How I Got Into University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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Memories of applying to college find themselves in a front row repository; skipping tennis practice for 3rd draft revisions, procrastinating those edits, and long nights’ brightness letting me know that I’ve been working too long on my personal statement. Trailing the success of these applications, I accepted and moved into my dorm, bringing everything except a toothbrush. Luckily, my sister, a senior at The University of Illinois, drove to Walgreens to save the day. Even better, the toothbrush was orange and blue. I-L-L!

 

Sharing these stories is important to out myself as someone (just like everyone else) that knew absolutely nothing about being a college student on day 1. And day 2. I’m around day 1,300 now — I hope that I can share some of those learnings below.

 

Application Context

 

The reason that my applications were so successful, other than lots of quiet time in front of a screen, was after school meetings with my AP English 11 Teacher (shoutout to Ms. Selders). Along with her, I had my parents, my sister, and older friends read over it before the submission. I was extremely privileged to have so many college educated adults to proofread my essay. I felt confident about my chances of getting into The University of Illinois (UIUC) so I did the regular application, meaning that I cannot speak to the early application process.

 

Unfortunately, UIUC was not on the Common App so I applied separately. I would recommend working on your application as early as you can! Although I’m sure you’ve heard this 1,000 times, I’m here to tell you again. The great value is getting the opinion of your teachers before your peers inundate them with similar requests. Don’t you feel like everyone is a little happier in the beginning of the semester? A little brighter? A little bubblier? Teachers are more likely to stay longer to help you if they don’t have two reams of midterms to grade at home. Also, this allows you to relax over the winter break!

 

Demographics

 

For your reference, I am a third generation white guy U.S. Citizen applying to an in-state university. Although I am not very knowledgeable about financial aid, the University just started a scholarship which gives full rides to students whose families make under $67,100. Our newest chancellor, the big guy in charge of campus, is making a great effort to increase student diversity. 

 

The only major I applied to was the Urban Planning program at UIUC because it was a Top 3 program but my second choice was undeclared. Although there is nothing wrong with being undeclared, I’m happy that I’m still in Urban Planning four years later. 

 

Academics 

 

Even if you don’t come from the most well funded school in your state, you can still get into good programs. I’m living proof! I thought that I was a big shot coming in with 11 AP credits, but when I met my roommate — Chicago resident, city proper — he already had 30… 

 

This was extremely dissuading at first! Was I going to be left behind? Would my new friends think less of me? Would I be the dumbest kid at the lunch table? Okay, yes, I have generalized anxiety. 

 

None of these came true! Although it is easy to assign your value to how well you do in high school, everyone around you also got in so you’re just as good as them. That being said, I’ll list my stats below:

 

GPA: My rural school, ranked 147th in Illinois, had a 4.0 system. I have always pushed myself to be at the top of the class. I was two spots away from that at the end of high school with a unweighted GPA of 4.047. This was because I had accumulated so much extra credit my freshman year of high school that it carried me through until my senior year for my cumulative. This is very unrealistic. I found great value in choosing when to try hard and knowing when to take a night off. I still struggle with this balance. I wanted to have a GPA above UIUC’s average acceptance GPA which is 3.79.

 

AP Classes: Although my school was pretty small, it was able to offer a few AP courses and I took all of them (except for AP Chem…no thanks). 

 

Freshman Year

  • None

 

Sophomore Year

  • None

 

Junior Year

  • AP Language and Composition

 

Senior Year

  • AP Calculus AB
  • AP Literature and Composition
  • AP Spanish
  • AP Psych

 

Yes, a busy senior year! I took these for reasons twofold: I wanted to show off and I wanted to learn; only one of these is valid. The high school zeitgeist centers on lack of sleep and AP credits, college doesn’t. Make sure that when you sign up for classes, you have the bandwidth to do well in each of them. There is no shame in doing what is best for you.

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Standardized Testing

 

The best piece of advice I can offer for this section is “When in doubt, C it out.” You’re more likely to get a right answer if you guess the same letter each time! Standardized tests often make students feel inadequate, anxious, and insecure. I was able to navigate the tests pretty well because I had so much support for test taking. 

 

I took a test prep class at my local university and received a test prep book which I worked through over the course of the semester. I would try to take one test a week up until the week before where I did as many as were left in the book. I also had vocabulary flash cards and took online tests. This afforded me a score of 32 with a 35 on writing. I was in a good situation because the middle 50% SAT score for UIUC is 1290-1490 and the ACT is 28-34. My super score bumped me up to a 34, but this was after 3 other attempts!

 

The reasons I feel I was so successful is because I was in pre-calculus and AP Language at the time. These are prevalent topics on the test! Because I live in the midwest, I never took anything SAT related. 

 

Extracurriculars and Awards

 

The University of Illinois uses a holistic application. This means that in addition to GPA and ACT they value extracurriculars, volunteer hours, and employment. I was really proud of my GPA but it didn’t need to be this high to get into college. I was awarded scholarships for my GPA but I believe that the main reason I got in was my wide involvement.

 

Below is exactly what I had listed on my high school senior resume. These are not perfect but they were perfect enough to get into college. You can always improve your resume but know when to stop and be happy with your work! I organized my extracurriculars into different categories so that I could talk about more things that I did. This made it much easier to fit in more of my activities.

