Archive for the ‘College Applications’ Category

Internship 1: The Absurdity of High-School Internships

January 5, 2012 1 comment

If you think about it, high school student internship is absurd.  What do these kids know to contribute anything?

Internship 1: The Absurdity of High-School Internships

By James H. Choi
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To Sabio Parents,

We hear about high-school internships all the time. But once we set out to find such an opportunity for our kids, the elusive “high-school internship” becomes almost mythical: mentioned but never sighted.

If one thinks about it, it is rather absurd a high-school student would even aspire to hold an internship. At least college students have been preparing for internships for years. College students intern in the field they know they will enter as a career. But high-school students? What do they know? Not a lot.

It is important to understand the subtext of this absurdity — that high-school students seek college-level internships but know hardly anything — if you want your child to take fullest advantage of high-school internships.

First of all, let’s define “Internship.” Internships refers to a range of activities from simple, part-time jobs to paper-shuffling volunteer work. In these two cases, the term “internship” is an empty title. The positions are as easy or difficult to obtain as any other part-time job or volunteer work. There is little to be said about these.

Below, I’ll focus on a second type of internship: the research opportunity. Research opportunities give students an ultimate honor: a chance to co-author a research paper. There is no better proof of a student’s worthiness than performing real research for publication in an academic journal (he or she might be the last author listed). This is an honor even college students rarely achieve.

So how can your student get a high-school research opportunity? There are broadly two cases.

Case 1: Sponsored Research

Organizations such as NIH (National Institute of Health) and companies such as Motorola often run summer internship programs. These community-service programs focus on spreading good will and brand recognition of the organization or company. In other words, the interns are doing no real work. Even interns assigned research projects end up performing sand-box projects — inconsequential to the organizer. Of course, the work has to be inconsequential. Would you want your medical treatment to hinge on a high-school student’s summer discovery? But this type of opportunity should be grabbed anyway, with two hands whenever possible, because they are still far more valuable than one of those expensive summer programs, the names of which seem always to begin with “Global Leadership ….” But remember: This is not the type of internship that makes a college admissions officer sit up and read the application twice. 2: Real Laboratory Research

A high-school student who finds him or herself in the middle of actual research is the product of some heavy arm-twisting behind the scenes. Thus, usually only students from academically connected families can find this type of internship. But it’s worth noting that getting a foot in the laboratory’s door does not necessarily open another door. These students often end up accomplishing nothing — in spite of being in the middle of action the whole time. So what’s the problem? This outcome is actually understandable, even logical, if you consider the research director’s two goals for high-school interns:

  1. Don’t let him or her disrupt the experiments and research or damage equipment.
  2. Make sure he or she is kept away from even the slightest dangers so as to return to the parents safely.

Because of these goals, the high-school student can hardly learn, let alone contribute, to the research during his or her internship.

Amazingly, those lucky students who have the arm-twisting parents seem to completely unaware of this reality. They walk into the laboratory totally unprepared. I’ve come up with only one logical interpretation of how this blase attitude and subsequent squandering of their lucky break happens. It can happen only students and parents think the following scenario will unfold upon the student’s arrival at the lab:

The research director sees the new intern’s potential right away. He cancels all his classes, meeting and trips so he can focus on teaching this new intern the fundamentals of science on which research at this lab is based. The intern understands everything, including the research’s implications and ramifications. The graduate students at the lab also see the potential of this high-potential high-school student, and they postpone their own work to aid the intellectual growth of this new intern. The intern catches up with the science by the end of the first week and starts leading the experiment by the second week. By the third week, the intern raises the level of the research so high that now the experiment has a shot at winning the Nobel Prize. On the day of departure, the intern has to tear himself away from the lab’s members, who are also unable to let him go, for the success of the experiment depends solely on the intern’s brilliance. The intern leaves with a parting word: “I am still a kid,” he says. They had forgotten this. “I need to go back home and finish high school. I will come help you again when I find some spare time.”

Actually, I don’t know what goes on in high-school students’ heads. But this scenario is the only way I can understand students who have the audacity to show up unprepared.

