Advice on Applying to College From Stuyvesant High School Student Michelle Zhang ’22, Future Harvard Class of 2026

An interview on the college process with a Stuyvesant High School student who recently was accepted to Harvard University as a member of the Class of 2026.


William Wu

Stuyvesant High School senior Michelle Zhang ’22 poses outside of Harvard University with a Harvard banner during the 2026 Accepted Students Meeetup.

Harvard University’s alumni include some of the most renowned people in the world. The university has produced world leaders, scientists, CEOs, bestselling authors, and celebrities. Moreover, having been founded in 1636, Harvard has a history that is longer than the history of the United States.

Each year, around 2,000 students are admitted from around the world to this prestigious university’s undergraduate program. Harvard is one of the most selective universities in the world; this year, Harvard accepted 3.19% of applicants to the Class of 2026, the lowest acceptance rate in the school’s history.

The concept of attending Harvard seems like a far reach to most people. Attending Bronx Science myself, a Specialized High School, I did not realize that it is unusual for most people to personally know a Harvard student or graduate. I was often surrounded by seniors who were admitted to Harvard University and other Ivy League schools. Michelle Zhang, a current senior at Stuyvesant High School, is one of my good friends from middle school who was recently accepted into the Harvard Class of 2026. Since middle school, everyone joked that she would be the one going to Harvard. I conducted this interview to help rising seniors learn more about the college process and realize that there is no singular path to success.

Since success is built through many years of hard work and starts early on, I started off by asking Michelle to talk about her middle school experience and how it prepared her for high school.

A: “My middle school was already one of the most competitive schools in my district and I think that integrating myself into a competitive environment is what allowed me to have a strong work ethic in high school. I was first placed in regular classes, but seeing peers around me exceed made me try harder to get into specialized classes, and eventually into Gifted and Talented classes, the highest level of classes in our middle school. Being able to advance in course rigor is what motivated me to build a strong work ethic. For me, school was really important and it was what I enjoyed doing the most.”

Q: Talk about the main points of your high school experience, both the good and the bad.

A: “One of the best things about going to a specialized high school is that everyone around you is super competitive. Other than having great academics, the environment is also great. Stuyvesant is located near the Hudson River. The school puts incentives for you to go outside and have fun as a teenager which I am forever grateful for. One thing I learned about high school is that it’s really about the connections you make between your peers, the faculty, and the upperclassmen. The highlight of my academic career in high school was joining the Speech and Debate team. Aside from gaining a wider perspective on a variety of topics, I got to meet some of the brightest young minds in their respective fields. I spent weekends hanging out and discussing political topics with some of my main competitors, who also became my closest friends. These people came from all around the nation.

I guess the bad thing would be the amount of pressure and the expectations that are placed on you. You can see it as a good thing as it motivates you, but sometimes it causes stress and makes you develop unhealthy habits for the sake of achieving your goals. Although I think that can be a bad byproduct of going to a specialized high school, recognizing the stress and bad patterns helped me to mature and realize that it’s not about getting that 100, it’s about talking to the teachers that genuinely care about what they’re teaching.”

Q: What extracurriculars did you partake in?

A: “One thing that makes my high school experience different from other people who go to Ivy Leagues is that I focused more on humanities and not STEM, because I knew that I would only do well in an extracurricular if I enjoyed it. One of my favorite extracurriculars is theater. I remember after our last show at 11 p.m. we were all celebrating, and my student director was completing physics homework at the diner that we went to after the performance was over. Seeing that crossover was really representative of Stuyvesant culture. Outside of school, I interned for Catalina Cruz, who was a representative for Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the communities that I grew up in but no longer reside in. I did tutoring, which allowed me to gain experience working and also give back to my community by helping younger people earn high SAT scores.

Q: When did you start the college admission process?

A: Over the summer before senior year, I built a very unstable list. I just searched up top colleges. At first I only wanted to apply to top colleges because that was the central idea my parents instilled in me. It was all Ivy Leagues and Top 20 schools — not a good idea. I think I got into Harvard because of the creative essay prompt. All the other schools simply asked, “why do you want to go to our school?” For Harvard, it was an 800 word essay limit where you can write about whatever you want. I wrote about ice skating, not academics. It was about me and that’s why I genuinely enjoyed writing it. I didn’t have that much time for my other essays. It was hard for me to balance creating a genuine response and catering to what the school wanted.
Just because I got into Harvard does not mean that I got into every other school. My first college essay was for Yale. I applied to Yale Restricted Early Action (REA) and my essay wasn’t as polished as I wanted it to be. I got deferred. And then I applied to three of the University of California schools.. It was four essays that I did back to back three days in advance, and I didn’t like those essays because I rushed them. For the rest of my 12 schools, I started in the beginning of December and they were due at the end of December. I managed to space it out. By the last week of December, I was just revising and re-editing the essays I wrote at the beginning of the month. Good writing requires time as you don’t realize some mistakes that you made in the beginning. I think I did Harvard last. I think a lot of people apply to Harvard for fun as most people don’t think they can get in. I submitted it on December 30th when it was due on December 31st.

Q: What is the biggest thing you regret not doing in high school?

A: “Although I’m glad that I took the classes that I did, I kind of regret not going into more STEM courses, and I think the great thing about Stuyvesant is that there are so many classes and electives that you can take. I regret not taking many electives. For example, during my sophomore year, I took genetics (a STEM elective) and honestly it was really hard. I thought I hated it because my grade in that class was a 92 and it was not where I wanted it to be. Anyways, looking back it wasn’t bad, it was kind of fun in that it had a definite answer that classes in the humanities didn’t supply. I wished I had taken advantage of more electives during my junior year.

Q: If you had one piece of advice for students in the process what would it be?

A: “I honestly would just say broaden your horizons and don’t keep your world small. I feel like that advice applies to a lot of things in life. If you want to have electives that don’t cater to what you’re good at, but still sound interesting, take them. Also, don’t just choose Top 20 schools and get rejected from all ten of them but one. When you’re putting together your college list, look for what schools offer in terms of majors, study abroad opportunities, networking, and student job offers.
Also when writing an essay, you don’t always have to talk about how last summer you went to NASA for an internship. You can mention those in your extracurriculars but for some essay prompts when you have 800 words to write about anything you want, don’t write about academics. Your character stands out to schools. There are hundreds or thousands of students who are the same as you on paper. They have brilliant teacher recommendations and extracurriculars and grades. If I were a college admissions dean, I would really want the student to bring a different perspective to my campus.

Overall, you should travel, you should talk to your teachers, you should join clubs, talk to upperclassmen, and take everything with a grain of salt. The college experience is different for everyone, and the school you attend is not a measure of your intelligence. There are so many smart students whom I know who are attending one of their safety schools. Maybe it’s tuition, maybe it’s STEM opportunities, maybe they were just unlucky. Don’t cater your entire school experience to one interest. Life is about experiencing things and I feel like when you’re young, that’s the time to do it. That’s a lot of advice.”

*This interview has been edited for clarity*

“I remember after our last show at 11 p.m. we were all celebrating, and my student director was completing physics homework at the diner that we went to after the performance was over. Seeing that crossover was really representative of Stuyvesant culture,” said Stuyvesant High School student Michelle Zhang ’22.