From PVHS to Top Tier School

“The more I’m here, the more I realize that it was the right choice for me at the end of the day.”


Valedictorian Shuxin Zhao and Principal Kibby Kleiman after the 2018 PVHS graduation ceremony.

Anna Chang, Guest Writer

Shuxin “Angela” Zhou is a star alumna from Pinole Valley’s Class of 2018. Highly involved in her community and a dedicated learner, Shuxin graduated as class valedictorian. She has since begun her undergraduate degree at Pomona College, a prestigious liberal arts school in Claremont, California. We interviewed her to learn about her high school-to-college transition and for advice on college applications.

[This interview was authored, transcribed, and conducted by Anna Chang.]

How many colleges did you apply to and how did you curate your application list?
In total, I applied to 14 colleges: four UCs — that was Berkeley, LA, Irvine, and San Diego — and 11 other privates. That’s a lot of schools. [The privates] were all Questbridge partner schools that I applied to through Questbridge. There was Wesleyan, Williams, Haverford, Brown, Yale, Princeton, UChicago, USC, Pomona, Oberlin, and Emory. I had a good range of small liberal arts schools, research universities, and huge [variation] in terms of where they were [located]. Honestly, the only reason I applied to the UCs was that they were some of my safety schools. I knew that as a California resident, I was more likely to get in. Also, applying to four UC schools was completely free for me. It was honestly just like, “Why not?” There was no reason for me not to do it, and I didn’t think that writing the essays was hard, so that was pretty easy. Obviously, I chose Berkeley and LA because they are the top and then Irvine and San Diego because I think they were good for sociology and, at the time, I wanted to be away from home in southern California. That was my criteria there, but I didn’t research the UC schools that much at all. In terms of all the privates that I applied [to] through Questbridge, I wanted a list that had a variety of acceptance rates, and I preferred it if they were near a big city because I wanted a college life where I could [do] a lot of activities — similar to where I was in the Bay Area compared to SF. [For example,] Princeton was in New Jersey but super close to New York [and] Haverford was very close to Philly. Then, my next biggest thing was how good they were about giving aid because at the end of the day, if these schools didn’t give me enough money to go to them or if they weren’t as affordable as a UC, then I wasn’t going to go. I pretty much went in with the impression that [for] any of these schools, if I got into them, I would be paying less than if I were paying for a UC. I felt like, in general, other than USC, that was pretty much the case. I kind of just chose it from there. Being with Questbridge partners was pretty limited; it’s like 39 schools, so I was set within that range. I looked for well-known schools that were known for diversity, good areas, good public transit, clubs that were interesting, and maybe just programs that were really helpful towards people that were low income or didn’t have the wealthiest backgrounds. If I attended, I would have plenty of resources that [would enable me to do] a lot of things.

How difficult was selecting a major and what advice can you give to students who are struggling with this decision?
[Selecting a] major for me wasn’t hard because in high school I thought about it a lot. For the four years of my high school experience, I was very focused on pretty much everything I did. I was trying to determine what I want to do in college, where I want to go, and what I’m capable of. I knew by my sophomore year, after taking AP Bio and chemistry at CCC (Contra Costa College), that lab science and STEM isn’t really for me. I took an intro to business class at CCC too, and I [liked] that life, something slightly more creative and flexible that had an objective. I liked that you didn’t necessarily have to do research and it’s not super science heavy. I felt like that was the route for me, so I applied to some schools as a business major. After some time, I think I figured out I was very into sociology and societal issues in terms of helping communities and all that, so for a lot of other schools, I also listed sociology as either my first or second choice. If they did have a business undergraduate program, then I would list something for that too. So it wasn’t hard for me. I don’t know — I just spent a lot of time trying to figure it out and it came to me. I knew what I didn’t like and what I could see myself doing at the end of the day. Honestly, from what I’ve heard here at my time at Pomona, the biggest advice I can give people in terms of choosing a major is honestly that it doesn’t matter. At my school particularly, it’s not hard to change your major. We’re a liberal arts schools, so everyone here [has] a larger group of breadth requirements anyways, so [we] have time to explore and a lot of people at liberal art schools end up majoring in one thing and doing something completely different. I talked to an alumna that majored in politics and Russian during her time at Pomona, and she went out to do consulting. Now, she works at a nonprofit. [For] consulting, you’d think that she had to be an econ or finance major, but she [wasn’t]. She emphasized that it was more important to take classes of your interest and really enjoy [it]. Take the time to figure out how you learn, how to get to the skill set that you need for a certain job, and how to advocate for yourself. Looking back on it, I probably would have said undecided for more of my majors because, truly, it’s okay to be undecided and it might actually be advantageous because if you commit yourself to a certain major, depending on the school, that major may be really hard to get into. [For instance,] they can’t accept everyone as an engineering major, so it might be easier to get in doing undecided. If not, if you absolutely [must] pick something, then I would say, depending on what you’re writing about in your essays, [pick] something that responds to that. I did a lot of volunteer work, and a lot of my application essays were based off the desire to give back to my community and understand how racial stereotypes or gender stereotypes affect people and how I can best change those stereotypes [or] systemic issues. Because of that, it made complete sense for me to put in a sociology major. [I] express[ed] that I might want to open up my own student resource center to help underprivileged students, so it made sense that I wanted to major in business. Look at your application as a whole, figure out what experiences you have had so far, how much you liked them, and choose something from there.

