Worrying About My Chances of Getting Into Even One School

Hey! Senior year is creeping up, and I find myself worrying more and more about college during all of the free time this quarantine has provided. I hope you all are healthy and well. I visitied many schools and want to major in biomed/bio/chem engineering. Duke is my dream (applying ED), which I didn’t expect because my sister goes there (don’t know if sibling legacy will give me any sort of an edge). She will have graduated from Trinity by the time I matriculate (top student-athlete, 3.95+ GPA, double major, summa/magna cum laude). Please suggest other schools for my major, as I am still looking to create a better list (1-2 more safeties/matches).


  • Biracial Male (White/Asian; probably not the best for engineering :( )
  • Competitive public selective enrollment high school in Chicago
  • Mother is an immigrant; Dad is first-gen (both attended UIUC)
  • Low/middle class family (tax returns show higher income, but our debt HEAVILY outweighs our income; we use most retirement money to pay bills which leads to more debt because 401k money that is taken out accumulates interest)
  • Mother was on disability for years and is now unemployed
  • Financial aid is necessary for me to go anywhere (I can't put any more financial burden on my family)

Colleges I’m Applying to:

  • Duke (ED)
  • UMich (EA)
  • UPenn
  • Stanford
  • Princeton
  • Columbia
  • Harvard
  • Johns Hopkins
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Northwestern
  • BU
  • UW Seattle
  • UIUC (in-state)
  • Pitt (hoping for a good scholarship maybe? if you've got info on this college's aid I'd appreciate it)
  • KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology)
  • Oxford???


  • 3.95 UW/5.10 W
  • I think other schools weight out of 5.0, so for those, my weighted would be 4.64 (including 9th grade) or 4.75 (not including 9th grade)???

Course Rigor:

  • All honors classes, unless the class was AP or gym
  • 6 APs so far; will be 9 at the end of senior year (might self-study a 10th)
  • AP Human Geo (4; 9th), AP US History (5; 10th), AP English Lang and Comp (3 (oops); 11th), AP US Gov and Politics (4; 11th), AP Biology (5; 11th), AP Calculus AB (5; 11th)
  • Senior year classes: AP CSP, AP Physics C, AP Stats, Honors World Lit, Calc 3
  • Took Precalc summer before junior year
  • Took Bioethics through Harvardx this summer
  • Took Molecular Foundations of Medicine through StanfordOnline this summer
  • One of twenty-five Chicago Public School recipients of a scholarship for undergraduate summer coursework. Course: Chem 110 at Northwestern University
  • Have taken the hardest possible courseload each year


  • Not given at my school, but probably Top 10% out of 450


  • ACT (first one): 34E/33M/31R/31S Comp: 32
  • ACT (second one): 36E/32M/34R/28S Comp: 33
  • Superscore for ACT: 34
  • SAT (first and only): 710R/770M Comp: 1480
  • PSAT/NMSQT: 720R/750M Comp: 1470
  • I'm going to try the SAT again when corona permits, and I'm hoping that I get 1500+ just because the test felt much more comfortable for me than the ACT


