March 5, 2024

From Kazakhstan to Brown University with a full-ride: Application Journey of an International Student


Aida from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Campus Image of Brown University
From Kazakhstan to Brown University with a full-ride: Application Journey of an International Student

My name is Aida, I am 17 years old. I am from the city of Pavlodar, Kazakhstan. I have been studying at Nazarbayev Intellectual School (NIS) for the last five years and I am finishing 12th grade this year. I can't say that I always wanted to study abroad: in my case it happened organically. I participated in various science project competitions and robotics competitions, and it very naturally led to me applying to study abroad in September 2023. My SAT is 730+800 (1530), my IELTS is 8.0, and my GPA is 4.9/5.

Preparing for Study Abroad

It all started with SAT prep in the winter of 2023; I was in 11th grade at the time. I had a pretty unconventional application. Up until 8th grade I was doing Math Olympiads, but upon entering NIS I discovered an interest in robotics. This later spilled over into science projects in computer science, robotics, and programming. After being in IT for four years, however, I decided that this wasn't really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I chose a concentration in chemistry and biology for deep learning in school: I wanted to study Neuroscience.  My interest in this field was fueled by open lectures by US and Canada universities on Youtube. However, there are no such undergraduate majors in Kazakhstan, so applying to US marked a zero-sum game. I had to either go abroad or stay in Kazakhstan, study Computer Science, and then retrain as a bioinformatician.

My friends and I were preparing for the SAT, then I was busy writing a lots of essays, describing and arranging activities. What surprises me is that I was able to successfully get in without additional admission agencies.

Extracurricular Activities

As expected, I filled out all 10 activity fields. The most important ones were:

- Robotics. I represented Kazakhstan at the World Open Olympiad in Germany 2022 with the project Rehabis (a system for stroke rehabilitation), which was developed over a year, tested in the Regional Cardiology Center; obtained a copyright. The reason why this activity is the first is because of the number of technologies that were involved: Tensorflow, Flutter, YoloV4, Arduino, C#. Additionally, the project itself was a culmination of all my technical knowledge gained over the years.

- Research work. When I switched to studying biology at my school, I wanted to do something in addition: just studying the subject wasn't enough for me. To my luck, NIS has a compulsory course for 11th grade: Global Perspectives & Project Work. As part of this course, I had to do social science research, but I wanted to relate it to my area of interest and asked my teachers to give me permission to do something else. I used the time and opportunity to study something I had never understood before - childhood autism. This work has meant a lot to me. For example, I learned at what age the signs of autism appear: it turned out to be 18 months. I asked questions and sought to answer them. How early can specialist spot the signs? At what time should we take steps to integrate autistic people into society? It's important that they don't become institutionalized or get ostracized from society in dispensaries/specialized centers, which unfortunately is often the case. But people with autism can successfully integrate into society. For this work, I interviewed 16 families and consulted with an occupational therapist and a neurologist. The research was simple in its methodology: the usual interview, literature review, and small statistics. A simple enough level, but, again, this work was of great importance to me. Despite the fact that I spent 4 years in IT before this, I proved to myself that I could study something I was really interested in.

- The second research paper was a systematic analysis of the relationship between migraines and circadian rhythms. While I was applying, the research was still in process, so in order of standing - 8th. 

I applied to the Lumier Research Scholars program, founded by students at Oxford and Harvard. High school students can write research papers with PhD students from top universities. I interviewed and was connected with a PhD from UPenn. I was fortunate enough to receive full financial support, without it it would have cost several thousand dollars to participate in the program.

Though I didn't personally deal with it, at the time I had an obsession with migraines. As I read from Oliver Sacks' book “Migraine” and listened to many lectures and podcasts, I was struck by the fact that migraines have existed throughout human history, but we still don't know where it comes from or why it happens. It's not necessarily about headaches. There are migraines of the abdomen, migraines of the eye. Migraines are 2 times more common in women than in men, which is the reason why research in this area hasn’t been progressing until very recently. There are also notes indicating that people with migraines suffer from aura: before an attack, they see some kind of visual hallucinations. This is said to have been used by shamans in various religions, interpreting it as signs from above. I wrote 56-paged article on that. We still don't know why they occur in the first place, the closest guess is a disruption in circadian rhythms and that what my paper was all about.

I had an outlet: I finally had a normal occupation besides applying to universities.

With my mentor - Ms. Ubry - we developed a cool chemistry. We're still in touch with her, and she wrote me a letter of recommendation for Brown.

- Neural Network Project. A pandemic happened in 9th grade. During the lockdown, I got curious about how AI could be used in recognizing visual information. So I started a small project related to recognizing lung diseases. By uploading a photo of an X-ray to my website, it was possible to get a presumptive diagnosis based on five lung diseases based on Unsupervised Learning. After training on 5,000+ unlabeled X-rays it identified patternsung congestion and thickening in the images.

