November 28, 2022

What got me into UC Berkeley and why my time there was bittersweet

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mussilimov from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Campus Image of University of California Berkeley
What got me into UC Berkeley and why my time there was bittersweet

Experience & Extracurriculars in High School

I graduated from Karaganda Kazakh Turkish High School in Kazakhstan, the only school in my area where classes were taught in English. I was president of the school, but I wouldn’t say that I actually did much, mostly over-promised and under-delivered😂 I participated in various English language olympiads at the regional level, but I never got to the republican ones. English definitely kickstarted my international education journey and expanded my worldview.

I also got 1st place in an international computer project olympiad which was held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. My win was big a surprise, as my teacher would always criticize our work, but I guess it was his way of motivating students. Next, I had 9 months of work experience as a social media manager. At that time I was one of the first social media managers in Kazakhstan, as this industry was just starting to develop. Lastly, I used to be a ballroom dance champion when I was little!

Columbia Language School

I participated in American Language Program at Columbia University for 1.5 years, which was funded by the Bolashak scholarship (Kazakh government scholarship). That’s when my language barrier fully disappeared and I finally learned to write well in English.

At that time there weren't that many educational resources in Kazakhstan, both offline and even online. There was a sense of “ceiling” with what you can learn, but Columbia gave me incredible professors and peers who helped me along the way.

Gap Year(s)

Overall, I had several gap years. I finished high school at 17 but entered university at 20. Upon arriving I felt like I was so much older compared to my peers. While everyone else was fresh out of school, I was like “Wow, I’ve seen the world, I’ve seen life!”. Even though the age gap was only 2 years, I faced a certain barrier when connecting to my peers.

But I am very happy I took those gap years! I would not have gotten into Berkeley otherwise. I was definitely underprepared right out of high school: my English was not sufficient, my SATs were low, and I was not aware of US culture prior to my experience at Columbia. I have no regrets about taking the time between high school and university.

UC Berkeley library
UC Berkeley library

My stats & Personal Statement

My grades were all As, but I was not a typical A-student. In a post-soviet school, we get grades every quarter of the year. I was one of those guys who gets B's in two quarters and A's in the other two quarters and then negotiates his way by asking to take on extra assignments to reach A overall. I got to say big thanks to our school system because in our final year teachers would let us do whatever we want, which was preparing for college in my case.

Speaking of my SAT, I scored 1980/2400, which would translate to around 1380 on a new scale. While I was at Columbia, I took SAT five times. I was studying for it for 9 straight months. After my first attempt I got ~1000 (on the current scale), then it went up to 1200, 1300, etc. When I arrived at Berkeley, I haven’t met anyone with a lower SAT score than mine. That is to say that there are other things in my application that helped me stand out.

I talked about SAT in my Personal Statement, which was about me becoming too complacent with my achievements. I felt like I did a lot in my life: olympiads, Columbia, being a school president. At some point, I became too complacent, which made me do only the bare minimum. I then stumbled upon the SAT book where I saw the word complacent with an example of a sentence saying that complacency destroys ambition. The minute I looked at it I felt like it was about me. That’s what made me work hard again. In my essay, I wrote how I wish I stumbled upon this word earlier so I could study for the SAT harder.

Lastly, I took TOEFL and got 108. Above 100 is usually pretty good.

I took TOEFL twice, the first time was the morning after I had a big fight with my girlfriend. I barely slept and brought tons of Redbull into the examination room. The TOEFL center was in Koreatown of New York, and luckily nobody cared about my drinks. That’s when I got 108. For my second attempt, I followed all the instructions: slept well, drank water, etc. I came in completely calm…and scored 96. I guess there is a certain upside to being stressed!

My College List

After my time in Columbia, I knew that I wanted to be in a big city, so I did not consider universities located in the middle of nowhere. At the same time, due to my scholarship contract with Bolashak (more on it below), I had a requirement to study what I originally declared in the scholarship application. It was Industrial Engineering.

I didn’t have many choices as it's not a very popular major, and my main targets were Columbia University or UC Berkeley. I didn’t get into Columbia because I missed the deadline, but that’s a whole different story. I also applied to Georgia Tech, Northwestern, Wisconsin Medicine, and the University of Southern California; my safeties were Penn State and Purdue University.

Bolashak Scholarship

Bolashak is a scholarship funded by the government of Kazakhstan for Kazakh students to study abroad. It used to cover Bachelor’s degree when I applied, but it's no longer the case as they decided to focus on graduate students only. It’s a very popular scholarship, the community is so huge that you could go to any university in the world and find Bolashak students.

Bolashak covered all of my expenses: tuition, flights back and forth once a year, and provided extra allowance for textbooks and living expenses. The allowance depends on your location: the more expensive the city is, the more money you get.

An alternative to funding your degree is Financial Aid from the univesity, which you can learn more about it on UC Berkeley’s website.

Why I did not enjoy my major

It’s bittersweet to think about my time at Berkeley. I finished High School in 2009, so I am from a generation when nobody really asked us what we want to do with our lives. If I really considered my major at the time, I would probably do directing or marketing, something in the arts industry. But living in Karaganda at the time, that’s not really what people did. What you were expected to do is engineering, economics, or medicine - that was the only chance to win a scholarship and get into a good university.

I chose my major pretty much overnight. I was applying to Bolashak and asked my friend what he thinks is a good major. He recommended Industrial Engineering, I googled it and was satisfied with what I read, so that's what I went for.

When it came to actual studying, I suffered a lot. Berkeley is known to be rigorous academically. Pulling a few all-nighters per week was a normal thing. Most of the classes were curved, so you end up competing against your peers, who were all carefully cherry-picked by the admissions committee. In order to enjoy academics, one has to choose a major he/she actually likes. I didn't enjoy mine, so for me, life wasn't as fun.

Best thing about UC Berkeley

Despite my major, there were of course many positive aspects. I met a lot of brilliant people and amazing professors. Most importantly, I learned how to think and solve problems. It gave me a feeling that I can do whatever I want on a global scale. Some of the professors would give us a case study and say: “Next time, you will be that CEO, or you will be that decision-maker”. Over time, my mindset evolved and I came to believe that I can do great things.

Why internship felt easier than school

Right before my senior year started, I got to intern at a company Xamarin, which is a big startup that got acquired by Microsoft for half a billion dollars. Working there made me realize that real life was a lot easier than school. At university it felt like there were trying to turn us into engineering soldiers: the pressure was high, and the volume of things we had to study was too much. But at Xamarin I would do something, and people actually praised my work. I was amazed because at university I would probably get a B minus for this amount of effort.

Difficulties of post-grad life

My first job after graduation was in Business Development at Microsoft in San Francisco. It was basically the continuation of my internship in Xamarin, but not for long. I truly enjoyed my time at these companies, but at some point, I again became too complacent, or even arrogant. That's when life started giving me a hard time.

My contract with Microsoft was about to end, my visa was expiring, and I was getting a lot of rejections from companies. I actually had a face-to-face interview with Sergey Brin, one of Google’s founders, but I was so burned out that I blew it. