Posted on Thu 01 June 2017

How I Went To College

Posing in Boston

Some my friends know that I went to college 3 years later than my peers. Naturally a lot of people found it unusual or even interesting. I told different parts of this story to different friends and thought that now, as I finished two years in college, it is a good time to share how it happened.


After graduating high school back in Kazakhstan in 2012, my family was lucky to move to United States. The times were rough at first, but thanks to numerous friends and lucky events, I landed a job that paid the bills.

Fast forward a couple of years, and my family got settled pretty well in San Francisco. I switched jobs multiple times and have taken one opportunity after another to grow personally and professionally. But it happened that in this whirl of events, the timing to consider applying to colleges never felt quiet right.

I kept learning at the job, from highly educated coworkers, taking their recommendations on what books to read and what MIT course to watch on Open CourseWare. After all, I was constantly surrounded almost exclusively by MIT graduates.

While the older coworkers gave me insights into their experience and education, the younger ones became my friends and introduced me to their social circles. Not going to lie, after observing for a little, I quickly realized how much I missed out on.

I didn't have a lot of friends of my age. Since I moved to a new country after high school, everybody I knew in Bay Area was either my coworker, or a random person I met at a meetup, conference or in a gym. And as much as I enjoyed the various degrees of friendships there, it was apparent how different it is for somebody who graduated a good college and moved to SF with hundreds of people they have known for a couple years of classes.

Grand Expectations

I decided that I should try this college thing myself. Despite Silicon Valley's fascination with college drop-outs, I always knew that I have few similarities to youngsters in tech covered by TechCrunch and Business Insider.

"You already have a good job/started a great company, why do you need a college?" - a common way to say something approving and friendly after you meet a college dropout in SF. People are very careful not to pass any negative judgment. This can feel comforting but I decided to take my faith into my hands.

After an evening session in front of a blank piece of paper, I tried to analyze what I hoped to get out of my next couple of years. My priorities included an active social life, great friendships, and a challenging environment to help me grow. And, I didn't want to dig a hole of debt acquiring student loans.

At the time, I was very comfortable where I were. Despite all the enthusiasm, college applications wear you out fast: preparation for dumb entrance exams, writing essays, collecting paperwork. Taking SAT at a local high school with hundreds of sassy high school juniors wearing hoodies of their dream colleges felt humiliating and desperate.

My energy was only enough for two applications. I decided that it's best to focus my efforts and resources on a couple of good applications, rather than a dozen of mediocre ones. After all, I was in an excellent position even in case of rejection. I decided to apply to Stanford and MIT.

Having no counselors to help me with the applications, I had to improvise. I am endlessly thankful to all the friends who looked at my essays and gave valuable feedback. As well as my manager, who supported my decision to leave for college and wrote me a recommendation letter. I was extremely happy to get all the support I received.

It Happened

The following spring the admissions decisions came out. Stanford wait-listed me and later rejected, that didn't feel all that terrible. All my bets were on MIT, the school of my friends, coworkers and managers. The culture of ambition and creativity I gauged over the past years.

The night before the decision day (March 14, the Pi-day) I couldn't sleep. There was no fear of not getting in, going to a prestigious college was not on my mind until the last 6 month. Nevertheless, the excitement of a grand change couldn't be sustained.

It happened! I got in! I woke up my mother in 6am to tell her how happy I was.

I no longer felt like an impostor. I received the ultimate validation by the Western World, awarded based on my 250-words essays about my immigration and love to rock climbing. It felt good to know I will have my chance to experience the great place MIT is.

Two Years Into College

As of the time of writing this, I finished my sophomore year. Many things happened and a lot of them turned out very different from what I expected. I got everything I wanted so badly: tried new sports and hobbies, found life-long friends, rediscovered myself and my passions. The highest quality education goes without saying (although some people still doubt you can learn something useful in college?).

I am half way through my undergraduate time but it was already worth the change a hundred times. Happy to go through this journey and grateful to everyone who helped me along the way.

Taking my time at MIT as an opportunity to develop and grow, I am looking forward what future has to bring!

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