Needless to say, the intern will have much to say about his or her experience at the lab, how he or she “learned very much.” But, in this scenario, there can be no mention of the intern’s contribution and no chance he or she will become one of the authors of the research because the only thing the intern did was looking on the experiment from a safe distance, or cleaned the equipment after the experiment.


It sounds bleak. It seem an unprepared high-school student has no way to score a knock-out internship experience or accomplishment. After all, these are high-school kids. We should be reasonable in what we expect and demand from them.

But I am not writing this to show you just the absurdity and bleakness of high-school internships. On the contrary, I want to show you how to make the most of your student’s opportunities through adequate preparation. Your students have a shot to get the highest academic honors and records by becoming published researchers — and they have this chance in high school only through careful preparation.

My next letters will explain one possible preparation procedure and a success story.


James H. Choi

Categories: Internship

Recommendation letter for leaders and/or followers

January 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Recommendation Letter for Leaders and/or Followers

By James H. Choi
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To Sabio Students,

This is part 2 of my advice on how to get an ideal recommendation letter. Part 1 is here.

By definition, all recommendation letters are filled with praise. Otherwise, it would not be a recommendation letter; it would be a non-recommendation letter. But as the saying goes, it is possible to damn someone with faint praise (or wrong praise). It is also possible to inflict damage through silence (i.e., omission).

1. Take this praise-filled paragraph, for instance: “This student never missed a class. She always delivered her homework on time, and exactly the way I specified. She is someone I can always count of when I need to get a job done.” No doubt, this letter has great praise. But let’s hold our judgement until we read the next paragraph.

2. Now consider this paragraph: “This student is not swayed by prevailing opinion easily. He won’t join in a cause until he completely believes in the cause himself. For example, when we finished a report on How to conserve energy in our school, this student wouldn’t simply accept solar panels cannot produce enough energy for our school. So against my wishes (as supervising teacher) and the wishes of 11 other team members, this student insisted we compute the actual annual amount of sunshine, rather than using an average national value for the United States. We found out the “average” national value for the States was much higher than what we would actually get in northern Illinois. We therefore discovered that it wouldn’t make economical sense to install solar panels in our school. If not for this student insisting we compute actual values, we would have delivered a completely wrong report. I notice, incidentally, that his peers listen when he speaks.”
is the difference between the two paragraphs, if they both praise the student? You know colleges want to select future “leaders.” These leaders are not those who want to have a steady job in a large company and two-car garage house in the suburbs. These leaders, by the colleges’ definition, are people who will create new industries, create new political movements, and do something that will appear in history books.

Which of the two recommendations above better fits this image of leader? The second, of course. If you think about it, (and read it again now) the first recommendation sounds like it was written for a secretary position or a delivery person’s job. It’s faint praise, weak praise, fluffy praise. And yes, you can be damaged by a faint praise or, in other words, by a complete omission of the facts that imply “leadership.”

You cannot tell the recommender to write like #2 for you. The recommender will write as he or she saw you. So the only way you can get a letter like the #2 recommendation letter is by acting like the student in #2. That is, you must spend much time with your future recommenders and display your leadership, integrity, decisiveness and analytical mind on proper occasions. You must also make sure they see you doing this.

Even when you volunteer, think of benefits for not only the recipients of your service, but also for yourself. That is, think about what work type will develop your character in your eyes, as well in the eyes of other people.

I wish you wise and successful choices.


Categories: College Applications

An Ideal Recommendation Letter for College Applications

January 4, 2012 3 comments

An Ideal Recommendation Letter for College Applications

By James H. Choi
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To Sabio Students,

The word “ideal” is often associated with “impossible” or “too difficult to obtain” in our conversations. But I am happy to inform you that an ideal recommendation letter is possible to obtain. In fact, almost all students who got into top universities had one. But you must be warned a good recommendation is indeed impossible to obtain without having substance. And even if you have substance, the best letter is absolutely impossible to obtain overnight.

But if you follow my advice as soon as you enter high school, you will get that golden recommendation letter, presenting you in the best light. I will remind you once more, though: You must shine first in order to have someone shine a light on you.