You chose Pomona College over multiple prestigious universities including UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California. What factors contributed to your decision?
I was actually committed to USC before Pomona because I got off the waitlist [for Pomona]. So at the end of the day, I had to choose. At the beginning of my process, the biggest schools for me were UC Berkeley or USC. I chose USC because Berkeley is known for having a very cutthroat environment — in particular for what I wanted to do, which at Berkeley would have been either sociology or business. Pre-Hass is intense. People are constantly pushing other people away or trying to get ahead of other people because their resources are so limited at Berkeley. Well, that’s debatable because there are resources, but there’s a lot of people fighting for those resources. There’s a fixed amount, so everyone is like, “I have to get that.” That type of environment just wasn’t for me. USC had plenty of resources to offer. They had a really comprehensive career development office and other resources that I thought would really help me build my career and help me network. They also had a really smaller class size compared to Berkeley. I think their average class size was probably 20 students, whereas a lot of [Berkeley’s] freshman classes could have easily been thousands of people, and that wasn’t for me. So that decision was pretty easy for me there. Once it came down to USC and Pomona, it was actually a little bit hard because once I visited USC, I was kind of sold on it. They did an amazing job at orientation showing off what they had to offer, and they gave us a lot of free stuff. That’s not uncommon — for rich schools to try and butter you up during the admit day to get you to commit. I made plans; I was set to join USC’s marching band and I looked at some other activities, so when Pomona came, I was just like “wow, what do I?” Pomona, on my overall list of schools when I was applying, was my second choice. I almost early-decisioned there, so how could I give that up? When I reevaluated my thoughts, it wasn’t that hard because Pomona as an institution really does offer so many resources for low-income students and their students in general. I was really set on that. It was liberal arts versus a school like USC, which is more career-oriented, so I made that decision too, where I wanted to become an individual that knew how to think but also be diverse in my skill set. At USC, business people are “business business business.” It’s not hard to double major or take a minor in other classes, but it’s very clearly set that you’re a business major from the start, whereas at Pomona, you’re here to learn and grow as someone who can think critically and figure out issues that you’re interested in. I wanted to become that type of person over some[one] who is just super career-oriented and only able to do the stuff within my field. Also, Pomona gave me the most money (financial aid).

Pomona College admitted only 6.9% of applicants or 713 students for the class of 2022. Among such a selective group, have you experienced the big-fish-little-pond effect?
No; I’m actually really surprised because I totally came into this thinking I would have a little bit of imposter syndrome where I didn’t feel like I fit in, but I think Pomona as a school is really intense. Academics here are no joke. Everyone here is constantly working and constantly going towards things. So many people I’ve met have something to offer, are passionate about certain issues, and know a lot about certain things. I don’t feel as if I’m any inferior to them. The class of 2022 is super diverse in our interests so I think that makes it easy. I’m also just not the type to compare myself to others that way. I came into my freshman year thinking that I’m not going to get straight As — I’m here really to focus on learning and what I want to do in life. I haven’t really quite felt [the big-fish-little-pond effect] just yet. Even if I did, which I think at some moments here and there I have just a little, there’s honestly an incredible amount of resources that help people [who] may feel like a small fish in a huge pond [become] bigger fish. We have writing, math, and science centers that are open all the time. Every single class that I’m in has a mentor that is being paid to help us whenever we are having issues. Teachers are really cool about office hours, so if I don’t know what I’m doing on a problem set, I literally just drop in, like the other day at my environmental analysis class’ teacher’s office. We had this entire conversation about what was happening and then talked about other things that made me feel better about the class. I was like, “your class’ workload is intense” and he was like, “I know, but everyone is feeling that way. Don’t even worry about it.” We talked a little bit more about what I was struggling with and he was like, “I’ll try my best to adapt to that.” I think Pomona just fosters a supportive environment [where] any stress or I’m-not-ready-for-this feelings are not that big of a deal. I have a support cushion.

