We met with Dr. David Nguyen to discuss dream colleges, passion, standardized test, and much more. Enjoy!
Dr. David H. Nguyen shares insights into the convergence of academic science studies and advising students on getting into their dream college. He talks the importance of social impact, transforming a passion into community service, and understanding why assessments aren’t going away but shifting from standardized tests to another form of analysis.
"It's a misconception that perfect GPA and perfect SAT score are the secret to the top 30 schools, that's a huge myth, that just makes you a serious candidate."” – Dr. David Nguyen
In his interview with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University, Dr. Nguyen also advises on the nature of a fulfilling college experience and why admission to an elite school is not the only path to success.
See Dr. Nguyen’s other articles:
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi. I’m Ted Macosko, and today we have, as our guest, David Nguyen, and he is coming to us with a lot of knowledge about getting into undergraduate universities, undergraduate institutions, he’s helped a number of people over the years do that, and we’re gonna ask him some important questions about getting into college.
But first, I wanna get to know you, David, so tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, where you went to college yourself, and what kinds of things you did in your academic career.
David Nguyen: Yeah, Thanks for having me first and foremost. I grew up in Los Angeles, or the suburbs of Los Angeles, and then I went to college at UC Berkeley. I stayed there for my PhD, and I started in cancer biology, now I’m a computational biologist, and so I write image analysis algorithms to diagnose diseases, and I’m currently developing a startup in that area.
Jed: Oh. Great.
David: But what has paid the bills along the way as I’ve chosen a rebellious career path of leaving the typical academic track has been college admissions consulting, and I’ve been doing that since 2015. And all my connections and experience in academia has proved to be very strategic and helpful to my students.
Jed: In 2015, what was your day job? Were you working in academics or what was your sort of regular job that you were leaving, in order to start undergraduate admissions advising?
David: Yeah. In 2015, I had... Let’s see. I had transitioned from my research postdoc and I was teaching, teaching position, so I was teaching and then one of the companies that I was teaching for, they thought that I’d be a great consultant. So they asked me to apply, I did, and then they trained me, and so it turns out my background and experience synergize very well with their training, and that’s how I got into college admissions consulting.
Jed: Okay. And now you’re transitioning out of college consulting, admissions consulting, into back more what you did as your research when you were a PhD student and postdoc. When was that transition?
David: Well, that transition was along the way in that, while I was doing college admission consulting, as a natural academic, I had curiosities, and so, there are certain questions, I spent thousands of hours looking at microscopes and tissue slides and cells, and there were recurring patterns that I kept seeing, but that the human eye cannot quantify. And that pathologists who are trained to do this, look at your tissue specimen in a microscope and grade and stage your tumor, they couldn’t measure it either. And so I thought there has to be a way to measure it computationally, and so I just started doodling and drawing, and next thing you know, geometric patterns started rising. And I realized that, there is a way to develop an algorithm to measure this kind of disorder that confuses the human eye.
Jed: Wow. That’s great. So that’s what your next startup is all about, is using those algorithms to help stage cancer, is that the main gist of it?
David: Actually, that’s probably a future one, but the one... Turns out that the image analysis algorithms I develop are applicable to many shapes and/or patterns, and in particular, neural science, the brain is very foldy. And there is a hot topic right now, how to diagnose diseases sooner through analyzed MRI brain scans, which are routine procedures for major neurological problems. And so I just started applying it to some neuroscience data and we found some very interesting things that we think, and our advisors think, have high commercial value, and so we are developing a company called BrainScanology to analyze your MRI.
Jed: That’s great. Wow. So you really have had a curious mind through all of this, through all your different careers, and the one, that career we wanna focus in on, is being an admissions counselor for students. So tell us a little bit about how that worked from the period of time, 2015 is what you said, till the recent past.
David: Yeah. And so there turns out every industry has best practices and thus there are consultants in that industry, college admissions being no different. And with enough data, a company can begin to quantify preferences, in different types of school, what the preferences are in terms of their students? Who gets accepted? Who gets wait-listed? Who gets rejected and for what reason? And so with those preferences, we’re able to strategically advise a student and to shape their profile in terms of what courses they should take. What standardized tests they should take. And what activities they should do to increase the chances of going to their dream school.
Jed: So when would you catch these students? Would they be in middle school or high school or...
David: Yeah. Typically, ideally, they should start in ninth grade...
David: Because it takes time to develop a profile that, say, the top 10 schools would really want, but of course, families come to us at various stages, the earliest ones would be probably sixth to seventh grade. But that’s probably the minority of our clients, ’cause at that point it’s kind of maybe too early for the student, but typically, I think ninth grade is a good time and most do come around ninth to 10th grade.
Jed: So what kinds of things would you advise these ninth graders to do? And if a ninth grader is watching this interview, what would you wanna tell them about the general strategies to take?
What should 9th graders do to prepare for college?