- Mobile App Development. In 7th grade, there was a club fair in my school. That's where I signed up for robotics. Despite the fact that initially 40 people has joined the club, only 5 remained by the end of the term. In the summer we managed to get to the National stage of the World Robot Olympiad, but we got the 4th place and lost. Next thing I know - quarantine and I am not able to do much. I wanted to start something new, and it was that moment when my teacher suggested that I look up tutorial on mobile development. I tried React Native, but I didn't really like it. I came across Flutter, which was relatively new in 2019. It, in turn, surprised me a lot: I started making my first apps. In 2022, my classmate and I made an app called Flaw Track, where the user could pin the problems they have witnessed on a shared map. If you are walking along the road, and you encounter something, you can pin it, and volunteers can monitor it and remove the virtual pins if they are corrected. This was a project within the framework of scientific work, presented at the national competition of scientific projects in Kazakhstan, in which I took silver medal for the second time in ICT section.

- Work in educational organizations. I worked first in non-profit StemSisters, where I developed a website, and in BeyondCurriculum, where I wrote articles about scientific projects. Both of these organisations are dedicated to expanding the definition of secondary education and make it accessible.This was my community service. 

I also listed photography and videography as hobbies to diversify my applicant profile. My friends and I used to shoot some videos every year since I love videediting.

Advice on describing Extracurriculars

I help other applicants now, so I noticed that one of the most popular mistakes is not properly describing Positions. This section is a huge opportunity to present everything you've done in a project. Developer, Founder, Researcher - these words are not descriptive and broad: it will be hard to understand what exactly you mean. We assume that the person reading the application already knows a lot, but in reality, especially if you are an international applicant, everything is highly contextual and depends on the culture of the language, among other things. 

For example, Olympiads in the USA are not as common as in the CIS countries. Hence, when talking about the Olympiads, I have to describe the preparation process as well as the sections I have studied. The superpower of an Olympiad student is the ability to learn and deep dive. 

One can and should describe everything properly. Yes, it can be difficult for STEM people to articulate what they did. To do so, you need to recall the activities in detail and paint each duty in specifics. 

Did you do some volunteer work? That's great, but it's not entirely obvious exactly what moments you were engaged in. Today we no longer divide professions into clear roles, as it was 50 years ago: "I am an engineer", "I am a cook". Now the boundaries of responsibilities and skills are fuzzy and defined by each person independently. Position and Description can show growth if, for example, you were a manager and then became someone's supervisor. If you started out as an intern and then became a full member of the team, this ability to grow and improve can become an essential part of the team.

In the name of the organization, be sure to write the name of the project, even if it is something unknown or something you did yourself. If it is research, write the name of the research. Don't miss the opportunity to maximize the topic.

When describing activities, use each character as wisely as possible. Write common abbreviations (characters -> chr., and -> &), avoid pronouns and start the description with a verb. Some advise to use verbs in Present Simple, but I think in this case it is harder to comprehend the text, I suggest using Past Simple. What can be counted - count it; give numbers. Research paper? Count the words. IT project? Specify the technologies used. Olympics? Indicate the sections you have studied, taught. 

For example, "I taught 15 students biology." You can't teach biology in six months: it's too broad. Be specific and reasonable. It is like writing about your leadership as just "researcher", while you can reveal it in a more favorable way by describing yourself as "statistician", "interviewer".

How to add summer programs
How to add summer programs

Honors and Awards

In terms of awards, I had a privilege: I had something to write about.

  1. World Robot Olympiad Finalist, Future Innovators Category, 360+ Teams, 73 Nations in Germany

    1. Grade 10-11

    2. Levels of recognition: school, regional, national, international

  2. Gold, Youth International Science Fair, Open Category (300 teams, 21 nations) — Indonesia

    1. Grade 10

    2. Levels of recognition: international

  3. 1st place at KazNAS Conference(4 countries, 100+ part.),Technology Section, 4-year InEU scholarship

    1. Grade 9

    2. Levels of recognition: national, international

  4. Two times Silver Medalist, "Daryn" National Science Fair Competition in ICT section, ranked 4th/450

    1. Grade 9,10

    2. Levels of recognition: school, regional, national

  5. 1st in Math, Vernadsky's Youth Readings, "Best Report" Nominee(2000 applicants, 8 nations) — Moscow

    1. Grade 9

    2. International

It's worth noting that this was written deliberately, and every word was carefully chosen because the goal was to provide the maximum amount of information about what each award represents and the level of selection.

The order is also important, as in activities, the most significant is at the beginning.