What I am about to explain is not my idea. This is a summary of what I learned from a very prestigious college and university head admissions officer when he was giving a talk to a private meeting of America’s top math-teams coaches. His talk was on “How to write a recommendation letters that we notice.”

An ideal recommendation letter for college applications has the following characteristics.

1. The letter must be for that one college only.

In other words, the letter must be so specific to one college that it would be impossible to send the same one to any other college. The recommendation letter must recommend the student for that particular college for reasons specific to only that college. (This has to be based on the recommender’s deep knowledge of what the school wants.) Here is an example of a very specific recommendation: “This student is a great fit for your artificial organ oriented Bioengineering Program because she is interested in developing artificial skin.”

If the recommender has any long-term perspective on other students’ performance after entering that particular college, this perspective should be mentioned even if the comparison is not entirely positive for the recomendee. For example, here is a letter that shows a weakness of the student but spins the weakness into a positive trait: “This student is not as intuitively smart in physics as is John Doe who is a Junior in your college now. Believe me: I have taught both students, and I know their differences. But this student is more driven than John Doe. He will be at least as successful as John Doe, if not more, based on the fact he always performed well, due to his sheer drive and tenacity, which are not found to the same degree in other students I have taught.”

As you can see, this requires your recommender to have an intimate knowledge about the college you pick. But you should not rely on your recommender having existing knowledge. In fact, you should prepare a short explanation on why you are a great fit for that college. (Do not write “Why this college is great for me.” This doesn’t make the university want you. Explain instead why you are great for the college, i.e., why you will bring glory to the college.)

Of course, you must have a fact-based and convincing argument as to why the college should choose you. If you cannot find a reason to recommend yourself, you should not ask others to recommend you. The letter must describe only you.

In other words, the recommendation letter should be so specifically tailored to you that it would be useless for anyone else. Talk is cheap, and adjectives are even cheaper. Any recommender can recklessly toss around sentences like “This student is a smart student and has a great sense of responsibility.” But such a statement will take on meaning only if it is followed by a specific example such as “When we had a flood, she made more sandbags than anyone other volunteer who showed up at school on that (ironically) sunny Saturday afternoon. (The rain had stopped the day before.) In fact, she went home that evening only once it became clear the water level was going down.”

Here’s one more example of a letter describing a student well: Instead of just saying, “This student showed great leadership in academic areas,” the letter should read, “He is the one student who brought the AMC test to our school when he was only a ninth grader. To do this, he went around speaking to every math teacher. Then he organized study groups to win peer support, too. This student just wouldn’t give up. We had to say yes then, and now we are glad we did. Today, the AMC test is an established annual academic event at our school thanks only to this student’s leadership.” Which student would you take? The one who “showed great leadership” or the one who established the AMC test at his high school when he was just a freshman? Most colleges would pick the latter.

Before your recommenders can cite these incidents and anecdotes — these great things that you do — you need to create them in the first place. That means you should be doing these great things now. There is no way around that.

3. The letter must be from someone with a trusted track record.

The best recommender not someone who writes for the best students, and he is not someone who writes for the worst students. That doesn’t matter. The best recommender is actually the one who has a track record for saying things how they really are: The best recommender is an accurate predictor of the recommendee’s performance in college.

College admissions offers keep a record of the recommenders’ track record. Those recommenders who over-praise all students will be ignored.

Avoid getting a recommenation letter from a teacher who sees equally great potential in all students. Chances are, this teacher wrote the same thing in every recommendation letter he or she has ever written, and the colleges know exactly what those “potentials” amount to by now. This is no indication of how you will perform, and it is not tailored to you.

Likewise, recommendation letters coming from countries or cultures that praise everyone highly will not have much credibility after a few “best student I have ever seen” turned out ordinary. Thus it is better to have the recommendation letters from the countries or cultures that talk straight, if you can get one. For example, if you are a Korean and studied as an exchange student for a year in the United States, get your letter from your exchange-studies teacher. Of course, this assumes you made the most of your exchange program by impressing your teacher positively during your stay. (This is not my idea, but a paraphrased quote of what I heard from the admissions officer.)