David: Yeah. The biggest thing is that different levels of schools expect different things. It’s a misconception that perfect GPA and perfect SAT score are the secret to the top 30 schools, that’s a huge myth, that just makes you a serious candidate for the top 30 schools. What they really care about is something called social impact, do you have potential to change society in some way, in other words, make them look good, okay after they let you in. And that doesn’t come from a GPA or a test score, it comes from what you do outside of class, that is your extracurricular, so focus on your extracurriculars, but don’t get Fs, obviously.
Jed: Interesting. And what kind of matchups did you see? Like, Stanford wants you to do these kinds of social impact things, and Harvard wants you to do these... Go ahead and rattle off, you said "Top 10", so I’m sure in your mind you have in your mind that you can rattle off 10 schools that you would put in probably the Top 10. What are those schools, so we know?
David: Typically, when you say "Top 10" in the industry we mean Top 10 as defined by US News and World Report, their national universities ranking. So that’s the...
Jed: That’s the gold standard, is what you use? You just look at that list and that’s pretty much the Top 10?
Jed: Okay. We know where that list... We can find that list. So if you were looking at one of those schools in the Top 10 are there different profiles that you can shoot for? If you really know you want to go to Stanford is there something different than a student who really wants to go to Harvard?
David: Other than personal preferences and personal connections, or family legacy, there is no difference. It’s the same profile that gets into these schools.
Jed: Okay. So that’s good to know, that there’s not separate profiles for the top schools. They all use essentially the same one. So dig a little deeper into what that looks like. You say extracurriculars. There’s a wide range of extracurriculars. Which ones are the most important?
David: In general the most important ones would be advanced training extracurriculars, like internships, and sometimes personal projects, maybe independently or under the guidance of a mentor. But typically, the most important ones are advanced training and personal projects, and typically these are two that would give you the social impact factor, either in terms of leadership or innovation. So social impact comes from one of two areas, leadership or innovation. You’ve got to create something or stand for something. That something can be a poetry book, it can be a novel, a series of articles. It could be a new invention of some sort. Obviously, there’s many different majors in these universities. But those would be the two most important ones, advanced training and personal projects.
Jed: That is really helpful. I’m sure you’ve gone over this with parents and students so many times it just rolls off your tongue, which is so nice. So a student who really enjoys something that they’re good at. They really like being in the orchestra at their school, playing the violin and being a part of that, and of course since they love it they eventually become a leader in that area. But there’s a million violinists out there that are trying to get into Harvard. So is there something you tell a student who’s in ninth grade who just loves orchestra to do a little differently? Like how would you coach that person?
David: Yeah. You’re right in that there are many violinists out there, and typically ways to distinguish yourself in that particular area would be of course win awards. Join more competitive orchestras, and win opportunities to perform at concert halls in major cities, or study under a well-known musician if you can. So things like that. And of course, you can also transform your passion for music into more community service type projects, you know benefit concerts, things like that. So those are the general ways of distinguishing yourself in your hobby that happens to be very popular.
Jed: Great. Wow. That is so helpful. Now earlier you mentioned that the standardized tests and GPA are not the magic bullet to get into the top schools. I 100% agree. And in today’s coronavirus era they’ve become maybe even less important. Can you speak to what you see is happening? I know you’ve moved on from this industry, but I’m sure you’re aware of what’s been going on. So tell us some words of wisdom about that.
David: Yeah. I think all the more, due to COVID-19, a lot of schools are waiving the SAT and ACT requirements, which I think is a good thing, because it’s a useful metric, but it’s an overrated metric that misguides how people prepare for college and beyond. But what’s gonna happen is that there’ll be other tests to replace the SAT, because this industry they get so many applicants that they just need objective ways to assess people. But as the testing requirement decreases in its influence on the admissions decisions all the more people will focus on GPA and extracurriculars even more.
Jed: Well that’s really good to know. You said a test could come and replace the SAT or ACT. Do you have any in mind that might do that? Would it be the AP tests, and looking at how many 5s the person gets, and on which tests, and which years they took them. What do you think’s gonna happen?
David: Yeah. Well, in terms of the AP test that’s to be known, how much actual weight they’ll get, because again they face the same problems as the SAT, in terms of physical space. How do you proctor an online test? And how do you make it fair such that people can access test locations in the midst of the COVID pandemic? That affects different counties in different ways. In terms of a new test, well the UC system has finally announced that it will phase out the SAT and create its own. So my hope is to influence that process in terms of what that test is going to be.
David: Because standardized tests are helpful, but I think the SAT tests you on things... A lot of students prepare for the SAT, but they prepare to be tested on things that they never really use for the rest of their lives, you know?
Jed: Yeah. That is true.
…how many major problems can you solve in 30 seconds each? The real world doesn't work that way, yet we judge people's ability, their creative ability in the arts and the sciences, on a standardized test that's so artificial, that's just not like reality.” – Dr. David Nguyen
David: As a scientist... And you would know this yourself, Jed, I mean, how many major problems can you solve in 30 seconds each? The real world doesn’t work that way, yet we judge people’s ability, their creative ability in the arts and the sciences, on a standardized test that’s so artificial, that’s just not like reality. You know what I’m saying?
