The Secret Sauce

Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s 2016 graduates share how they got into the nation’s most selective schools

In today’s competitive college admissions atmosphere, acceptance rates are declining as application numbers rise. The University of Florida accepts fewer than half its applicants, and admission rates at Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools are in the single digits.

Yet, Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s Class of 2016 upheld the school tradition of placements at elite institutions. Students gained admission to seven of the eight Ivy League schools and other top-ranked colleges and universities from coast to coast.

How did they do it? Thirteen graduating seniors offered advice on a variety of topics at “The Secret Sauce,” a recent panel presentation at the school. Open to the community, it attracted more than 600 parents and students. Each student had different interests and approaches, but their message to future college applicants was consistent: Find and follow your passion throughout high school, and try your hardest—but don’t focus exclusively on academics to the detriment of your health or social life.

Pinecrest parent Linda Dwyer, who attended with her sophomore daughter, Colleen, says the panel was a wake-up call. “She realized if she wants to go to an Ivy League school, she needs to get on it now,” Dwyer says. “The best thing she got out of the panel was to be yourself—don’t try to create an image, but be the best ‘me’ you can be.”

Panel moderator Harry Nerenberg, the school’s college counselor, says he plans to have a similar event next year, given this year’s response.

Here is a sampling of the ingredients that went into the students’ personal recipes for success.

On the High School Experience

“Pour yourself 100 percent into what you’re interested in. Don’t just follow what other traditionally ‘successful’ students do, and don’t spread yourself out over too many half-hearted activities. Mu Alpha Theta (a mathematics honors society) was the only club I was involved in over four years, but leadership positions changed the ways I interacted with others.” — Jaewon Moon (Duke University)

“Be consistent. Put as much effort as you can into an interest you want to put on your college applications. I’m enthusiastic about engineering, so I took relevant classes, competed in multiple science competitions and did projects at home.” — William Nuñez (Cornell University)

“Whatever you do, make sure you do it well and are passionate about it. And you don’t need to give up your social life to succeed in high school and get into a good school.” —Sophia Paredes (Princeton University)

On Classes

“Take the hardest classes you can handle, and do your best. If you’re not passing or have a poor grade, switch out. But never regret not pushing yourself enough.” — Nuñez

“Don’t take certain AP (Advanced Placement) classes just because your friends are taking them if they don’t suit you. Palmetto High offers a wide breadth of classes so you can find your interests; you’re not constricted to certain classes, unlike magnet schools.” — Cassandra Barrett (Northeastern University)

“Dual enrollment is a good way to take courses you’re interested in while maintaining a rigorous schedule. I took microeconomics at Miami Dade College—because Palmetto High didn’t offer it—and, as part of a summer program, I took two seminar classes at UF. None of these classes were particularly difficult. The credits would transfer to most schools but, sadly, not to Yale University. I mainly took them for GPA, not college credit.” — Bo You (Yale University)

On the Application Process

“First, don’t let your expectations of financial aid determine where you apply. The online financial aid calculators are not very reliable. Apply where you want, then see how the money situation plays out. I never thought that we could afford an Ivy League school, but the financial aid can be very adequate, making some great schools less than even the University of Florida. And apply for scholarships: I received $2,500 from the National Eagle Scout Association.” — Nuñez

“Even the best students who don’t have a good or unique application won’t go far. During the application process, you will often have to spin your accomplishments into something that admissions officers consider an asset to their college. And cast a wide net; colleges are forced to reject many qualified students.” — You

“People always underestimate the enormous amount of time, energy and focus required [to compose] amazing essays. Make a schedule and stick to it. Stop thinking about how to make your essay unique and start thinking about what makes you unique, even if it’s something mundane. And don’t try to make your first draft your final essay; let your words flow, then edit. Your essays get better as you chug along.” — Moon

“Your job in writing these college essays is not to describe your entire personhood—no one has time to read that—just meaningful parts of yourself that you want to put forward. I wrote my essay on how I talk fast and related it to my interests in social justice and language.” — Claire Zuo (Columbia University)

“My formula for college admissions is 60 percent perspiration, 30 percent inspiration and 10 percent luck. Challenge and dedicate yourself in high school (perspiration), present yourself as a unique asset on your application (inspiration), and apply to several schools since well-qualified applicants still get rejected (luck).” — You

Advice for Freshmen and Parents

“Don’t kill yourself. Try not to skip romantic or social activities. If you’re headed for a nervous breakdown, take some time off and just play video games or something. On a smaller, objective note, write down everything regarding application passwords and such.” — Nuñez

“Get enough sleep. I wish I’d slept more.” — Dylan Solomon (University of Wisconsin)

“You don’t need to give up your entire social life to succeed in high school and get into a good school. It’s not healthy. Parents, let your child choose what and where they are interested in.” — Paredes

“You don’t have to be good at everything. Don’t make your kids do something they don’t love, or give up something they do love for college. I went to camp and did yoga in the summer.” — Kayla Ladis (University of Michigan)

“Try your hardest, no matter where you plan to go.” — Chloe Feinstein (Bryn Mawr College)

“I strongly advise parents to not pressure their child into a college based on arbitrary rankings or fame. I ended up not choosing the school that was the highest ranked of the schools I got into (Harvard), nor the most well-known, nor the one my parents desperately wanted me to attend. Pick a college to attend or even apply to after you think hard about yourself, your desires, strengths, weaknesses and the spaces and people you thrive with.” — Zuo

“It’s all about the journey, not where you end up.” Solomon

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