4. Get a letter from people in academics if you can.

Get a recommendation letter from the professor of the college you are applying to. Of course, an opportunity like this does not come naturally to high school students. You need to work on building this relationship for years to create an opportunity. But if you can get one, a recommendation letter from practicing academics, who really know you, worked with you (and can use full of anecdotes while writing a letter about you) and also know the college you are applying to, can be very powerful. A letter like this makes you stand much taller than other applicants, who will get recommendation letters only from their high school teachers and counselors.

Take my student student, BH, for example. She participated in MIT’s WTP program at the end of her Junior year in high school. While in the program, BH displayed an apparently natural aptitude in learning Matlab, and the supervising professor noticed. (The truth is, although BH never learned Matlab, she did know another, similar software called Mathematica.) This apparent aptitude for software, in addition to other impressive aspects of BH, impressed the supervising professor sufficiently to give BH a recommendation letter. Let me rephrase: BH got a recommendation letter from an MIT professor. Do you think she got in?

If you can’t tell yet, here’s another story about BH. She also worked as a research intern at Dr. Konopka’s clinic, and received a recommendation letter from him as well.

BH got accepted to — among other colleges — MIT. Only her college admissions officers know how big a role these letters played. But the fact that her peer, a high school math wizard who made it to prestigious USAMO, was rejected by MIT. The acceptance of BH, who never showed any promise in any math competitions, over this other student makes me suspect those recommendation letters played some role in this surprise outcome.


What to do?

To get ideal recommendation letters, you need to know the recommender well, and more importantly, the recommender has to know you well. If you are the type who sits in the last row of class every day, quietly minding your own business, or if you are the type who never visits any teacher’s office for questions, then you are working hard to make sure your teachers will have nothing to say about you in their recommendation letters.

Think of what type of recommendation letter you want to have. Then think about what type of life you have to live and what deeds you must do to get that letter. Then live out those deeds. Yes, it is you who is writing your recommendation letter — by living it. Your teachers are merely transcribing what you have done. They are authenticating your deeds in writing, on your behalf. All you have to do, and all you can do, is to make sure that everything noteworthy is transcribed accurately.

It is your life — not your teachers’ — on the line. You have to make it easier for the recommender. For example, you need to provide anecdotes and facts for your recommender to cite, refer to, and allude to in the recommendation letter. But in order to have these anecdotes, you need to spend time with the recommender. You need to put in the effort.

Even then, having anecdotes is not enough. Doing deeds is not necessarily going to get them remembered. You have to carry yourself in such a way that your recommender can remember the anecdotes easily. For example, if you were the last one making sandbags during the flood, go through the trouble of walking to the other end of the building to say goodbye to your teacher. Not only is saying goodbye the proper and polite thing to do anyway, it is also the only way to make sure your teacher knows how late you stayed.

And do not rely on other peoples’ memories, especially four-year-old memories. Provide a one page document of your activities (such as volunteering at the sandbag event), accomplishments (awards you won), and other notable deeds when you ask for the recommendation letter. With this document, the recommender can easily remember and cite facts accurately. In fact, don’t rely on your memory either. You should keep a binder of your activities so that you can remember them. Start one now if you haven’t.

By the way, there is no point in getting a recommendation letter from someone who doesn’t know you. For instance, your powerful parents might pull some strings to have a Nobel Prize winner write a recommendation letter for you. But this person, no matter how smart he or she is, won’t have any anecdotes to tell, nor any first-hand testimony of your strengths to match what the college you are applying to want. The vagueness of adjectives will sorely stand out among the genuine recommendation letters of other applicants.

Start doing something, and I wish you the results that match your deeds



Categories: College Applications

Internship 3: An Intern who got into Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford

January 4, 2012 2 comments

Internship 3: An Intern who got into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford

By James H. Choi

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To Sabio Parents,

This time I would like to introduce an intern success case. JS started preparing for an internship in 11th grade, rather late, by learning data analysis with Mathematica (a computer language). He finished two introductory courses (the only courses available then) and then flew from Virginia to Chicago to start a summer internship at Dr. Konopka’s clinic.