  • Dance (2006-2019): Trained with the Joffrey Ballet until sophomore year. Was at the highest level possible without quitting school for the last three years of my "career." Was always on a full-tuition merit scholarship and was accepted to places like ABT New York, San Francisco Ballet, etc. Classes were 22+ hrs/week during the school year and 35+ hrs/week during the summers. (saying it was my entire life is not an exaggeration)
  • Rowing (2019-present): New to it, but I'm on varsity now. I'm not the greatest (was on track for heavy recruiting, but I decided to focus on school), but I fully invest myself in the sport because I love doing it. Very different from dance, but I feel like I find myself reusing lessons from dance during practice. Training 12+ hrs/week year-round.
  • Korean Club (2017-present): Co-founder/Co-President of this club, where I help teach the Korean language to people. I'm also a beginner, so I learn a lot, too. My friends and I made this club because we're either half or full Korean (I'm a halfie), and we want to be able to communicate with family. (2 hrs/week)
  • STEAMworks OC Resource Creator (2020-present): Student startup helping to engage the next generation in STEAM topics. I design experiments and projects for kids to do at home and we will eventually be shipping out materials for kids to participate in more advanced experiments (nothing dangerous, just giving stuff that may not be readily available during a pandemic). I create and perform one project every two weeks, as well as create a writeup so other kids can replicate the experiment.
  • Rowing Disability Program (2019-present): I volunteer to help teach kids with cognitive disabilities how to row. Only an hour a week, but it's fun for me and I've made lots of friends.
  • Rowing Summer Camp (2019-present): I coach kids, ages 12-16, through erg sessions, water tank sessions, and practices on the water. The summer camp is a two-week-long program, 5 days/week, and 5 hours/day.
  • Neighborhood Farmers Market (2015-present): Volunteer for the farmers market every other week in the fall, summer, and spring. Just help setting up, tearing down, answering questions, etc.


  • First at the Midwest Junior Rowing Championships
  • Big possibility that I'm a Merit Semi-finalist, but if not, then definitely a Commended Student (Chicago didn't get to take the PSAT, so the scores are expected to decrease a lot. I only took it because I decided to sign up for one earlier in the year)
  • AP Scholar with Distinction
  • National Honor Society (2019-present): Don't do much but volunteer. I am becoming a senior tutor, though, for all math and science classes available at my school.
  • Spanish Honor Society (2018-present): Tutor kids in Spanish, volunteer, etc.
  • Full-Tuition Scholarships and Housing Scholarships to The Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, ABT New York, and more.
  • Northwestern College Bridge Program (Idk if this is an honor but I had to apply and only 25 people got it): Took an undergraduate course for free in the summer (Chemistry).


  • AP Calc Teacher: Super close, did really well in their class and ate lunch in the classroom with them and other students just so we could work on extra math and talk.
  • APUSH Teacher: Sophomore year teacher. I didn't get really close with my junior year teachers because of all of the breaks we had in the school year (we had a teacher strike along with corona). Joked around a lot about how it seemed that I never tried in school to do well, which they hated, but they taught me the importance of hard work.
  • Counselor: Although she has so many students to write letters for, she has a close relationship with me, which will help. She can attest to my initiative and intellectual drive (always pushing to take the hardest classes and find summer opportunities). She also can explain my two Bs in freshman year, which were partially due to extenuating cirumstances.


  • Not going to talk much about my essays, but I would say they are solid. I'm not the greatest writer, but I started writing very early in the process and have been receiving lots of help. They are definitely original. If people were to read them, everyone I know would be able to pick mine out of a pile.
  • I feel like my "why major" essay is pretty personal/good, but I'm biased.

Sorry that this is so long. I just wanted to make it look neat. If you know who I am (I think it would be obvious if you know me because there are a lot of details), say hi. Anyway, advice of all kinds would be really helpful. I’m always looking to edit my college list. That includes deleting schools from the list or adding schools that may be better suited for what I want. Thanks :slight_smile:

Lots or great activities and achievements. You are an impressive candidate! The biggest issue I see is affordability. Debt doesn’t impact financial aid unless it is the mortgage on your primary residence for some schools that use the CSS Profile. You need to run the NPCs on the schools you are looking at and see if any of them are affordable. If you are looking at merit based financial aid for a school to be affordable, no schools can be considered safeties if the competition for aid is stiff. I think UIUC as your instate school will be a good bet but some of the private schools and OOS public’s will be harder to guess this year because of the financial fallout from the pandemic.

@helpingmom40 Yeah, aid is really worrying me. I was wondering if it is worth some student debt to get a degree from a highly coveted school. The starting salaries for Duke grads are really high, which I feel like could make up for the decent amount of loans I’ll have to pay off. Is that a reasonable way to think? I don’t want to go in thinking that I’ll be able to pay off my debt when, in reality, I can’t.