How was the transition from Pinole Valley to Pomona?
Insane. In my mind, during the summer before college, I was like, “you know, I’ve read some books.” I tried to make myself think about things critically to get ready for the things that I’m dealing with today, but honestly, I feel like one class is more work than all of my classes at PV combined. I have like four to five of these and they’re not every day, so it’s not horrible, but these professors just have no sympathy. [In] my environmental analysis class, I have never thought about environmental issues in such a broad [way]. It’s not just like “climate change is happening. We’ve got to be scared of climate change.” We have talked about that in class, but also, when thinking about the environment, we also talk about race and countries outside of the US. I’ve just never thought about it in this way, and it’s so crazy. Last weekend, he assigned 250 pages just for the weekend, and this was [only] one class. Before class start[ed], [we had] an essay due, and this is an 8 AM class. No one wakes up early to do this class’ work; we all do it before we sleep. In my critical thinking class for freshmen — I’m in one called Imagine Cities, and it’s an anthropology class — the readings are actually not horrible. This class is supposed to help freshmen learn the skills they need to be able to think critically and be better writers. Thankfully, the reading amount isn’t super intense so far, other than this weekend because we have to read a book. In general, we’ve just been reading some really dense stuff. It took me maybe an hour to read through eleven pages the other day. After reading it, I didn’t know what was happening. Back in high school, eleven pages out of a book? That’s done in 11 minutes, maybe less. But here, eleven [pages] is an hour, and I have no idea what’s going on. Going into class, it’s like, “this is crazy.” I expressed this to the teacher and she’s like “oh what’s wrong?” [I told her] this reading is hard, and she’s like “oh no this reading is hard for me too,” and she’s a professor of anthropology. It’s super intense, more often than not. I’m kind of just stuck with “I have no idea what’s going on,” and the workload is just so intense. I will say that I think Ms. Brady’s class probably prepared me the most. [Her class was] most similar to a lot of the stuff I’m doing now, especially since I’m taking so many reading and writing intensive classes. I do think that Ms. Brady helped me think more critically, but it’s just not comparable to what I’m doing right now. I’m not bad at reading necessarily — I did pretty well on the AP Lang exam — but I don’t know. I need to read a thousand summaries of this to try to figure out what’s happening. But I am learning, and it’s crazy because in high school, especially at PV, everything is so centered on just getting through material, particularly maybe because I was in AP classes, and those really do have a set curriculum that you really have to get through by the end of the year. You have an intended thing going on, but here, there is a curriculum and the teacher does set it up, but what you gain from the reading and the process is kind of just up to the class and what’s happening. It’s so much more broad and open to interpretation. I haven’t really been in that kind of situation before. The reading in college is super different too. I feel like in high school, [you] remember as many small details as you can and you can make up a couple points here and there and you’re fine, but here, you need so much evidence to support your stuff. They don’t really lay it out super easy for you. The way that these authors go about throwing the material is sometimes super lackadaisical. It’s not like a thesis paper. They don’t have an argument really to make. It’s just what you make of it. Just today, I had my Asian Traditions class (a history class), and there was a paper due today. Yesterday night, I went to a mentor session to talk about the ideas I wanted to write for it and I [was] literally looking at the timelines of stuff to prove that certain pieces of text were actually from this [particular] era. Just making sense of all the dates that were happening in this was like… In high school, they would’ve provided us a timeline in the textbook about what happened exactly, but in this case, I had to look back and make connections here and there [with] what was happening in that time period, philosophies, and thinking that might’ve made sense. I did all of this stuff on such a small scale in high school, and here, you have to be able to do it so well and understand everything so well. You have to put all the puzzle pieces together, when [in] high school, it’s just, “oh, well you got one puzzle piece to go with another; you’re great!” I am honestly so amazed by how smart and cool everyone here is. I learn something new everyday and content is amazing. It’s been good but stressful.

