May 31, 2024

My journey to a full-ride at UChicago and reflections on Freshman year

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Elena-Alexandra from Romania 🇷🇴

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My journey to a full-ride at UChicago and reflections on Freshman year

Hi, my name is Elena Balan and I am from Romania. Since August 2023, I have been studying at the University of Chicago. I decided to defer my admission to UChicago to take a gap year.

My background

I went to a public Romanian high school "National College" until the 10th grade, which is considered the best public high school in the country. Then I got a scholarship, and for my 11th and 12th grades, I came to UWC Dilijan in Armenia. At UWC, I studied the IB curriculum, and my subjects were: Math Applications and Interpretation SL, Global Politics HL, Economics HL, Russian ab initio SL, English Language and Literature HL, and ESS (Environmental Systems and Societies) SL.


I applied with a predicted score of 41/42 from the IB. However, my final grades were a bit lower than that: I got 41 out of 45. I didn't take the SAT since during the COVID-19 pandemic UChicago was (and still is) test-optional. For the English language exam, I took the Duolingo English Test because, in my opinion, it is easier and more straightforward than the TOEFL.

My extracurriculars 

  1. Peace Pen Pal - I started this as a CAS at UWC Dilijan and was the founder of the branch. It was originally part of a bigger CAS started by somebody else from UWC Robert Bosch. We were writing letters, trying to nurture multicultural understanding and connect different schools from different countries. It was not only a great English practice, but also a chance to analyze things in terms of neuroscience. I'm not a fan of neuroscience, but I like the process of multicultural understanding, being able to connect communities and talk about more sensitive topics. I was able to connect schools from places like Taiwan, Armenia, and Colombia. When we were doing this project, of course, it was the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything was online, difficult because of the time zones. However, we were having successful sessions on sustainability, gender dynamics, and gender violence. We also talked about cultural practices, cultural heritage, etc.

  2. Debating - I used to do debating. I started in high school, in the 9th and 10th grades, but then I stopped. I was going to competitions - I got to the national Olympiad stage. I also facilitated the debating sessions in my school. I would help people by giving feedback and trying to improve their skills. Then I got a chance to go to the Olympiad again, but because of COVID, it got canceled.

  3. MUN - I was part of the team organizing DiliMUN. I was on the finance committee, responsible for budgeting and finding sponsors.

  4. CheChe Plastic Bags - I was part of a CAS started by another student at UWC Dilijan. Cheche means "no, no" in Armenian. The goal of the project was to encourage and promote sustainable practices and habits, and to limit the use of plastic bags, which are very harmful to the environment. I was on the committee and the international communications team. I was again trying to connect with other schools and encouraging them to implement a similar project at their UWCs.

  5. UChicago summer school - I went to the summer school called Threats to Democracy in Chicago after my first year. I decided to include it because it was a four-week-long program. We were writing essays, analyzing texts, and having vivid debates.

  6. I was also volunteering at my local hospital back home in the oncology section. I was doing weekly workshops and activities for kids with leukemia and cancer. I was trying to make them more comfortable in the hospital environment, just because it's very hard for them to adapt, trying to change their lifestyle. But since none of them could attend school anymore due to their treatment, I tried to substitute school for them. I was also conducting sessions on school subjects like the Romanian language, but also more entertaining activities for kids from different age groups.

Why UChicago?

There are many reasons why I chose UChicago. One of them, of course, is financial aid. UChicago has a very good policy in terms of how they administer financial aid. Another reason is that I had various issues when applying to U.S. universities because my parents are divorced. Many times, they ask for the financial information of both parents, which in my case was impossible to provide. So for some schools, I had to withdraw my application. I ended up applying for Early Decision at UChicago.

Additionally, I think the whole culture of the school resonates with me as a person. I was looking for the much-popularized UChicago culture of inquiry and understanding of the world. One of the things I was prioritizing in universities was the ability to learn and have actual conversations with people. For me, the people in the community are very significant. I wanted to be around individuals who were naturally and deeply passionate about different things. So coming here, the people I have interacted with or encountered proved true. I always learn something from them, and it's not surface-level; we go into great depth in our discussions. I think that resonated with me as a person, and that's what I was looking for.

