This month’s Forthcoming interview is with my sister, Sophia Puang, a freshman at Swarthmore College and a prospective English major.
Those who know both of us know that we are pretty much opposites personality wise, so our paths to college look a little different. But I’m so proud of her for everything she’s accomplished this year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your application process for college. Why did you apply to Swarthmore? And what other schools did you apply to?
Swarthmore was suggested to me by Miss Fontaine (the director of Rogers Honors Academy) when she heard that Rhodes College was at the time my choice. She suggested Swarthmore because it was very similar to Rhodes except had a higher rank.
After I visited it, I really liked it, so it became my first choice. It was like Rhodes but it had more activities that were closer in line with what I was interested in. With a lot of private colleges, those small things are what make a difference.
As for other colleges, I applied to Rhodes, Yale, the University of Arkansas (our local college), University of Iowa because they have a good writing program, Williams cuz I liked it when I toured, New College of Florida (the idea of never having grades was appealing), Tulane, and Emory.
Tell us a little bit about Swarthmore
I would like to start this with the fact that I didn’t get the full Swarthmore experience mostly because of COVID. I cannot tell you what the juniors and seniors would have been like because none of them on campus except for RAs and we didn’t interact much. We did not have orientation, the job fair, or the club fair, and all club activities were either suspended or done online.
I can say that even though the majority of my classes were online, the teachers were all very good at their jobs, and they were also very nice and very accommodating. I loved the one class I did have in person. It was Food and Religion and we spent about half of class time one week foraging around campus. You will be surprised by how many fruits can be found on the Swarthmore campus. We didn’t even go into the woods; there’s a lot of different types of nuts, and I was introduced to this fruit called pawpaws. Additionally, there was a fig tree, a pomegranate tree, and persimmons.
Swarthmore is not quite “in the woods” (Serena: that’s how I describe it), but crum woods are part of campus. There’s an amphitheatre that’s just right at the edge of the woods, and it’s really pretty and really nice as long as it’s not freezing outside.
I liked Swarthmore because of the atmosphere. It’s very cozy. Everybody was very friendly, and the campus is small enough that pretty much everybody knows everyone else somehow or another. Maybe not personally, but like “I know this person through this activity, or this is the friend of my friend”
Since I’m not taking STEM classes this semester, I didn’t have any cumulative midterm of finals. I’m taking a class called Food and Religion, and it’s basically an overview where you go over theories about what counts as a religion. My final is literally analyzing a one and a half minute Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial and using three theorists to justify that as religion from the perspective of a student from the 24th century.
What has campus life been like for you in light of COVID?
The only place you were allowed to have your mask off was your own room. So if you didn’t want to wear a mask you just stayed in your dorm room all day. You could have your mask off when you were eating, but there were tables designated for eating, and no more than two people could sit at a table.
As for classes, it depends on the course. I had one class completely in person, one class that was in person on one day and online the next (hybrid), and two classes that were entirely online. Those two teachers were not on campus at all.
On campus, I joined SCF which is one of the three on-campus Christian groups. I also joined twomartial arts clubs, but we met on Zoom.
I know that you went on many college tours. What were you looking for during these visits? And what can you get from visiting colleges that you can’t get from attending an information session/looking it up online?
Since I went on college visits with you, I already kind of had an idea of the type of college I wanted to go to: a tiny liberal arts school. Visiting it personally gives you a better idea of the atmosphere so you can decide if that’s somewhere you’d want to be for the next four years. When I visited schools, I wanted to be comfortable wherever I went, so I was looking for that. Some schools, like U of Iowa, just felt so big and impersonal despite the fact that the events I attended there were fun and interesting.
What do you think those helped you get into college/with your college decision?
I took AP classes which everybody tells you is good for college, but for the record, you aren’t going to get credit for all of your AP classes if you go to one of these like top liberal arts colleges. I think I only got one or two credits, out of the 7 AP classes that I took.
