Meet Ben. He’s a superstar Connect lecturer, Chemistry wizard and, to cap it off, a lifeguard in his spare time. And with a brilliant ATAR of 99.85 and a Premier’s Award for Chemistry under his belt, he is about to embark on a remarkable university experience on the other side of the world.
In this interview, we chat to this Stanford freshman-to-be about his VCE experience, applying to an American university and being curiosity rather than career-oriented.
Jen: Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room: why Stanford, instead of an Australian university like most VCE graduates?
Ben: The biggest draw for me was the flexibility that Stanford offers. I’ve always had a broad range of interests, so when I tried to work out which degree I should pursue here in Australia I was a bit stumped.
However, rather than admitting students to a specific course, Stanford, like many universities in the USA, admits students to the university as a whole. Once 'in', students like myself can pick and choose subjects from a variety of disciplines. At Stanford, I get to choose which degree I will walk away with at the end of my second year (out of the four years of a Stanford undergraduate degree), whereas here in Australia I have to make my mind up by the end of high school.
Could you give us an idea of the types of majors you might be interested in, though you’re not in a hurry to choose one yet?
I’m currently interested in studying Management Science and Engineering, which covers statistics, computer science, and economics. That being said, I’m likely to change my mind at some point! That extra breathing room is fantastic, as it will allow me to truly explore my interests.
This idea of having more ‘breathing room’ in your degree is definitely attractive, but many Australian students might be put off by the actual application process for an American university. Could you tell us a bit about your experience applying for Stanford?
Applying to a university in the US is definitely very different to the process here in Australia. That is, rather than being focused on a single ATAR score, the US system takes a much more holistic approach to applications. In addition to taking the famous SAT and the SAT subject tests, I had to write essays, fill out forms, and hunt down teacher recommendations.
That’s probably the strangest thing about applying to a college in the US. In Australia, your ATAR is either above or below the requirement needed to get into your preferred course. In the US, it really comes down to whether the person who happens to read your application likes what they see.
That sounds like a huge amount of both soul-searching and paperwork. For you, what was the personal outcome of that?
Yes – for Stanford in particular, I remember drafting my main, six-hundred-word essay at least 10 times before I was even close to being satisfied with it. In addition to that, I had to complete ten more short responses, three large paragraphs, and a summary of my extracurricular involvements.
All of these responses forced me to really consider how I could best present myself to the admissions office, as they, after all, made the final call as to whether I would be accepted or not. They also made me think deeply about what I want to get out of my education.
Let’s not forget that you were tackling VCE at the same time as you were going through the Stanford admissions process, which must have been really challenging at times. Could you tell us about a time during VCE when you felt like all your dreams for University seemed totally beyond your reach?
Unfortunately, admission to an American university is never guaranteed. When I started out the application process, I did some research on each of the Universities I was planning on applying to. In 2017, the acceptance rate for Stanford was around 4.6%. That number terrified me. It reminded me of just how difficult it would be to reach my goal of studying at Stanford.
However, I got to a point where I just stopped caring about what the number meant for me. I knew the odds weren’t great, but that didn’t stop me from working as hard as I could to try and achieve my goal. While the final decision of the admissions office was out of my hands, that couldn’t prevent me from trying my best anyway.
The same goes for VCE. Often after a particularly harsh bit of feedback or a SAC score that was lower than expected I’d feel dejected. As the year progressed I discovered that the more I fretted about a score or a mark, the less time I would actually spend on improving my understanding of a topic for next time. By putting these worries out of my head and focusing on the task at hand, I found it far easier to reach the targets I had set and ended up enjoying the last few months of school far more.
The final years of high school are incredibly transformative for so many people. How do you think your specific VCE and university application experience changed you?
I actually spent a large amount of my application discussing my experiences with VCE, so I’ve thought about this question a lot!
At the start of year 11 I was unable to decide between taking Philosophy and Physics, so ended up taking both subjects with the idea of dropping one of them when I’d determined which was the better fit for me. Unfortunately I enjoyed both of them, so was stuck with seven subjects for the whole of year 11.
I had always seen myself as loving maths and science more than the humanities. However, by experimenting with Philosophy I discovered that I was also fascinated by the big ideas and difficult questions that the subject posed. Until that point, I’d decided that I would study engineering at university and that would be that. After taking philosophy for a few months I realised that I didn’t want to take certain career path, but rather follow my interests and take the path that they led me down.
American universities want more well-rounded students, and encourage their students to engage with their interests rather than be swept up by long-term career plans. The various paths I found during VCE has, I feel, led me to be more curious about my future endeavours, and be more open to the unforeseen circumstances I may come across in my future studies.
Stanford doesn’t start until late September. What are you occupying yourself with in the meantime, and why did you choose to join Connect?
As the US operates off a different academic calendar to Australia I've ended up taking a bit of an unplanned gap year. I did some traveling at the start of the year and try to help my two younger siblings with their homework (when they let me).
I first came in contact with Connect at a Headstart lecture in 2017, when I was in year 12, and left with a great impression. So when the opportunity arose to join Connect this year, I jumped at it!
So in just a few weeks, you’re going to be packing your bags to spend four years abroad. Do you expect the leap from Melbourne Grammar School student to Stanford student to be a colourful one?
I do expect the transition to be pretty intense. Not only am I moving away from my family to a different country, but I'm also being plunged into a melting pot of different people, ideas, and cultures. Unlike at high school where I knew the name of everyone in my year group, at Stanford I'll be just one among close to two thousand people, all of whom have also been plucked from their comfort zone and placed into an entirely new environment.
It's both exciting and scary. I keep having to remind myself that everyone is in the same boat, so I shouldn't be too worried about making the jump. Further to that, I'll only learn something new if I push myself out of my comfort zone, so I like to think about the opportunities that will open up once I've got used to the new environment.
Let’s wrap up this interview with some advice. To say that you’ve achieved academic success would be an understatement. However, if you had the opportunity to attempt VCE again, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think there is all that much I would change about how I approached VCE. I picked the subjects I most enjoyed and studied well for most of them.
If anything, I’d try to be less anxious about scores and pieces of homework. I remember a few times throughout the year when I was so focused on a single task that everything else would go out the window, so being able to take a step back and put things into perspective more often would have made my VCE experience much smoother.
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