My life at UChicago

The thing I like the most about UChicago is the insane number of programs you can enroll in or apply for. We have something called career tracks, which involves going on field trips and exploring a career with the whole university, not just a specific cohort of students. Usually, around 20 students go to another state within the U.S. or to another country. For example, I went on two international career tracks this year to Argentina for a business track and then to Switzerland for a public policy track. It's very cool! You get to learn from firsthand experiences in a specific field and understand what the experience is like. You also connect with other people from the university who have similar academic interests. Additionally, you get to explore your interests and think about who you want to be or where you want to work in the future. I'm not going to lie; it's a good traveling experience because if you have financial aid, you have certain privileges in that sense, as you don't have to pay for flights, and everything is covered except for situations where you stay longer. The trip is usually three to five days. After that, I usually chose to stay longer, so I had to find housing with friends, who were usually my UWC friends.

Community and balance 

UChicago is a very big university, and sadly, you may not see your close friends every day. That's the reality because everyone has different schedules. But if you are close enough, you make plans to meet up. I like how it is here. I feel like I function much better in bigger communities because I need my space, and I feel much freer in some sense here because of the opportunities but also the ability to just wander around.

To maintain a work-life balance, time management is key. One of the things to consider is: what are your priorities? Do you prioritize academics, social life, or networking if you're interested in your career? I guess once you find your priorities, it gets easier. I'm not a fully inclined academic person like I used to be at UWC, and I'm not going to go back to being that way again. I think it's a good idea to maintain the diversity of things we do because we're humans, and we all have personal interests and hobbies. I feel like it could be so sad and tragic to lose that. If something is a big part of your life, you will surely find time and space to develop it here at UChicago.

Outside of classes at UChicago

I'm part of the board of an LGBTQ association as the first-year representative. We organize events for the community, like trivia, speed dating, and other social events. We also did a pride fest in the autumn quarter last year, and we were inviting the more historically segregated community in Chicago, trying to connect the local university community with people from the community outside of campus.

We have a house culture here. I'm also in a house, and I'm on the inter-house communications board. We have weekly meetings, and we organize events or festivities.

I'm also currently part of Moda magazine. It's a digital magazine, and I write articles for it. It's a very creative task; the articles could be about fashion or the campus community. I like writing, and I think it's a good medium for self-expression.

Financial Aid 

I have my entire tuition and living costs covered by the university. Additionally, I receive $1,000 in pocket money. I only need to pay for my flights and books for the university.

My gap year 

During my gap year, I volunteered in Europe - one month in Poland, one month in Finland, and one month in Portugal. There's a program called the European Solidarity Corps. As a European Union citizen, you can apply and get all your costs reimbursed. For me, it was very advantageous because I couldn't necessarily afford the travel costs and cover transportation fully myself. So it was good to get it reimbursed, and you can also get housing and sometimes food or even pocket money.

In Poland, I conducted English workshops with high school kids, trying to improve their English level through various fun activities rather than boring lectures. I led workshops for different age groups - from primary school to high school, with groups of 20 to 40 kids. Then I went to Finland, where I conducted cultural heritage activities and workshops, trying to revive certain cultural practices that had been lost for a time. We did treasure hunts and brought the community together. In Portugal, I worked with schools again, doing activities about health, lifestyle, sustainability, gender dynamics, culture, and discrimination. Many of the children came from immigrant families from Brazil or other former Portuguese colonies.

Finally, I did a semester at sea. It's a program where you go on a ship for four months. As a UWC student, I got a scholarship, so I applied because I felt I needed to take advantage of it. I visited 12 countries. I studied on the ship - it's not rigorous academics, much more relaxed than the IB. After a certain period, you disembark and get five to six days in each city you travel to. Then I went back to Romania, where I worked for a while.

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from Romania 🇷🇴

Duration of Study

Sep 2023 — May 2027


Sociology and Business Economics

Learn more ->
University of Chicago

University of Chicago

Chicago, US🇺🇸


✍️ Interview by


Patryk from Poland 🇵🇱

UWC Dilijan student & politics passionate

Learn more ->