In terms of standardized testing, my scores weren’t super high. I think the best ACT score I made was a 28, maybe 31 super score. My SAT score was comparatively better, but like still not the best…1470 maybe? Some colleges tell you that your test scores don’t matter, and that may or may not be true. I know my test scores are still on the higher end of things, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
My extracurriculars helped me with college selection. I found out in freshman year of high school that I loved martial arts in pretty much all forms. There were certain colleges that had martial arts clubs (like Swarthmore), so that became part of the type of college I was looking for: tiny liberal arts college but with clubs that are in line with my interests. It made it easier to make them a higher priority on my college list.
Orchestra was like the one class I always took in high school, and there was a very noticeable difference between when I practiced and when I did not. When I finally cultivated a healthy practice habit, you could see the concrete difference in quality based on how much effort went into it first. It got me used to the idea of working hard for something to achieve a desired result.
Do you feel that there’s a big gap between your experiences in public school and classes at Swarthmore?
I purposely picked more seminar type classes so they’d be more discussion based and less “they talk at me and I just sit there silently taking notes” mostly because of the type of student I am. If it was just them teaching me for 2 hours, I would probably fall asleep. Majority of my classes have 12 people or less.
There’s also a lot more work. I took three reading heavy classes, and one language class. Sometimes, they’d give me five readings and one of them was 156 pages long. During the first semester at Swarthmore, we don’t have official grades. Things are pass/fail and we have Shadow grades we can look at if we want. I’m pretty sure that I got pretty consistent B’s for most of the things that I got back.
I asked some sophomores that I made friends with what counted as a “good” grade when I got my first essay back, because I wasn’t really sure if “good” in college was different from “good” in high school. They were like, “yeah, that’s really good.”
But it was a B. It was a high B, but it was still a B. That was an adjustment, you have to readjust your expectations for your grades and classes. You have to go in expecting not to get a 4.0. You won’t float by with an A, and grades might be different at different colleges.
What advice would you give someone who’s going through the application process?
When I was going through the college application process, my mom told me not to stress about it too much. It’s not really in our control what the admissions people decide. Admission into college is kind of arbitrary. You can have all of the qualifications and maybe even have the same exact qualifications, as someone else. But that person might make it and you might not. There’s just no way to tell what qualifications will get you in that particular year.
I made it into my top choice, and I’m going there. But by the time that I found out, I had already decided that I would be perfectly fine if I went to one of the other colleges that accepted me. When people apply to college, they should apply with the mindset that they would be okay spending four years there. So, even if you don’t get it to your top choice, it’s not the end of the world. No matter what happens, it’s important to realize that things will work out, even if it’s not in the way you initially want them to.
You don’t need perfect test scores
As Sophia said, you don’t need perfect test scores to go to get into a school with competitive admissions. While test scores are important, they are rarely the make or break part of your application. In fact, I actually know people who applied to Swarthmore with higher test scores than Sophia and didn’t get in. This illustrates her point that you don’t really know what specific qualifications are going to get you into schools. This year, a lot of schools are going test optional because of COVID-19. Try your best when it comes to standardized tests. But don’t let less than perfect scores keep you from applying to your dream school.
You might not get credit for AP classes depending on where you go
At my high school, there was a big push to take AP classes because you can get college credit if you pass the AP exams. But I found out after I matriculated to Yale that I could only get credit for 1 AP class, and the credit I got didn’t actually get me out of taking any requirements. In fact, I don’t plan on using it at all. If you’re hoping (like I did) that AP Calculus will get you out of college math classes, that’s not how it works at many schools. Had I known this, I probably would have taken different APs. Specifically, I would have taken AP Psychology because it’s accepted as a prerequisite for some of the other classes I actually want to take.
This isn’t to discourage people from taking AP classes. I’m sure it helps with the application process, but I hope that this provides some context to help you make decisions about which AP classes to take.
Sophia’s interview is part of a series called Forthcoming, an interview series where people reflect on their educational/extracurricular experiences. If you’d like to be interviewed for Forthcoming, please fill out the form at the bottom of this post. If you have questions or suggestions for future interviews, please get in touch here!