June 12, 2024

How I Made it to Swarthmore College as a Bangladeshi with Two Gap Years

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Sajid from Bangladesh 🇧🇩

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How I Made it to Swarthmore College as a Bangladeshi with Two Gap Years

Hi everyone! My name is Sajid, and I’m a junior at Swarthmore College, a private liberal arts college in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Ranked 4 out of the 211 liberal arts colleges in the US, I’ve had a challenging yet rewarding journey to get there. Let me share my story with you.

High School Background and Stats

So, I went to BAF Shaheen College in Dhaka, which is a co-educational Bangladeshi college (grades KG-XII) established by the Bangladesh Air Force. From 9th to 12th grade, I consistently stood in the top 5% of the class, and I completed my Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) there, achieving a GPA of 5 in both. There might have been a few instances, such as during the 10th grade, where I might have done average in a test or two due to health reasons. I remember being so paranoid about that tiny slip-up during my applications that I literally asked my counselor to send a letter to explain my situation (haha).

Frankly, studying in Bengali Medium did sort of affect me negatively in the sense that it initially made SAT English a nightmare. For example, we used a textbook called “English for Today,"  which, in my opinion, felt like the equivalent of fifth grade English in the US. Switching from that to SAT-level English was tough, and I had to take the exam three times because of this section alone. On the positive side, our Bengali medium curriculum requires us to take 14 subjects throughout the year, which is very demanding. So, while it made the transition hard at first, it ultimately prepared me to handle the academic workload better when I got to the US.

Why the US, and Why Swarthmore

Students in my home country often aim to get into the nation’s top colleges, such as Dhaka University, since they are in the 10th or 11th grade. However, I have always placed a high priority on return on investment. Hence, that dream was never really appealing to me because I wondered what I would get in return for the four years of hard work. Getting a software engineering degree and starting a job in that field in Bangladesh, maybe—but the starting salary for software engineers there didn’t seem worth it to me.

Moreover, I also had a close friend living in London whose life and work experiences there seemed very enticing to me. Initially, London was my dream destination, but they don’t offer much financial aid or scholarships to international students. Even Canada is beyond affordability’s range in that aspect. Then I came across the US, assuming that you’d have to be the richest of the rich to reach there as well. But then I came across an insightful “10 Minute School” playlist on YouTube created by Bristy Sikder, the first woman from Bangladesh who got into Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), situated in the US. In these videos, she mentioned that the stereotype we had that you cannot go to the US if you can’t afford it is a myth. By the time I finished watching the playlist, I had a clear sense of what it takes to get a full-ride scholarship in the US. Of course, I started to really, really like the US as well, ultimately choosing it as my study abroad destination.  

There were definitely many reasons that motivated me to apply to Swarthmore. It offered a strong engineering program to begin with, which is quite uncommon for liberal arts colleges. The idea of the Tri-College Consortium was also very appealing to me. Swarthmore belongs to this group with Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges and offers cross-registration with the University of Pennsylvania. An experience like this would mean expanded avenues of academic and social life, which sounded awesome!

In a general sense, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of attending a small liberal arts college. I spent a large portion of my life attending a large, densely populated high school and hence, I wanted to experience something new. I also sought a more personal connection with my professors, which is typical at liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore. In fact, most of the colleges on my list were LAC's, including Amherst, Hamilton, and Haverford.

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My Extracurricular Activities

Before I share my ECA’s, I want to mention something important. I noticed that it is common for applicants to try to showcase themselves as well-rounded. However, it is essential to realize that admissions officers really search for those who are specialized in one area. Individuality is key to making you stand out. Although I’ve done many things, my portfolio primarily focuses on my endeavors in the policy sector for the ready-made garments (RMG) industry in Bangladesh.

My top ECA was participating in the BSCIR Science Fest, a major science fair in Bangladesh for high school students. It’s the sort of scene where you see a lot of investors showing up and offering to fund your project if they like it. So, I attended this fest with my team and we won first prize and 30,000 BDT for our project on implementing faster fire safety alarms in RMG factories. See how it aligns with my application theme? That was the goal: connecting the dots in a way that my activities would align with every aspect of my application, like my common app essay.

My second ECA involved my work with Gontobbo Youth Foundation, an NGO where I have been working since its inception. This was a very meaningful activity to me, as I was organizing many events with the main aim of spreading free education. So, we would visit the major slums where many RMG workers lived. The majority of them don’t send their children to school because it is beyond their affordability range. Hence, we would try to spread awareness about the availability of free education centers so that these children can learn without paying and have a better future. We began our journey in 2015, and Gontobbo Youth Foundation is still very active today.

My third major ECA was working as a professional sound engineer. In 2019, I worked with Professor Biswajit Goswami, the Chair of the Charukola Institute at the University of Dhaka, on a short film titled “Ma” that was presented at a cultural show in Venice.