Many students refrain from applying to prestigious universities because they feel they are not qualified according to their statistics like GPA or test scores. What is your opinion on what students need to have a “chance” at these schools?
I think it depends on the school. The biggest distinction is if it’s career-based, intellectual-based/curiosity-based, [or] a good mix of both. Quite honestly, with your application essays, just really know your audience. It’s hard to say because it’s actually quite complicated. I will say that I think that for the UC schools, to get in is more about being a well-rounded individual that can handle a lot of extracurriculars and maybe have some sort of purpose that they enjoy. I think that’s why I got into Berkeley and LA — I did a lot of extracurriculars that showed I could handle a large workload, [and is someone] that is socially and academically competent. I could handle all of that and [had] some test scores to back me up. In terms of maybe more prestigious schools that are privates, if we’re talking research universities like the Ivy League schools, I think you need to be what Berkeley wants but on steroids, with one defining factor about you, that is special or unique. I read an article about this on PrepScholar. The guy who runs this website is pretty good, and he has written an entire article about how, despite the acceptance rate of your chances, everyone’s acceptance rate chance into certain schools is different, and if you have one special thing then that’s enough. If you’re an athlete that’s really good, then what school doesn’t want you? Or if you’re really amazing at STEM, you’re probably going to get in even if your math grades are bad. I think, especially in today’s day and age for high schoolers, everyone is super focused on doing as many things as they can so they become what’s called a “well-rounded student” that has a large skill set, [but] these types of people are probably the most common applicant. They’re trying to get the best SAT scores, be at the top of their class, and have the best grades. Especially for students at our school, because our school really does create students that are just “well-rounded” because we don’t have a whole lot of opportunities to make someone particularly good at one subject, I think that the point is just to find something you’re super passionate about. I feel like it’s a little hypocritical because I did so many things in high school and I got good grades [to do] what I could to be a well-rounded student. What I decided to focus on in my essay [was] what my purpose for being in activities that I did do, especially for my more time-consuming ones. I kind of just wrote about those a lot and ignored the rest of the stuff. It was like, “I genuinely believe in doing these activities and making a change in the world. I want to continue this once I’m in college.” I think that that’s what college people are looking for nowadays: genuineness and authenticity. It makes sense that so many students from schools like ours just don’t think they’re good enough to apply for bigger schools. I think part of it is that they often think, when they look at the tuition price, it’s insane. Pomona costs $50,000 in tuition. But they also don’t put enough time into researching the schools. They think that state schools are probably the cheapest option, but in reality, the private schools, if you can demonstrate your need, are probably going to give you a pretty good aid package because they have plenty of money. Pomona has one of the largest endowments per student because we aren’t as big as research universities so we have a ton of money for [each] student. Private schools want to invest in their students because they want them to do well in life so they can come back and give [them] more money or brag. Pomona was probably cheaper than the rest of my schools and my tuition at Pomona was almost half of what I was offered by Berkeley. Berkeley wanted me to take loans but Pomona is a loan free school so they don’t even include loans in your aid package but you can request for them if you can’t afford what they offer already. It was a really good offer and I’m very happy that I’m here.

What advice can you give to students to students from schools like Pinole Valley who are aiming for prestigious schools?
I think prestige can be kind of stupid; [it’s] just in the name that makes [schools] prestigious, not necessarily that they have any better resources than other places. Obviously, they have a lot of money and they do have resources, but just because another school isn’t as prestigious doesn’t mean they offer any fewer resources. I think it really pays off to try and get out of the Pinole bubble and get to know other communities. Learn more about them, learn about your own community, and then broaden your horizons. That pays off so much when it comes to prestigious schools because they want someone who is very knowledgeable, has the time to explore and isn’t necessarily just good at the books or good at school. If you get accepted, they know you’re decent at school and a lot of people are, but at the end of the day, it’s what are you doing in the real world that is making an impact and how will you use your skills at their school. That can be so hard for students at Pinole, to try to get new interesting experiences, but there are honestly more resources than one would think. I was in Questbridge; I applied to Students Rising Above and a variety of other things like TASP, and those were all an effort to broaden my horizons and learn new things. I think at the end of the day, they made a good amount of impact on my application essay. Another big thing, I kind of touched on this earlier, is just to find meaning in your activities. I’ve seen from Questbridge — they get all sorts of statistics — that people who get 1100 on the SAT are now at Columbia or Harvard because they are passionate about certain things. You really just need to find something defining about yourself that is unique to you and prove that it actually means something to you. Schools are understanding of you not being from the best area or not having the best amount of resources. They recognize that the SAT is, more often than not, just about having the resources to get someone that will teach you how to take the SAT. Make the best of your opportunities and look for new opportunities often. I think that really stands out to the college admissions people.