I’m not sure if you would qualify for a Pell Grant but you can tell by checking your parents’ tax returns. As a student, you are limited to $5500-$7500 per year in federal loans. Other than that, they are parental loans. If your parents have significant debt already, they may not qualify for loans or the interest rate could be prohibitively high.

Why UIUC but not Urbana, the default safety for ambitious (Payton/Northside/Jones/Whitney Young) College Prep students, just curious?

@ArtsyKidDad Sorry for being unclear. I do mean UIUC (University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign).

@helpingmom40 I don’t qualify for a Pell Grant, but my parents’ debt is mostly mortgage. I do think, however, that my EFC is ~$20,000 because FAFSA does not take into account most of the reasons why my family is low/middle income.

Just a caution but do not base affordability on what the FAFSA says your EFC is!! Every year, tons of students or parents talk on here about family payments that exceed the EFC by a lot because it is really just a formula for calculating Pell eligibility and it really is not your “expected family contribution”. In order to find out what you will really need to pay, complete the net price calculator for each school. That will be way more accurate than assuming the EFC is what you will be paying.

@helpingmom40 The net price calculator says that I’d be paying ~$25,000 a year. Is this way too much? Will I not be able to recover from having to pay this amount?

You are only able to borrow $5,500 in federal loans yourself. That is the rule. The price can say whatever it says but you can only get a loan for $5,500 and will need to find a way to cover the gap. Your parents will likely need to take out a loan for the remaining $19,500 per year (they would need to qualify o borrow that much every year) which would leave you with a loan of at least $78000 in addition to the $27000 the government says you are allowed to take out on your own. That $1000,000+ would cost you $1000/month every month for 10 years. That is serious money during a time you may want to buy a car or a home, get married, have a family, take a vacation. If you were my kid, I would strongly advise you not to do it. That is a big hole to climb out of, financially speaking. If your long term goal involves grad school, save your borrowing for that.

I never love a click-bait title, and you know perfectly well that you can get into many, many colleges- what you want to know if you can get into fancy name colleges.

But as several people have pointed out, getting in and paying for it are two different things. How is it working for your sister to be at Duke now? Is that option available to you?

If financial aid is truly necessary, and the NPCs for the schools you list above don’t work, then you need to start a whole new list. Afaik, except BU, Duke & Pitt none of the schools on your list have substantial merit aid (separate f Pitt has full scholarships (apply by Dec 15) and is a good place to start. UIUC is the guts of $30K- can your family afford that?

The difference in your starting salary graduating with those majors will not vary wildly between any of the places on your list- or many other places as well.

@collegemom3717 Sorry for the title. I more just wanted to know any schools that may be better for me to apply to (better fit for aid, major, etc.). I do know that I could get into some schools, but I’m wondering if my list is not good because there would be better schools suited for me. My sister is on full scholarship for rowing, so I can’t get the same aid as her. I would really love to go to Pitt if I get in and get a substantial scholarship, but that was one of the only schools that I liked that could give me more aid.

I’d really love if there are any suggestions on more appropriate schools for me because I do know that some of these schools are poor fits for me based on price alone.

Suggest you start a new thread along the lines of ‘high merit colleges for biomed/bio/chem engineering’, and note that Pitt is already on your list. Alabama will come up fast! Other examples include URochester, WPI, CMU, CWR, which all have a few good scholarships.

Have you run the net price calculator on each college?

Have you compared the net prices with the amounts that you and your parents can actually pay?

Regarding KAIST, if you are a male citizen of the Republic of Korea, be aware of the mandatory military service in that country.

Here is a full ride at a college that offers chemical engineering: https://www.pvamu.edu/faid/types-of-aid/scholarships/university-scholarships/

Take a look at Stevens Institute of Technology.

ps, forgot to say that Oxford is a non-starter when there are money limitations- no meaningful scholarships / expect to spend $45K+/year

What school’s NPC shows $25K? This context will help posters make more/better recs.