David: So that’s the problem. But if we do need standardized tests, which have time limits, how do we change the content such that students will actually benefit in the long-term, in other areas of their life we’re preparing.
Jed: Well, it sounds like you have plans to help the UC system develop such a test. So what are some of your ideas? Do you have any good ways of developing a test, or making it?
David: Well, at this point I’m just at the phase of thinking of writing articles, and of course reaching out to admissions officers I know, and people in sort of UC Office of the President, UCOP. But I think content, things that have a practical, or are of a practical nature, especially in sort of the quantitative part of the test. Nutritional things, right? Personal finance, I think things like that. Micro-economics, and things that, you can test these mathematical concepts from Algebra One all the way to pre-calculus. You know on just practical real world scenarios...
Jed: Oh. That’s cool.
David: That would be useful to these students down the line where, no matter where they go for college. And so, and maybe some basic coding. I think data science and computer coding is a tool of the future. And I think everybody should have, a basic proficiency and understanding basic code functions, and that can be taught through standardized tests.
Jed: Oh. That sounds much better. So I hope that they allow you to help shape that test as the new tests roll out. Well, what else do you wanna say to people, maybe people who are still in the industry of counseling, career counseling and college admissions counseling. What did you learn? What did you enjoy about that career and what would you like to see change about it? You’ve obviously left it. So were there some problems with it that you would like to see change?
David: Yeah. I think a major change would be reducing the amount of stress we put on our students under, and that obviously, if people are gonna pay for a consulting service, they want to get the most out of it in terms of getting into the most competitive school possible. But what I find is that, that creates a tremendous amount of pressure on these high school students, a pressure that they begin believing that unless they go to, a famous university, they won’t amount to much, which is a complete lie. [chuckle]
Seek to be a student that will be successful no matter what school you go to.” – Dr. David Nguyen
David: The vast majority of the successful people I know, and when I define success, mainly as financial success, although there’s different types of success, they graduated from the schools that students... My students probably never heard of, but the key commonality was that they were... They took initiative and they always learned more than what they were taught, and they were leaders in various endeavors, and they had a network that could make phone calls for them and write letters for them, that was the key, that’s the key, and that’s how I set my students free from this pressure of your GPA, your SAT score. There are things that can make up for any of those blemishes. And I think just to de-emphasize, you know, the importance of going to a top university, ’cause not everybody will get into it, just physical space is limited, but to also teach these students that you can be successful anywhere you go, in fact, you should be... Seek to be a student that will be successful no matter what school you go to. I think that’s the right philosophy to have, and it’ll be healthier for the students, and I think healthier for society.
Jed: Yeah. I a hundred percent agree. Now, you were saying that you try to give your students something that will set them free from having blemishes in their standardized tests or GPA, and that something was a group of people who are willing to like write letters of recommendation for them, open doors for them. How did you give that to your students, where did that come from?
David: Yeah. Well, that comes from, of course, and I train them to... How to, you know, put their resume together, write cover letters, and just reach out to various people and whether, it could be just part-time job it could be internship in industry, it could be internship in academia, but to just build that relationship, and then once you... And build that relationship by doing good work and being committed, and so that is what gains you that... The letter to be part of the club, so to speak. If somebody... If you can get an established professional to put their reputation behind yours, that can make up for any blemishes in your GPA or your test scores.
Jed: Okay. So you take a group of students who seek out this counseling, this college admission counseling, so they are a different group of people, they are motivated, their parents are motivated, and they themselves are motivated and their motivation, sometimes is misdirected towards, "I gotta get this score, I gotta get this GPA." And you, you set them free by redirecting that motivation to being a good intern in a lab where they can get a letter from that professor or work a job where they can get a letter from... So that’s how you do it. That was your secret. And why did you leave? I mean, that seems like a really fulfilling career. To give freedom to those motivated students and their parents.
David: Yeah. I left just to give me more flexibility to develop the technology, companies that I’m working on, to do my research, and now I’m teaching sort of on more, back to the teaching side, teaching data science and research skills, instead of college prep consulting, I teach a core skill, like an advanced training skill that will be highly advantageous to getting into college, but also just to develop your passion for the rest of your career.
Jed: Yeah. Okay. Well, great. It has been a pleasure interviewing with you, David. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule of all the things you’ve got going on, and I think this will be a very valuable little interview for people to watch and understand the freedom that they can have if they just apply themselves in the right way to the right thing that really matters most. So thank you.
David: Well, thanks for having me Jed, it’s great being here.
Want to be an Academic Influence Insider?
Sign up to get the latest news, information, and rankings in our upcoming newsletter.Join!
Stay informed! Get the latest Academic Influence news, information, and rankings with our upcoming newsletter.