Penn has a really nice campus-city balance. The city is really accessible by foot/subway.
Do you remember what you wrote your college application essays about?
I went a little bit off the wall for my essays, because I really enjoy creative writing and this is right up my alley. During the summer before I applied, I did research in a lab, so for my common app, I talked about my experience on the train. I often just sat there and looked around. I was new to the whole “commuting” thing. It was an interesting lens through which to view my surroundings.
For another essay, I wrote about butterflies. I think they’re able to capture my personality. I was also able to dig in and show a deeper level of thought through them and explore my more whimsical side.
Why did you drop Cognitive Science as a major?
I kind of fell off the stem track towards the end of high school. I’ve always liked science and I still do like science, but I think it’s more of a hobby. In my later years of high school, I took some really good humanities and social science classes that I thought were much more engaging.
I feel like science can be a little insular and self contained at times. Whereas the humanities/social sciences really allows you to look at the big picture and work with people in general much more closely.
Did you feel a big gap (academically, workloadwise) between your classes in high school and your classes at Penn?
I would say so. I definitely had a rougher semester adjusting. But I also signed up for really challenging classes, so it might have also been partially me. I had to learn to manage my time better.
In high school, you got this assignment, you finished it, and you’re done. But in college, there’s always another reading or another chapter to review. You have to budget your time between classes, eating, clubs and other things. I got an hourly planner because the simple one I had in high school just wasn’t enough anymore.
One upside to college is that you barely get any grades, and your grades show up partway through the semester. In high school, I probably didn’t have the healthiest relationship with my grades. I checked them a lot because they were always on my mind. That said, because there were fewer grades, I definitely felt more pressure to do the assignments well.
In college, I’m able focus more on the actual content and the learning process. I also took great liberal arts classes my first year. Those professors really fostered that “learning for the sake of learning” environment which helped and shaped me academically.
You’re going to need to take a lot more initiative and put in much more work outside of class like going to TA office hours.
Do you have time management tips?
Get a detailed, hourly planner, and write everything down–club meetings, classes, and anything that has a scheduled time. I personally don’t like using Google Calendar, but if that’s your thing, then type everything down.
For more advice on planning, check out 9 Things You Should Know Before You Start College
My biggest tip is to handwrite your notes. A lot of people type them, but honestly, I can’t do that because I’ll find myself typing everything the professor says, word for word. Then, I’m so focused on typing, I miss what they’re saying. Some people recommend that you hand write it and then type it up neatly, which I think would be a great strategy, but I honestly have never done that.
For actually studying, I need a quiet space, and I start off each study session with a to do list with everything you need to complete in the session.
You mentioned that you had trouble adjusting to Penn’s pre professional culture–can you say a little more about that?
Penn has Wharton (business school), Nursing, and Engineering school, and a lot of those people already have a good sense of what they want to do. I came into the college pretty undecided, not knowing what I wanted.
Wharton has pretty big presence on campus. First semester, I knew a lot of Wharton people they were applying to Wharton clubs. So I was also applying to Wharton clubs just because everyone was doing it without knowing anything about them.
I guess when you don’t really know where you’re going, it’s really easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing. And sometimes it almost feels like, oh, there’s this one path to go down: join specific clubs, get business internships, and then go into consulting or investment banking right out of college.
If you want to do that, good for you, and if you’re interested, I highly recommend exploring those paths to see if they’re for you. But if you don’t, and you’re only doing it because like that’s what everyone else is doing, I think it’s important to think about what actually interests you. I
I remember my first year I had a hard time shopping around for clubs to join. When I applied to schools, they made it sound like you could do anything you wanted, and at the beginning of the year there’s this discourse around how “you don’t need any experience.” But just beneath the surface, it felt like everyone had tons of experience!! I remember applying to be on the debate team. In high school, I was the captain of my debate team, but I still didn’t make the team at Yale. Was there a moment like that for you?
Oh, yeah—I got rejected from so many clubs first semester was kind of funny. I was so sad. I applied to write for our 34th Street magazine and our newspaper opinion column. When I got rejected from those two, I was like “wait..I thought I was good at writing. That’s how I got into Penn! Does this mean I’m not a good writer?”
Looking back, I’m not too upset about it because one, those were different styles of writing that I wasn’t really used to. I didn’t really have any op-eds to send as a writing sample. Secondly, I was able to find other clubs. It wasn’t the only writing thing I could do on campus.
For the Asian Pacific Student Coalition (APSC), I’m currently on board, and I ran for my position last November, and got it. But they had a freshman liaison program from September to the end of the semester that I applied to and got rejected from.
But one of my interviewers reached out and told me that they really liked my application and were upset that they had to reject me. They recommended I run for board in November, so I did that.
So I learned that if you get rejected the first time, just try again, and it could easily work out. Maybe the interview wasn’t as good as it could have been, and maybe later on down the line, you have a better sense of what you’re even getting involved in.
I know you’re really involved in student advocacy, what does that look like on Penn’s campus?
I think our advocacy looks differently from Yale’s . I’m on APSC and we work with other minority coalitions to meet with administration and present our demands. We also hold meetings with constituent groups to discuss what’s coming up and funding.
We’ve been pushing for each of the cultural houses to actually have a house on Locust Walk. Right now, we just have a small room in the basement. We’ve been pushing for this for years.
But there are other initiatives we push for too like diversifying counselors, more peer tutoring in the cultural centers. That way it’s more accessible for students. and it’s in a more comfortable and safe space.
What advice do you wish somebody had given you before you started college?
Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. Looking back, the biggest character growth I’ve seen has been when stuff has gotten tough. Academically, the first semester was difficult because I was in a computer science course that was really challenging. But it really helped me hone my time management skills. I learned about all the different resources on campus and how to seek help.
When I say uncomfortable. I’m also thinking of going to discussions and events in stuff that you’re not that well versed. You can really explore and learn things.
Some of the best conversations I’ve had were about race and like Asian American identity. It was just stuff I barely touched back in high school, so I would recommend finding different talks/events and just having difficult conversations.
It’s totally okay to change your major!
When you apply for school, you’re applying with a prospective major. You’re not locked into it! It is normal to change majors once you get to college. Maybe you’ll take a class and realize you didn’t really know what you were getting into. Maybe you’ll take a class in something you’ve never heard of and fall in love with it. It’s okay not to know what you want to do. Especially at liberal arts colleges, you have time to explore. Don’t be afraid to try new things and to change your mind.
College clubs can have a high barrier for entry
A huge part of college is the extracurricular activities/communities you join. Something I wish people would have told me is that some clubs have high barriers for entry (sometimes without even realizing it!) Once you’re on campus, you probably won’t get to be a part of every club you want to. But that’s not a reflection of you, your talent, or how much you belong on campus.
As Angela said, sometimes not getting into a club can be a good thing. You’ll find your place/community on campus elsewhere, or if you’re still really interested, there are opportunities to reapply or get involved in other ways.
That being said, when you find yourself as a leader of organizations/upperclassmen, remember how it feels to be a first-year student. Pay it forward and help lower those barriers for entry.
Angela’s interview is part of a series called Forthcoming which features young people reflecting on their educational/extracurricular experiences.