March 28 was a big day for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology senior Kevin Cao.
“GOD IS SO GREAT! PRINCETON 2017!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
“OH MY GOODNESS I CAN’T BREATHE HARVARD 2017!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” were among the Facebook status updates posted by Cao that day.
Harboring dreams of attending prestigious Harvard University since he was seven years old, and with all those exclamation points to prove his excitement, friends and family were more than a little surprised about Cao’s decision to turn the school’s admissions offer down.
In an effort to explain his decision to friends, teachers and family, Cao wrote an essay, “Why I Chose UVA,” and posted it on social media and Google Documents. The essay has received hundreds of reads, shares and applauds by those also looking to answer the tough college question.
“My first reaction to when I heard that Kevin chose UVA over all the other schools he got into was pretty much disbelief. Then probably jealousy…,” Thomas Jefferson junior Somya Shankar, 17, said. “However, after reading Kevin’s essay, I’m so glad that he decided to go to UVA, not only because he’ll be close and able to visit all the time, but also because he stayed true to himself.”
Shankar, who will be applying to college next fall, said she forwarded the essay to her parents and middle school-aged brother as a discussion starter.
Cao prefaces his essay with a disclaimer, saying his views were about making the decision that was right for him.
“Most of you must think I’m crazy for turning down Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. to go to UVA, but read this letter I wrote explaining my choice and remember: It’s not about where you go, it’s about what you do while you’re there… And how happy you are!”
Cao explained that after he received his dream school ticket, “I was really tempted to accept right away.”
Something changed for Cao when he began asking himself the questions guidance counselors everywhere are probably hoping all students will ask before making their college selection.
“Where will I be happiest? Where do I feel at home? Where will I regret most not going? Where will I grow the most as a person? What school will offer the best undergrad experience?” were among the questions answered by Cao and resulting in selecting the University of Virginia over Harvard.
Cao was also accepted at Stanford University, the College of William and Mary, Williams College, Brown University and Rice University.
“I was looking for schools that provided a challenging academic program that also provides a social scene,” he said. “I was looking for a balance… It’s better to look at everything in the scope of how happy you’ll be over the next four years.”
In the lead up to his big college decision, Cao visited several of the schools he was accepted to and attended recruiting events.
“At the Harvard Admitted Students event for the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, the first thing that struck me was how affluent and — for lack of a better word — somewhat pretentious the students and alumni were,” said Cao, a Fairfax resident who boasts more than 1,200 friends on Facebook and is viewed as a class favorite by peers and teachers alike. The teen also helped found a nonprofit that pairs needy elementary school students with high school peers for tutoring.
“[S]everal alumni who came back to talk to us were asked the question of why they chose Harvard. Most deflected the question with the standard ‘because it’s Harvard,’ which I personally do not think is a valid response. There’s more to a school than its name.”
So, Cao decided to widen his gaze and thoroughly consider all his options.
He was invited to UVA to visit as a finalist in the Jefferson Scholars program. This year, UVA selected 31 students to become scholars out of the more than 3,500 who were nominated by their high schools. Jefferson Scholars receive extensive enrichment programs, their tuition is paid for and they are given priority in enrolling in classes.
“Walking onto the UVA campus during the Jefferson Scholars weekend with a couple Ivy League acceptances under my belt, I was pompous as ever. ‘Half my school ends up here,’ I thought. ‘No way am I going to UVA, scholarship or not,”’ he wrote. “The next four days I spent in Charlottesville made me reconsider…[I] really felt like I was truly wanted and welcomed…
“[A]s a high schooler ensnared in the hype of college decisions, it’s easy to get caught up in the name of a school… after the excitement of senior year, you will be spending the next four years at that school, for better or worse. And while it’s nice to tell family, friends and strangers you meet in public that you go to Harvard, all that ‘prestige’ fades as soon as you step foot on campus.”
Cao’s advice is resonating with other students in the same boat.
“Kevin’s essay was a refreshing reminder for high school students … who are increasingly disillusioned with the whole application process that college is not only about studying well, but also about living well,” Annandale High School senior Noah Fitzgerel, 18, said. “[The] name brand should never trump potential nor any other consideration.”
South Lakes senior Amanda Halacy, 18, said going through the process of choosing a school changes your outlook on where you should be.
“If you would have asked me my opinion of his essay a year ago today, I would have vehemently disagreed with his opinions,” she said. “However, after going through the same process, my priorities and realities regarding the next four years have changed significantly… I honestly had tears in my eyes as I read Kevin’s essay… Although my other college choices [like Vanderbilt, University of Connecticut, Duke University, Georgetown and Northeastern] weren’t Ivy League schools, I occasionally questioned why I was turning down such prestigious schools and large scholarships to stay in state. Reading Kevin’s essay reaffirmed why I had made my choice in the first place.”
Thomas Jefferson High School Principal Evan Glazer, said Cao’s essay and decision are true to his character.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he would be strong in his convictions,” Glazer said. “It’s not about where you get into but how you can use your own talents and interests… For some students it happens at Harvard and in some cases it happens at UVA. That’s exactly how we want our students to choose a school.”