My Application Journey

By taking two gap years, I basically tackled the hectic application journey twice. So, for Bangladeshi students, if you apply to the US right after completing HSC, it sort of already creates a one-year gap—something I wasn’t initially aware of. During this time, I joined a cohort at Adroit Education for application-related help. Adroit is an agency that guides Bangladeshi students to obtain admission into US universities. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up getting into top schools due to low SAT scores and application weaknesses. The best one I got accepted to was a mid-tier US university, which would require me to pay way beyond my Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). I did not wish for this to be the end, and I was determined to try again and rise to the potential I believed I had. Moreover, with many major projects in the making at my NGO, I felt like I could take another year to enhance my activities and improve my portfolio.

I unenrolled from Adroit as I pretty much already learned everything there was to be aware of in the application process. I also, of course, decided to give the SAT another shot. I ultimately scored 1480 out of 1600. Although my SAT score was lower than many of my peers who had 1500 or higher, I believe it was still able to help me stand out in the applicant pool. Additionally, I also took the TOEFL and Duolingo tests for English proficiency, achieving good scores in both.

Spending six to seven months on my common application essay definitely played a big factor in my second attempt. I spent like six to seven months solely on this essay. Now I mentor students on navigating the admissions process right, and I always advise them to connect the dots in their writing. As for my essay, I won’t go into all the details, but the central theme was my desire to work for the people responsible for the "Made in Bangladesh" label (which was the headline of my essay itself)—those often kept out of the picture. It was basically a thread of meaningful life experiences that led me to recognize my passions and aspirations in life.

Demonstrating interest in other colleges through ways like attending virtual events and campus tours helped too. For instance, if you’re applying for Swarthmore, sitting for the admissions interview helps a bunch. Many mid-tier colleges indeed care about demonstrated interest, and I showed them what they wished to see by attending information sessions, virtual campus tours, etc. Establishing an interactive connection with your admissions officers is important, as that makes them look forward to reviewing your application. This means interacting with them during virtual sessions by asking meaningful questions or following up with your interviewer after sitting for an interview. Emphasis on the latter, by the way—following up with interviewers is a courtesy that many applicants overlook but can make a difference.

However, sometimes demonstrated interest may not always do the deal if luck comes in the way. I’ll give you a personal example. When I applied the second and final time, Swarthmore was actually my Early Decision 2 choice, while I applied to Hamilton College under ED1. It is not an exaggeration to admit that I was quite obsessed with Hamilton, considering the way I stayed closely connected to the admissions officers and followed up extensively with everything since the very beginning. Despite my efforts, I was rejected, which was a dream-shattering experience (moral of the story: don’t fall in love with a specific institution, haha).

That wasn’t the only pitfall I experienced during this round. I was also rejected by many other top liberal arts colleges, including Bowdoin, Carleton, and Middlebury, to name a few. It was a tough time, and I felt increasingly hopeless. Then came the day I received an email from Swarthmore stating that my application portal had been updated. After all the rejections, I was convinced Swarthmore would also reject me. I didn't even check the portal immediately. The next morning, I decided to go through the standard procedure and logged in, expecting another rejection. To my surprise, I saw "Congratulations." My first thought was, “Okay, that’s a different-looking rejection email.” My second thought was “HOLD UP- “.

The point is, folks, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.  

My Financial Aid Package

So, in my first year, I paid approximately 4,500 USD out of a total of 78,000 USD. This amount covered my health insurance, room, board, and tuition. Swarthmore College covered the remaining expenses. During my second year, my out-of-pocket expenses decreased to around 850 USD, split into two semesters. Again, Swarthmore College covered the majority of the costs. This year, my expenses have decreased even further. I'm paying around 650 USD, with Swarthmore College covering the rest of the expenses.

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Life at Swarthmore: Academics and Campus Life

Presently, I am majoring in Computer Science and double-minoring in Engineering and Statistics. I definitely had a lot of good expectations from Swarthmore, given the reputation it withholds. However, in terms of academics and campus life, Swarthmore even exceeded those expectations to a certain extent. Being a small college that largely invests in each and every student, we gain access to so many resources that it’s more than what we need, in a great way. Swarthmore is also sort of a cash-free campus. This means any task like laundry or printing is free for us, which I really appreciate.

Moreover, Swarthmore deeply cares for our well-being. There are many events going on around the campus all the time, like yoga or mindfulness activities. Of course, we also have the Arboretum, a breathtaking realm of trees and lakes that we all consider our own little jungle. If you’re down, taking a simple walk around the campus is therapeutic.