Moreover, there should be awards from every grade so that the committee understands that you participated in competitions not only for the sake of admission in the last year of study, but that it was a part of your life.

Additional Information

In the Additional Information section, I explained the World Robot Olympiad competition and Rehabis, the project we presented there. 150 characters is not enough to encompass what I was doing, so I elaborated more: how we created the project, what it solved, who we collaborated with, what technologies we used, how many patients participated in the testing stages, how we used voice activated software.

I also listed additional awards:

  • Technovation (¼ finalist),

  • 1st place at "Nauryz Meetings" Biomedicine Science Fair 2023:

  • Various hackathons: their titles, my role, how much money was won;

  • 2nd Place in European Science Projects Competition "The Big Progress", ICT Section

I described the projects that were not mentioned anywhere, namely:

  • A mobile application with augmented reality that recognizes road signs and helps to teach them in a game format;

  • Swapper- platform developed on Flutter for sharing material goods and preventing overproduction.

Also talked about additional activities: participating in math battles, creating two school clubs (English Speaking Club “Outloud!”, Project Hub - School Club for Creating Science Programs). 

In addition I mentioned a passion for graphic design, and my media presence, attaching links to articles, and my work. 

I also did a "Current Pursuits" section where I mentioned that I was select to national stage of the Presidential Olympiad in Kazakhstan for high school seniors.  It was held in 4 subjects: chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics.

Why Brown

Choosing a university for Early Decision was a pretty difficult part of my application. I needed a full financial package, which narrowed the list of universities down to ~100. I tried to organize the list by criteria, organizing my work through tables in Notion. The deciding factors for me were:

  • How strong are the Neuroscience programs? It turned out that Harvard and Brown were the best.

  • Open Curriculum. I really want to study Computer Science and Economics as well, so this was a good fit for my needs.

  • East Coast location. I wanted to be closer to Boston and New York City. Brown is located in Providence, Rhode Island, a 2 hour drive from those cities.

Brown University Campus
Brown University Campus

Letters of Recommendation

It is required to attach two letters of recommendation and can also accept 4 additional. I have uploaded letters of recommendation from:

  • Principal;

  • Computer Science teacher,

  • Biology teacher;

  • English teacher;

  • a PhD mentor from UPenn (Lumiere).

I approached this strategically. I didn't want my recommenders to talk about the same things or be without a story. They had to bring out different parts of me as an applicant. I made the transition between majors, which was an unusual. It could be perceived as impermanence, or it could be perceived as: "She wasn't afraid!". I wanted to play on that. When the computer science teacher talked about how we worked, she mentioned the ability to work long term and the ability to program in different languages; the biology teacher talked about how I adapted to the class specifically in terms of learning biology - how I was challenged and how I made up for difficult material. The English teacher, on the other hand, was asked to write how I often missed classes because of extracurricular activities, but how despite that she enjoyed my presence in her class: she gave a more personal review, mentioning my love of videorecording.

I also asked to write a letter of recommendation for a PhD mentor from UPenn. I don't know what she wrote about: I didn't give her a brag sheet. I can only think it was something good, she was surprised by my knowledge of migraines and neurobiology, especially when she found out that there is no such specialty in Kazakhstan.

Thus, everything needs to be planned strategically: things should harmonize, not contradict each other. Activities, rewards, essays - everything is linked to complement each other and to reaffirm each other again and again.

Video Introduction

Brown doesn't have an interview, you have to upload a 2 minute video instead. However, I didn't shoot anything sppecifcally for that: I just dug up videos  from the past. Fortunately, I film something almost every day. The central theme of my video was hats. I really love hats, and they became a figure of narrative in the video. Different hats throughout the day pointed to different environments and parts of me; as the locations changed, the hats changed; they also pointed to jobs and projects... I live in Pavlodar, but my parents are in Astana: I'm often on the road. And the hats played an abstract role, making the video artistic, creative and imaginative.

English Learning

I didn't have any tutors. My English wasn't very good until 9th grade. But during quarantine, I started watching YouTube videos. I didn't have TV channels as a kid, but I did have YouTube, to which I developed a very personal appreciation. So during quarantine, I decided to try watching videos and shows in English. It was difficult. But the content was interesting - facts, lectures. I kept watching, even though I didn't understand most of what was being said. It turned out to be a transformative experience.

I had a B2. Breaking through that ceiling is difficult. The most effective way is comprehensive input - immersion through content: I discovered this accidentally, by experience. However there is a whole field actually researching that - cognitive lingustistcs. I read couple of articles that described exactly what I went through. In this way you can learn a language like a child. We think it's expensive to immerse yourself in a language environment, but it can actually be done online: through interesting content. Of course, you don't have to watch something plainly. It is necessary to write down every word, actively recall it. I downloaded the Chrome Extension "VimBox" and highlighted and translated the words. TV series are quite effective in this regard, as the vocabulary in them is limited, used in every episode, so it is learned more reliably. Podcasts, vlogs, books... Anything that is genuinely interesting should be done in English, and you will be fine.