Front: JS’ mentor: Meagan Hauser
Behind: Graphs that JS created

Dr. Konopka is a biological psychologist who examines the human mind not by behavior but by brain activities. In other words, if traditional psychologists were focused on the results (behaviors), biological psychologists are interested in the causes (brain processes). This Biological Psychology is a relatively new field that came into existence only after it became possible to look into live human brain activities through SPECT, PET, fMRI and EEG. Being new, Biological psychology has more unknowns than knowns. Technology-driven, this biology produces data daily, far faster than the researchers can make sense of them.

JS’ intern work started on the day he arrived. Dr. Konopka was too busy to supervise him directly, so his Ph.D. degree student Meagan Houser (photo on the left) became his mentor. JS became Ms. Houser’s data processor and visualizer on demand.

The work involved reading many types of data from many different machines (EEG, MRI, SPECT). Some formats such as DICOM were easily read by Mathematica. Other proprietary formats had to be read in byte-by-byte. In the end, JS overcame all obstacles, and the frequency distribution of the EEG waves from various scalp locations started appearing as 3D graphs (the colorful graphs on the poster on the left photo). The full poster can be seen here.

Then the work continued to evolve, causing a constant need to update the algorithm and graphs. JS returned home after two weeks, but his work continued for several months via the Internet, until the whole research was concluded. Yes: He did internship in Chicago for six months while sitting at home in Virginia.

The research was completed successfully, and JS’ work was officially acknowledged by the team. JS’ name was added as one of the authors. He also received a golden recommendation letter from Dr. Konopka for his college application.
Details of the poster. “Lee, J.S.” can be seen before Dr. Konopka’s name

The story didn’t end there. This research was submitted to the 10th World Congress of Biological Psychiatry in May 2011. Of 895 abstracts submitted from 71 countries, this research won the first place in the poster session. JS’ resume became one notch more impressive as a result. It is good to be part of a winning team.

Graduate students of Dr. Konopka

The winning team at the 10th World Congress of Biological Psychiatry in Prague

Of 895 submitted abstracts, this team received 1st and 6th place prizes. (JS didn’t go.)

Thanks to JS’ excellent work, this team actively hires prepared interns to
perform data visualization in other research projects.

JS also took a full advantage of his Mathematica experience by volunteering to create animations for Professor Sachs at George Mason University. Those animations will be used for the professor’s upcoming Multivariable Calculus book.

JS ended up being accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. This type of activity is exactly what MIT is looking for, but he didn’t even apply there because it was not a good fit for his future plans. He entered Harvard as a freshman in 2011. for how greatly this experience influenced his acceptances to universities, only their admissions officers know for sure. But it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest the internship and recommendation letter positively affected his application.

So far, so good for JS. But starting in the 11th grade is too late for most students. JS’ schedule was very tight, too tight, and his research projects could have gone wrong any number of ways, such as if he had needed to re-measure, for instance. Had JS started this in 9th grade, he likely would have had his name in a research paper in a scientific journal (rather than a poster), and he would have been able to enter science competitions with his own project ideas derived from this work.

Although JS’ case worked very well in a tight schedule, luck was on his side. Usually, students have no guarantee that suitable position will be available based on their needs. The bigger their time windows, the more opportunities students have to grab unpredictably fleeting internships.

With JS’ success, Dr. Konopka and his graduate students accepted four more data analyzing and visualizing interns. Now Dr. Konopka is starting a few research projects that he would not have because he can now count on the availability of the interns’ work.

If your high-school student, or even 7th grader, has a keen interest in science and technology, they can learn scientific data processing now to prepare themselves for this type of activity soon. Unlike other activities, this research internship teaches them real science, and offers a network of real scientists starting at an early age. The time spent working as an intern also counts as volunteer hours.

I strongly recommend this path for your students.


James H. Choi

Categories: Internship

Internship 2: One Possible Niche for High-School Students

January 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Internship 2: One Possible Niche for High-School Students

By James H. Choi
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To Sabio Parents,

Research, by definition, deals with cutting-edge knowledge. Looked at another way, being involved in research implies a mastery of existing knowledge. How can high-school students participate in research when this tall order is placed in front of them? It’s impossible for even a high-school student considered a “genius” by his peers.

