A Primer on Undergrad Admissions - Maryam Esmat
Updated: May 20
Hometown: Cairo, Egypt
Undergraduate: Double Degree: BSc in Astrophysics (Highest Honors) and BA in Creative Writing from Lycoming College
Field: Astrophysics: telescope instrumentation, exoplanets, pulsars, and gravitational waves // Creative Writing: literary fiction, academic editing, scientific translation, and science communication
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a nerd by the book—literally and metaphorically. Fascinated by the secrets of the universe, I seek answers through science and art. I read plenty and pursue my callings through hobbies like acting and photography. I have many role models in many different fields, and my ultimate role model is Abbas ibn Firnas.
Reflecting back on your experience, what do you think are the main advantages of studying in United States of America?
In a nutshell, the main advantage the US provides is the ability to do everything. There is no cap on the fields, hobbies, and ambitions to be chased. Scientific research and part-time acting? Sure! Quantum mechanics classes and literary fiction workshops? Absolutely! The most important aspect is making connections. Being a student is all about learning, adapting, and networking. Another advantage is the multiculturalism in the US, which allows enjoying some of the world’s diverse cultures from only one place.
Let’s go back in time a little. When did you first consider applying to universities abroad?
Tenth grade. I wanted to study creative writing at the time and my favorite writers all went to college in the US, so I knew I had to go but I did not actually start learning about the process until eleventh grade. It’s worth noting that it’s never too late to start.
When did you first start preparing for the application process? How did you prepare for the application process?
During the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, I applied to the Competitive College Club (CCC) at Education USA Egypt in Cairo. With the great help of Education USA Egypt’s Senior Advisor Ms. Yasmine ElRoweiny, I learned about the process. The CCC held standardized tests study groups for the SAT, TOEFL, and ACT. Education USA Egypt held seminars on writing the personal essay and supplemental essays, and during the CCC meetings, members workshopped the essays together. Ms. ElRoweiny gave sessions on how to choose the perfect college list based on each student’s interests. I believe the best part about my experience as a CCC member was that I received the best advice from a passionate advisor, and I was surrounded by an ambitious and fun group of people—CCC members—who encouraged each other.
How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?
Funding comes from various sources: the college’s admissions department, field-specific scholarships through field department, athletics department, and private scholarships. The funding packages are different for every college. More funding is provided at bigger, research-based colleges, but that does not deny the fact that small colleges have sufficient funding, too. The best way to explore funding options is through a college’s admissions website and when confused, contact admissions for more details. Keep in mind that emailing admissions goes a long way, so make sure to send a professional and impressive email. Private scholarships come in two types: one is related to the college in which a faculty or staff member nominates a student for; the other one is through the government of the student’s home country, private businesses, and foundations that support education.
Is there anything that you wish someone had told you to consider when applying to universities abroad?
Yes, I wish someone had encouraged me to take the gap year I wanted to take. My advice would not be to necessarily take a gap year, but to do whatever brings the most comfort. Consider the community the of the college: Is there an international student union? Are there enough international students to begin with? As funny as it sounds, the weather takes a huge toll on mental health so consider that, too. Apply to as many funding options as possible. And finally, start early! Begin drafting the personal essay by August and expect to have the topic change multiple times. I wrote eleven different personal essay drafts before I arrived to the perfect one that spoke to who I am. Do not leave the supplemental essays to the last minute as every college needs at least one tailored supplemental essay; I came across some that needed five or so. Apply to the essays that maximize funding options. If possible, take the standardized tests early so that there is more time to focus on filling out applications. Give the extracurricular activities section of the application plenty of effort.
Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?
Yes, through Ms. Yasmine ElRoweiny at Education USA Egypt in Cairo.
What do you think students often get “wrong” about the US application process?
Supplemental essays. Students pay so much attention—as they ought to—to the personal essay and forget that supplemental essays are just as important. Without the essays, essence and personality of the application, the student is just another statistic. Colleges do not care whether the high school diploma is thanaweya amma, IGCSE and Advanced Levels, American, or any other form of diploma. As long as the degree earned equates a high school diploma, there will be no problems. Grades matter; the higher the grades in high school, the better. The application demands 3-4 years of high school transcript.
What tips do you have about how to write a compelling recommendation letter?
I do not think a student should write a recommendation letter about herself.
How can a candidate assess whether they are a “strong” candidate?
There are multiple websites that measure and calculate the average admitted applicants for colleges of interest, i.e. The College Board website.
What advice do you have for writing a strong personal statement?
Be yourself. The personal statement/essay is your time to shine—market yourself! If you take the journey of writing a perfect personal statement seriously, you will learn new aspects about yourself. I cannot say this enough: Start early! In writing multiple drafts, you train and broaden your abilities to express yourself and show your personality on paper. When showcasing your great personality traits, do not tell—show. For example, do not say that you are persevering; explain the struggles you went through and continued nonetheless until you succeeded. Avoid heavy metaphors and SAT vocabulary words (unless you are intending to major in writing, journalism, etc. but even then, don’t overdo it). Be natural with a good command of the language. Talk to your friends about it and listen to what they have to say; they know you best. Have someone read it and ask them if it sounds like you, and if it does not, then have the courage to change it. Make sure the essay reeks of you.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?
Study for SAT/ACT for at least three months before taking the exam. Start filling out financial aid forms for each college early because the forms are long. Start working on the extracurricular activities section of the application as early as possible; take part in activities that speak to you, that enrich you, and make you happy. Take your time looking for the perfect college(s) that fit your needs; you will live four years in that place so you need to make sure that you will be happy there—tailor the college list according to your needs. Pay attention to the college’s career services office because that office should help launch your career. If you are sure about the major, try to get in touch with the professors through your admissions councilor.
Any other pieces of advice?
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Surround yourself with people who lift your spirit and encourage you to carry forward when you do not feel like yourself. The application process is long and tedious, but most definitely worth the work.