Value of College Essays

The whole application is about communication skills: you are literally communicating with a person from another continent with a different set of cultural codes and associations, so ask yourself how understandable and widespread your stand on something is. You need to explain the motivation behind your actions, not the actions themselves. In my case, each of my motivations in pursuing my interests were the following things:

  1. Deconstructing and constantly wanting to see what is behind the screen, the app, the news headlines, the cowl, the words of people. I realized this when I watched lectures on phenomenology and the nature of knowledge.

  2. Socratic inquiry, i.e. constantly asking"Why?" whatever happens. It's a habit I've developed since childhood, but scientific progress doesn't end there. After asking why, the next step is to build a hypothesis.

  3. Art and photography. I've written about how both a good picture and a picture of the world are similar the way that every time you look at it, you see/discover something new. So as with a camera lens: when you zoom in, you don't see the same thing as when you zoom out, although it's still the same point. Thus, I explained why I want to study in the Open Curriculum model.

Because all universities are incredibly competitive, cool activities and academic achievements are not quite enough. You have to be more than just hard-worker, you have to be unique and show it.

What makes an application successful? Why do admissions committees need so many essays? To test your writing skill. Any piece of writing is a direct reflection of your thinking skills. The admissions committee needs as many criteria as possible to realize that you are gifted. 

There are standardized tests and grades, but grades can often be corrupt, and tests don't always correlate with curiosity and open-mindedness. Mere intellegence is not enough; you need creativity, the ability to connect ideas. In the essay, the international student demonstrates the literacy necessary to study complicated things in a foreign language. Thinking process matters. If the skill of thinking is developed, it does not matter what topic to reason on. The very fact of this reasoning already indicates the ability to think in a global and broad sense.

A good habit would be to write notes. I've been writing notes all my life: I have 700 notes on my iPhone and the same number in other apps. Anything that can be written down, better write it down. Of course, I don't know how neurotic it is, but in any case, this habit can be created artificially. If you're writing, you're thinking. If you don't write down anyhting all day, it means you haven't thought about anything seriously. I always have notes on any topic. When I was writing an essay, the first thing I did was to look in my notes. By the way, there was nothing useful there... But the very fact of those notes gives value.

Value of essays comes in REwriting. The main skill in writing essays is rewriting them.  The first essay always turns out dumb. The value is in rewriting, correcting what doesn't seem right. The essay needs to be reread. It may seem cool at the moment, but after the first excitement cools down you can realize it was somewhat cringe. 

On the other hand, rewriting an essay is important from technical and grammatical side.

CV (Resume)

If possible, you should upload a resume. It is a kind of collective image of the applicant's goals, mission. It starts with a brief description of yourself and your focus ("Highly motivated student interested in..."), includes contacts, educational experience, professional skills, awards, languages, volunteer work, research experience, and jobs. I mentioned photography, as well as fixing laptops in the summer, internships in IT, and educational companies. I indicated course certificates including both offline and online. I also mentioned hobbies which included photography, movies, ukulele and speed cubing.

Advice to Applicants

Stay consistent and motivated.

Obviously, education is necessary. Who does not want to study abroad? I was not attracted by the prospect of studying in Kazakhstan. Even in the best and most progressive university I would not feel happy, my ideas would hardly be realized. Talking to their students, I never left the feeling that they would have had more potential elsewhere. And the idea of fading potential kills me.

Instead of motivating myself with the need to sub, I asked the same question every time, the answer to which terrified me:

If not that, what is the alternative? Perhaps you too will be motivated not by the possible perspectives, but by an alternative reality where you didn't get in.

If you have any questions you can write to me on Instagram or Telegram: @aida_undercover. At the same time, I would like to remind a few rules of communication:

  1. Do not start your message with "Can I ask you a question?", because by disclosing my contact information, I already give my consent to this.

  2. Do not ask for stats, activities, or information that is in this post

  3. Don't forget to Google what you are going to ask: the answer is probably already there.


from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Duration of Study

Sep 2024 — May 2028



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  1. 🇸🇸


    2 months ago

    Congratulations on your acceptance aida.abk to prestigious Brown. I felt inspired by the time I finished reading your college application journey especially on the side of Honors. Initially I had no clear idea of how to precisely describe an award in the honors section but I never have a glimpse understand. Thanks for sharing your journey as it is and will be helpful for many as aspiring international applications. Congratulations once more 🎉.