Crimson Student Q&A: From New Zealand to Harvard

Soumil Singh was one of the nine premier scholars for the Year 13 class of 2015. In his final year of school, Soumil received the most outstanding scholarships in classical studies, English, geography, history, media studies and physics and scholarships in agriculture and horticulture, economics and statistics.

He obtained six A at A Level doing the Cambridge International Exams, including topping the world in both English language and AS business studies.

This year, Soumil was was accepted into five of the eight Ivy League universities - Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth and the Huntsman Program with University of Pennsylvania. He was also offered places at top-tier Stanford, Williams College, Amherst College and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles (UCLA). On top of this, a Robertson Scholarship was offered to attend Duke University. He recently accepted Harvard’s offer and will be attending his dream university come September.

Recently, Crimson spoke with Soumil to discuss his academic and life journey so far, the lessons he has learnt along the way and any advice he has for fellow students looking to study abroad.

When did you start considering Harvard as your school for the future?

It kind of started when I was pretty young, about 8-years-old. I remember being in conversation with my dad about a school ‘Harvard’ and, just like it is for many people, getting into Harvard became the ultimate goal.

So you were thinking about Harvard from as young as 8, when did you start working towards that dream?

It started when I began high school. I really wanted my high school career to count for something. I wanted to feel a result after all my work. I think it had something to do with my older brother who was Dux of Hamilton Boys School as well, five years earlier than me. That really motivated me. In the last few years of high school, Harvard was definitely on my mind, however, as I became more aware of US study options, Stanford and MIT also interested me, but Harvard was always the dream school.

How did your parents feel when you told them you wanted to study abroad, and at Harvard no less?

My parents are very inspiring people. They immigrated to New Zealand and started off with very little. They began working in cleaning jobs and fruit-picking, laborious work like that. Now they both have careers in medicine. The way they transformed their life is very inspiring. When I told them I wanted to study abroad, they handled it really well. They’d always mention ideas to me but would never push me to do anything, it was always up to me to make my own decisions. I was doing it independently but they knew I was pushing myself and striving for my goal so they were always there providing support. They were never forceful or pressuring, which was pretty key in me developing myself through this journey.

What would you like to do once you finish uni?

I’m not really too sure. Probably not medicine … having parents and an older brother doing medicine … I don't think I’d do that. I’m a real fan of the liberal arts system in the US. I haven't yet got a good idea of my passions so I’m looking forward to going to college and working that out … having a general first year and then concentrating my studies after that is great. I think at this stage I would probably do something based in computer science, or a combination of economics, maths or engineering.

How do you consider the differences between universities?

Factors like the networks, job placements, curriculum strength in different areas like the arts, pure sciences, and technology. They’re not deal-breakers, but are the differences between each university that you should consider.

How do you choose? What do you ask yourself?

What will my college experience be like on campus, where will I make friends and keep them for life … what will the experience be like and where will I be happier, that’s the most important thing. I chose harvard based on these criteria as I believe the overall experience I have there will be top notch.

I know you’ve got quite a strong academic record. Can you talk us through that?

For scholarship exams I was a premier scholar. I received 6 outstanding scholarships last year. Top in the world for A level English language. I did 6 NCEA subjects, so I had a lot of opportunity to perform well. Post high school, I was awarded the Robertson’s scholarship, but unfortunately, I had to decline it. I received offers from Harvard and Stanford - they have always been my two biggest ones. I was also accepted into the Huntsman Program at the Upenn - it is a huge advantage in international relations. A dual program that takes in about 50 students each year. I also applied to schools in the UK but had very little success there.

Was there a meaningful moment that made you feel you could aim high and succeed?

The awards are very nice but not the proudest or most meaningful … I visited Harvard and Stanford on a model UN trip at start of 2015 which Crimson Consulting hosted. It wasn't like ‘Oh I've got a good chance of getting into this uni’ it was just very cool and fuelled my drive to want to achieve more for my family and myself.

What drives you?