 

Music

 

Lead Snare, Section Leader (9-12 grade)

  • Top Scores at Districts and S&E All Years, Lead Snare of 100 member band, Section Leader of Percussion, Charles Schumann Award Winner 

 

Bass Section Leader of all applicable Choirs (9-12 grade)

  • Section Leader of Men’s Ensemble, Concert Choir, Mixed Chorus, and Madrigals. I was given the Outstanding Musician Award and I was the choir secretary. 

 

Employment

 

Facilitator at Team Building and High-Ropes Course  (11-12 grade)

  • I led groups through mental and physical challenges and a high ropes course in order to help them grow individually and as a group. 

 

School Leadership

 

Leader of Braveheart Day and Lumberjack Day (9-12 grade)

  • I planned these spirit day events for 30 boys including scheduling, preparing materials, organizing travel and meals, decorating, and giving speeches. 

 

Event Organizer of Macomb Thespian Troop (9-12 grade)

  • I organized, directed, and acted for our Thespian group at our high school. I helped to plan play dates, community service projects, and rehearsals. 

 

Athletics

 

Macomb High Tennis (9-12 grade)

  • I improved my tennis skills in competition with regional schools and made the varsity team. 

 

Essays

 

Turns out, I really like words. What’s even better than that is showing the college admissions officers all the cool words that you know. I remember always trying to find the best words and perfect turns of phrase to illustrate my emotions. I hadn’t had huge trials, tribulations, or life-changing traumas that informed my current personality, so I wrote about becoming myself. 

 

I talked about all my failures, every time I fell, and every time someone picked me back up. And I thanked them in text! My thesis sang a fawning melody of those who had helped me succeed and harmonized with how music was an instrumental part of my life. I closed with telling the university that I will end up making a lot of failures once I enrolled there but to be sure to learn from each one. 

 

The prompt I responded to asked me to speak about my greatest accomplishment in life thus far. How stressful! Then I realized that I decide the metrics of what’s cool and what’s great and what’s the greatest. 

 

The thing that I was the most proud of in this application was the literary allusions I was able to make. Making a reference to a greek god, a great book you’ve read, anything that will make you sound smart will serve you well (though make sure to only reference what comes naturally to you). 

 

UIUC typically asks for essays about your major: why you like it, how it relates to your future, what you plan to do with it. Below an excerpt from my application to UIUC. Although it can be hard to figure out what to write about, I can offer my final two paragraphs for support. 

 

“…It first started with a 100 hour volunteerism scholarship I was interested in, and it ended with me being a part of the circus. Well, it ended with me volunteering to play drum rolls at the YMCA circus camp, to be precise, but it really taught me  how to engage little kids and make them feel safe. After 100 hours, I was fairly well-versed in this whole social capital building endeavor. Following this experience, I got a job at a team-building course at Western Illinois University to further refine my skills. My contribution in clubs, employment, sports, and mentoring programs is helping foster community. 

 

The University of Illinois’s Urban and Regional Planning program will help me further my love of community development and humanitarianism. I, too, value “community empowerment through community engagement.” Learning about the underlying principles of community involvement at an accelerated pace is one of the reasons I’m most interested in University of Illinois. This department’s mission statement aligns exactly with my future plans: “making communities a better place to live.”  

 

The above story that I told was not very deep. It was jocular and this works well because I’m a jocular guy. This isn’t to say that because I told a funny story that I am incapable of being serious; rather, that a more genuine representation of myself is jovial. I stippled doses of seriousness into my writing when it was appropriate. The quoted “community empowerment…” is a direct line from the department’s website. Do your research and find out what they want to hear.

 

After getting this far in my post, you’ve probably realized that I like varying sentence length, using series of three elements, and throwing in a joke or two. If you’re someone who is comfortable being funny, lean into it! I like writing in series of three because I think it makes your writing sound more like poetry. It’s convenient, colorful, and succinct. 

 

Most importantly, write something that makes you feel like your thoughts are shining through! You should build yourself up to seem impressive, but if you build your wall of achievements too high, reviewers may not be able to see the real you behind it. Be your favorite version of you.

 

See our UIUC essay guide to get more essay writing tips.

 

Letters of Recommendation and Interview

 

UIUC doesn’t accept letters of recommendation and doesn’t conduct any interviews as part of the admissions process.

 

Final Tips

 

The students at UIUC are passionate. They’re smart and willing to learn. These are traits that any high school student can demonstrate. Show your passion, talk about what you like doing, and show the things that make you motivated. UIUC is a world class institution that has much to offer — show how your admittance will make them more valuable!

 

What Are Your Chances of Acceptance at UIUC?

 

UIUC has a 59% acceptance rate. While they practice holistic admissions, having strong grades and test scores is the first step to improving your chances. This is because many selective schools may automatically reject students who don’t appear to be academically prepared (unless they have extenuating circumstances). 

 

To better understand your chances at getting in, use our free admissions calculator. This lets you both know your chances at hundreds of schools and gives you tips to improve your application profile.

 

Getting into your dream school can be challenging — make sure to use our free admissions platform as much as you can to strengthen your profile! It can help with everything you need: finding a best-fit school, editing your essays, and getting your questions answered by admissions experts.

 

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Ally Merrett
Design Researcher at Siebel Center for Design at Illinois
Short bio
Ally Merrett is a senior at the University of Illinois double majoring in Urban Planning and Sustainable Design, triple minoring in Sociology, Art & Design, and Informatics, and pursuing a certificate in Technology Entrepreneurship. When he's not studying, he can be found playing music, skateboarding, or eating an egg sandwich. Maybe all at the same time!