• Nora Sun

Tags: Duke

Institution: Duke University

Study: Major in computer science, minor in biomedical or electrical engineering

High School Experience

I went to this high school called Canyon Crest Academy. It runs on a 4 by 4 schedule (which means we take 4 classes per semester and switch classes by the end of each semester, similar to colleges). This means the classes are all twice as fast since we have ½ the amount of time to cover all the content. The good thing about CCA was it allowed you to take overly ambitious STEM schedules (for example, it’s very common for sophomores to take ap calc ab fall then ap calc bc spring, and virtually everyone takes regular chem in the fall and ap chem in the spring). However, obviously not everyone can handle such rigorous schedules, which has given CCA the reputation for being a terrible school for mental health. Everyone is also an overachiever -- to put it simply (and I don’t imply any racism or anything lol) but it’s literally because there are so many overzealous asian kids trying to get into the best schools possible. Because of this, we have an incredibly toxic school atmosphere where everyone’s trying to outperform each other. It gets to the point where you can’t even ask people about where they’re going to college because that’s somehow “toxic”. After hearing this, you may wonder if there are a plethora of mental health issues at CCA, and the answer would be yes. We regularly had 2-3 suicides per year because people couldn’t keep up with their schedules or felt too pressured. In any case though, I did fine during my time there? Like I never felt super pressured, but I did spend a lot of time grinding out classwork. I liked the idea that we could all put our heads down and work, but there was n0 school spirit or sense of community. It’s literally just a competition for who can take more AP classes/outdo each other. I never really had a problem with that though. If if helps, I took ~18 AP classes by the end of senior year.

Course choices

I primarily worked at UCSD from my sophomore year summer and beyond in computational biology labs, so I applied to colleges for computational biology if they had it. If they didn’t I applied as Bio and CS. In terms of influencing my course work, I mean, I took almost every AP class that CCA offered, but I think I enjoyed my physics/chem/bio AP classes more. Our CS classes were complete trash (only AP CSA was somewhat legit) but I self studied colleges CS classes (such as Harvard CS50 and Berkeley CS61A and 61B).


AP chinese, AP chem, AP calc AB, AP calc BC, AP world history, AP computer science principles, AP computer science A, AP world history, AP statistics, AP physics 1, AP physics 2, AP physics c, AP psychology, AP english language and composition, AP english literature and composition, AP macroeconomics, AP US government. I got all 5’s on my exams, but I didn’t take the exams for econ, gov, and lit.


4.78 weighted, 3.96 unweighted

Standardized Testing

SAT: 1560

SAT Math 2: 800

SAT Chemistry: 800


I did a lot of ECs so I’m going to talk about the main ones so this answer isn’t 5 pages long. My main EC was debate. I held the Vice President position in my senior year and was captain of my section for 3 years. I also qualified to the Tournament of Champions (the highest and most prestigious debate tournament) 2 times in my junior and senior years, although I didn’t go this year because of COVID. I was also in a computer science club in high school, and we mainly competed in coding competitions. Never really had much success there, but I did get the secretary position in my senior year. My other main ECs were 2 jobs at UCSD. Both were in the biology department, and while I started out as an intern, I eventually registered with the university database and became an RA. My jobs were mainly working with proteins and writing algorithms to model disease growth/whatever was at interest. I also helped co-author a paper in my junior year. I know this is a gross oversimplification of my activities, but I think that pretty much sums it up.


I got letters of recommendation from my APUSH/Psych teacher and Calc bc teacher. Both knew me really well and liked me since I would regularly talk to them about random topics. I also got a letter of recommendation from my UCSD professor who I drafted a paper with. Overall I think they all really liked me so I got lucky in that aspect.


All you really need to know here is I had a family death that I talked a lot about in my essays, and I tied my research interests into it. I also talked about debate and how it made me a better person in my common app and some other essays.


I applied to early decision, so that might’ve been the thing that made me stand out? I know ED is generally better if you want to get in. Besides that though, I’ve never really thought about why I got in -- I guess I had good enough scores and qualifications.


Do your work on time, don’t miss any deadlines, do something you are interested in and isn’t purely for college apps. I mean, I did a lot of random ECs in 9-10th grade that I ultimately dropped because I had no interest in them. The sooner you get rid of those the better your application will be. Also, just be yourself. Like it sounds really corny and dumb, but I will say this: as an asian male applying to top tier universities, your chances are already stacked against you. The admissions officers won’t care if you’re just another person doing computer science because there’s already 30,000 people exactly like that. You need to tell them who you are in the short amount of space provided and delineate why you deserve to go instead of someone else.




I liked Duke when I visited, and I liked their CS and engineering programs. They are good but not as cut throat as UC Berkeley (which is where literally every single one of my friends is going). I liked that Duke allows undergrad engineers to participate in research right away, and the program is really good too, so I would be receiving a good education in addition to forming connections. Also, I think it’s a nice location to get away from CA and experience a different mentality. Berkeley is literally the same as CCA in terms of atmosphere, so all my peers are going to be well prepared for that. Fun fact, I actually did not withdraw my application to UC’s after I got in ED just to see which programs I would get into. I actually got into Berkeley EECS early with the regents finalist thing, which meant I totally could’ve (and probably would’ve) went there if I didn’t apply to Duke ED. in any case though, I’m really glad I chose Duke over Berkeley.


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