To close off this interview, is there anything you would like to add?
I feel like every senior in this position, or any high school people in this position, feel like college is the end goal. You’re working towards just that, and absolutely, I was one of those people back in high school. I felt like it was college or nothing, but I feel like just from the people I’ve met here, and different people that I’ve talked to outside of college, it really is okay to just not really know what you’re doing, not be sure, and just work towards [something]. Also, who cares if you don’t go to college? If you don’t go to a four-year college, community college is a great option. Everyone has a super different path for getting towards where they end up in life. Be open-minded to the different paths you can take. Don’t be super set on “I have to go to this one school or absolutely have to major in one thing” or “I have to become a doctor and go to med school.” Don’t just be set on that. Recognize that in high school, your experiences are so limited. You literally really haven’t experienced anything that will tell you what you want to do in the future just yet. It’s okay to just not know or say that you don’t know. Also, it’s okay to not be okay. I was so not okay during senior year, and I was in such a [bad] place emotionally. I feel like to some degree, I was like, “no, I just have to focus on my college apps or my next goal in life,” but taking care of yourself is so much more important than that. How do you get to your goal in a healthy way if you yourself aren’t okay? For people that are going to college — this is such a pet peeve for me, and this can be said to anyone no matter how much research they’ve done — but really look into colleges. At the end of the day, it’s really important. This is something you’re committing yourself to for four years. I recognize that it’s a lot easier to just apply to UC schools and maybe you don’t want to apply to something like Questbridge or any outside resource that can help you apply to more prestigious colleges, [and] that’s fine. Maybe you’re just going for the degree. College is an experience and you’re putting in a lot of money and time into this, so I think putting in the time to research schools — what their culture is like, talking to current students to see what’s good or bad about the school and why they chose it, if they expected differently — is so valuable. If you do an interview for a school, if you’re passionate about it, it’ll show and you’re more likely to get in that way. They want students to come that really like their school and really know what they’re talking about. Something else that I wish I would’ve done differently in high school is that I tried to apply to a lot of schools because I wanted a variety of schools to choose from, [with] differences in acceptance rates and all that, but really I wish I would’ve just sat down and applied to only five to seven privates and figure out exactly why I really like them and only apply if I [was] really in love with them. I wanted [a] safety, but that safety ended up backfiring on me because I spread myself thin. I didn’t quite know for some schools why I wanted to go other than the fact that they were private, away from home, and had good resources — and that’s every college; that’s not enough. I wish I had taken the time to research more into it, take the time to fall in love with the school, and spent more time on those applications. Spending time on applications is important.

How many essays did you write?
It’s kind of hard to say because my application process started from the beginning of senior year until January because I applied to Questbridge and a bunch of other scholarships. I was just constantly writing essays for those things. Just for Questbridge, I wrote probably ten pages of essays. For the Common App, maybe another ten pages. Then, [for] my UC apps, probably like two pages. UC apps are honestly like the shortest thing. My UC apps, I don’t know, I’m kind of disgusted with them. I thought they were really wacky compared to a lot of other ones. Also, their questions are so boring.

Here’s a good example of knowing what your school is looking for [and] why it’s important to get to know the schools. When you know the school, it helps you know your audience and what to write about. Pomona is a liberal arts college and pretty known for being okay with not knowing what you want to do and being a place for if you’re interested in learning. In your application, if you write about super intellectual topics, things that you’re genuinely curious about, that will take you so far at Pomona, because that’s exactly the type of person they’re looking for. But at USC, I didn’t write [that] stuff. I wrote all about what I wanted to do career-wise, and the words I used to describe myself were “ambitious” and “determined.” At the admit day, they named out a lot of the words that students used to describe themselves, and literally all of us had used [those types of] words. They really are looking for that kind of student. Know your audience. It’s important to know what they’re looking for to get into certain schools.

Shuxin expressed she is willing to read and revise seniors’ college application essays. Her email is: [email protected]