So, how in the world can your high-school student be involved in — and actually contribute to — any scientific research as an intern? Simple: By finding a niche. Niche-finding is the same way small start-up companies thrive among industry giants.

Scientific research requires people doing many types of work. Examples include data analysis, statistical distribution fitting, and visualization. Anyone can use Excel to plot simple graphs. But if the data becomes large, multi-dimensional, or multi-modal (combining data from different measurements), then the data analysis and visualization need professional expertise.

Some researchers and graduate students, like those in engineering, physics or mathematics, are experts in data analysis. But others, such as those in biological or medical sciences, are often less well-versed. As medical technology improved, for instance, biological and medical fields started producing more detailed data (e.g. MRI) or went digital (e.g. microscopes), thus creating a flood of data in biological and medical research by order of magnitude. This is where your high-school student can come in.

Analysis and visualization of biological and medical data is one niche a high-school student can learn and then perform at professional level. This is not exactly as simple as it sounds. For anyone to competently analyze and visualize scientific data, he or she has to know not only programming, but also signal processing, image processing, statistics, etc. These are several semesters’ worth of college-level courses.

How can a high-school student master all those topics?

It is not possible. Writing FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) code, for example, requires knowledge of calculus in the continuous domain, and then difference equations in the discreet domain — both of which are well beyond most high-school students. The same goes for the filter design in image processing. how can a high school student master, let alone contribute to research?

By using tools that already provide algorithms and routines as commands. While it is important to know how to write FFT, students can learn it in college. For now, understanding how to apply FFT by calling commands, developed by professionals, is sufficient. Of course, students must know what FFT is for and where to use it. Smart high-school students can learn that level very well, speaking from my experience.

The same goes for 3D visualization, animation, pattern recognition, and data filtering. As long as a goal is clear and the data provided, a smart high-school student can summon relevant tools, commands, and algorithms to accomplish the goal. For example, a student could take a 3D MRI image of a patient’s head and overlap it with 3D PET image of the same patient’s head without understanding the z-plane, or how 3D graphics are rendered, how MRI/PET images are acquired. And the student doesn’t have to know what the results mean. It is for the research director to decide.

Many biological and medical laboratories are in need of data-visualization wizards. Although most instrument makers provide software for their own data, research always goes beyond in scope (such as a need to overlap with other manufacturers’ image data) or capability (such as a need to analyze a change over past six months instead of a single image). Thus, the labs need someone who can take, analyze, and visualize any data the way the researchers specify. As biological and medical instruments become evermore digital, and as ever more disparate data are associated together, the ability to read data and make associations becomes extremely valuable, even essential to research.

Since this analysis and visualization will play a vital role in the research, the wizard who serves up the graphics as specified has a chance to be recognized as a contributing member of the research, and thus the chance to appear as one of the authors.

Needless to say, this deep involvement at the heart of research and constant interaction with the researchers would make it impossible for the student to learn nothing or to take no personal interest in the research. In fact, it is common for students to formulate their own hypotheses about how the data should behave and make their own predictions. Such hypotheses might become the topic of the student’s own science-competition research. With data on hand, and already equipped with an intimate understanding of the topic, the student has only to analyze and visualize the data the way he or she hypothesizes to have a unique research topic.

This is how Intel and Siemens Science Competition winners are born. They do incredible levels of research—often at Master’s or Ph.D. level—because they didn’t have to start from ground zero.

What I described above is not the only niche-skill a high-school student can learn to contribute to scientific research as an intern. But I discuss this because this area is my field of expertise, and I’ve had great results preparing high-school students.

No matter what field or specialization students seek, they should know what skills are in demand and “masterable.” They must prepare only for ones at which they can excel. They cannot do this alone. A mentor in the field should guide the students’ preparation for six months to a year. But this extra work is what prepares a high-school student for obtaining and contributing to a research internship.


James H. Choi

Categories: Internship
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