The professors are excellent, and I have a short story to emphasize this point. When I began my first year at Swarthmore, I initially leaned towards economics or public policy, but a daring decision to explore various disciplines led me to computer science. So, I took a combination of different courses, including CS, math, engineering, and so on. However, Swarthmore is so academically challenging that I quickly realized that I was biting more than I could chew. Before I knew it, I was struggling a lot. In my first CS lab exam, I ended up getting a two out of ten, which wasn’t good news at all. I ended up being emailed by my professor, who asked me to pay him a visit in his office. That scared me a bit, because, you know, you have to maintain a GPA in order to keep renewing your financial awards. However, when I went to his office expecting a little scolding, he instead asked me, “So, how are we failing you?” with a smile, allowing me to express my struggles. After I explained my situation, he concocted a personalized plan for me: starting from the next office hours, I would be joining him in his office, and then we would dedicate at least 45 minutes to an hour to reviewing all the topics covered in class. Since the classroom environment can sometimes be intimidating, he told me to consider this my safe space for any queries I may have. So, I started learning CS from the ground up with a renewed passion for software engineering.

However, since Swarthmore is a small liberal arts college, we face some challenges with its saturated computer science program. Due to this saturation, class availability operates on a lottery system, meaning you don't always get the classes you planned for. This can disrupt your academic plans and, well, leave you frustrated.

If you have done your research, you probably already know that Swarthmore stands out as one of the most diverse institutions in the US. The diversity was quite a departure from what I was accustomed to in Bangladesh. However, living in a multicultural environment like Swarthmore’s has been incredibly rewarding for me. No matter which country or culture you name, you'll find someone representing it here. Furthermore, making friends here is easy, regardless of your background or personality. Everyone here is very friendly, and once you find your group, it's like creating your own little world within the larger community.

As for maintaining a work-life balance, well, I sacrifice my sleep. Just kidding. I’d say we’re kind of like "work hard, party hard" people. We study really hard throughout the weekdays, and then we also party hard during the weekends. So yeah, that's how we manage.

Internship Support

We have such a strong alumni connection here; you have no idea. Our alumni are literally scattered everywhere, from Fortune 500 companies to other sectors. When I was a freshman, by the end of my first year, I aimed to expand my network and apply for internships. I reached out to Swarthmore graduates working at companies like Amazon and Google to dive deeper into the company’s culture and other insights. Eventually, I secured an internship at Amazon for my sophomore summer, thanks to the mentorship I received from older students.

Known as a top feeder for PhD candidates in the US, Swarthmore is primarily focused on academia. However, you will be supported regardless of other endeavors you wish to pursue beyond the classroom. As a freshman, I attended workshops organized by older students who had interned at major tech companies. The guest speakers were, of course, Swarthmore students who interned at these big companies. I learned a lot of things from these events, starting from application trips and tricks to solving LeetCode problems. To sum it up, Swarthmore, as an institution, will help you with anything and everything.

My Post-Grad Goals

My dreams keep changing nowadays. I’m not exactly fixated on anything specific, but I’ll share what I’m aiming for at the moment. Right after graduation, I plan to return to the tech industry. I interned there and will be interning again this summer at Amazon in New York. I'm hoping to receive a full-time offer to continue working there as a software engineer for at least three to four years. Eventually, I want to venture into entrepreneurship. After gaining some industry experience, I intend to pursue an MBA, preferably from a top business school. With an MBA in hand, I'll have the option to either climb the corporate ladder into a leadership position or start my own venture.

In this context, college branding does matter to a good extent, or so I believe. Swarthmore, in terms of that, has an excellent reputation. Hence, graduating from Swarthmore will undoubtedly enhance my profile when applying for an MBA. Moreover, surviving academically at Swarthmore is no small feat. If you can survive here, it’s safe to say you can survive anywhere. Here, you learn how to handle stress very effectively—a skill that will help you not only in MBA school but in many other places in your life.

My Advice

Do not give up. Upon my failed first gap year, I bid farewell to my peers who got into good schools and were leaving Bangladesh, realizing I had two options left. I could disregard this difficult US dream and start preparing for Bangladeshi universities, or... I could take another year and give it another shot. The latter was a risk; having gap years deducts points from the overall score in Bangladesh, so with two gap years, it would be challenging to get into any good school here. To clarify, this second gap year had the potential of singlehandedly making or breaking my future, be it in my home country or the states.

Although the outcome was heavily uncertain, I chose option B and took another gap year. The point is that giving up is easy when things get tough. In these moments, do not hesitate to ask yourself why you did this in the first place to answer why you would do it all over again. Trust the process and take it easy. 

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Sajid
from Bangladesh 🇧🇩

Duration of Study

Aug 2021 — May 2025

Bachelor

Computer Science

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Swarthmore College

Swarthmore, US🇺🇸

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Sarina from Bangladesh 🇧🇩

Gap year student & Published Author

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