It’s a bit to do with dissatisfaction in not pushing myself. I don't really feel anything if I'm not busy or not pushing myself. I feel empty and just can’t see me living my life without trying to make a big impact on the world or trying to do something very interesting or new.

What impact would you like to leave on the world?

I haven't really defined what that impact might be. Like with what Jamie’s doing in the world of education, that’s a substantial impact to people’s lives and that is very beneficial to me. One thing I wrote about in my college applications was my trip back to India. There are so many remote areas and I’d like to alleviate bad practices in eco development in these areas. I want to work with technology and information through India’s rural areas to make like easier for others. It could be an impact through international relations, education or creating my own start-up or entrepreneurship.

How did Crimson help you?

Growing up in Hamilton where very few students apply, I never thought Harvard or Stanford would be an option for me, but with determination, aspiration and self-belief, it has now become a reality. I couldn’t be more excited. The main thing Crimson did for me was provided the initial information and telling me from day one that I had a good chance of getting into these schools. I didn't believe I did but I was told if I do this, I can. Providing that first drive was really big. From there the SAT tutoring was really important and it’s not really prominent around New Zealand or Hamilton. Hamilton can be an information bubble, which Crimson helped me get out of and visualise a different world.

I began with the drive to leverage the work done in my high school career, and I’m thankful for the support of my parents, my teachers and Crimson mentors. Crimson was more than just an educational service, I found determined mentors who I grew close with and who I can maintain strong bonds with into the future, and am now inspired to try spread awareness and help as many students as I can optimize their opportunities to study in some of the most impressive global institutions.

How can you stand out in your common application?

With elite schools, it’s very hard to manufacture an application so it’s good to push students to present what they’re good at and push them to pursue what makes them interesting. One thing that might have helped me stand out was I played a lot of sport in high school added a nice balance to a very rigorous academic program, it shows you’re a more interesting candidate. Playing sport competitively added depth to the application. Pushing myself in leadership roles was important as well. Being head prefect in my last year made me more well rounded in my application. We did a leadership project with some prefects at school - we held a forum for all heads across Waikato schools to discuss issues like Tall Poppy Syndrome, drug and alcohol abuse. The challenges you face and the lessons you learn in this kind of leadership project can be talked about in your application and make it more interesting. I think the biggest error students make is believing there is some kind of formula to follow when applying. In reality, a lot of students are accepted because they are not generic applicants, rather they interest the admissions committee in some quirky way.

Who do you look up to?

There are a few different people … I used to look up to Brett Lee. I was a fan of his work ethic, training, and his drive to bounce back from a multitude of injuries. My biggest role model growing up was certainly my older brother. His presence definitely instilled this spirit of determination in me.

Who inspires you?

Definitely my parents and older brother. I know them so well and can always look to them for guidance and advice. I’m constantly building my profile on people who inspire me.

How will you know you have been successful (in general, in life)?

Generally speaking, I will know I am successful if I feel like I am very aware of the world - that means being closely connected with the university community. Having very good knowledge of markets and gaps, and then being able to pursue it as an entrepreneur for example.

How did you feel when receiving news of your acceptance into Ivy League?

I was not as elated as I expected to be a year ago. I was happy but relieved the whole process was over and came to an end. It was more of a content feeling. It’s been such a long process; I've set my next expectation higher. There’s always a receding line of ambition it seems.

Do you have any advice for Hamilton students looking to study abroad?

Don’t be restricted by arbitrary boundaries or limits set to you. I.e. ‘you have to study 6 subjects in your last year’. You can do more … there may not be expectation to push yourself from within your school or community to apply for schools like Harvard, but you can always set your own aspirations higher than the expectations of your environment. Don't let your aspirations be limited by the people around you. I hope students will see that this process is a very meritocratic process. They’ll see that ambition, drive and dedication are truly the things that get you into Ivy League schools. It’s more to do with that than with any natural smartness. I’m definitely no genius but I had a lot of determination in my last couple of years. Self-belief is a big challenge. People who get to Harvard or Stanford are put on a pedestal in the community, but I want people to see I’ve been flawed by self-doubt along the way as well.

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