What can your family pay per year for college? Is living at home and commuting to UIC an option?

I don’t know if Pitt’s NPC includes merit aid, but I would not expect anything greater than $15K in merit/year (look at class of 2024 thread), which would get OOS tuition into the low $20’s…meaning you still would have to pay room and board plus travel, incidentals, books, etc. Pitt will likely have to come off the list.

No money at Oxford so take that off

Can you pay $25k+ a year? YOU can take $5.5k in loans but the rest is on your parents, and if they already have debt, and if they have borrowed for your sister, then it is not a wise path to follow.

You also need to run the NPC with both you and your sister in college - AND with just you once she graduates. You need to be able to afford all 4 years without your parents taking on huge debt. What happens if the parental loan for years 2/3/4 is not approved?

Schools with engineering with good merit for you: some is automatic and you can check their websites to see what you’ll get. Others you will need to apply for.

Alabama (see also Randall Research Scholars program)
Alabama - Huntsville (right in the research park)
Iowa State
Arizona State
Miami OH
South Carolina (see also Capstone Scholars Program)
Ole Miss
Rose Hulman

It doesn’t matter if these aren’t ‘prestigious’. You want an affordable degree in engineering to launch your career or post grad study. ALL of these places will get you there, and there will be plenty of smart students in the engineering department for you to meet and hang out with.

There is a really long thread by @KevinFromOC about his daughter who had a limited budget. Accepted to Princeton and Johns Hopkins, but these were un-affordable. Final three affordable choices: South Carolina, Rose Hulman and Miami OH. Will be attending South Carolina on a top (and very prestigious) scholarship.

Good luck :slight_smile:

@riverandsasha3 You have two challenges - getting in (your list is very reach heavy) and paying for it. As others have mentioned above, you first need to establish how much your family is willing/able to pay - is it nothing? 5K per year? 10K? More? @helpingmom40 already summarized very well the limits on student loans - they are set that way for a reason - for most college graduates they are manageable to pay off. Student loan + part time and summer work will give you 10-12K to work with. Where will the rest come from?

I recommend that you run the NPCs for every single college that interests you. For example, Stanford and Princeton have a reputation for having a very generous definition of “need.” Other schools, maybe less so.

Once you have a number from your parents about what they can pay and have run all of the NPCs and determined what might be affordable, come back to us with that information and we can suggest alternatives. It sounds like you probably will need to seek full tuition awards and might be able to swing room and board with a combination of family contribution, student loan, and work.

If your family cannot afford to contribute now, taking out cosigned loans that will have to be retired later is a very bad idea.

Here are a couple of ideas that might be affordable, some from your original list. Not sure about the biomedical engineering programs at all of these.

Case Western (has 2-3 long shot full tuition awards by separate application, demonstrated interest important)
Wash U St Louis (has long shot full tuition awards by separate application)
Duke (has some long shot full tuition merit scholarships)
Vanderbilt (has long shot full tuition awards)
Ohio State (has a number of full tuition OOS scholarships)
UVA (has some long shot full tuition merit scholarships)
Pitt (merit money becoming scarcer, apply early!)
Georgia Tech? (I think there may be some OOS merit money if you apply early)
UIUC (in-state)
BU (has a competitive full tuition or full ride award - Presidential?)
U of S Carolina (competitive full tuition merit award, maybe full ride)
Lehigh (if you’re open to a smaller school, well regarded for engineering and has some full tuition awards)

If you end up qualifying for National Merit, you might look at USC (So Cal) that has 1/2 and full tuition awards for NMF.

Finally flagship universities in the West and South often have good deals for national merit scholars. There are several examples listed above. Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Arizona are often recommended here. If you make NMSF, add the Florida public universities to your list (Benaquisto scholarships.) UF Gainesville is highly regarded and many praise UCF’s Honors Program. Check availability as the program is funded by the state of FL and COVID may have had an impact on level of support)

Seconding recommendation that you look at @KevinFromOC 's mega thread for more suggestions.

Best of luck!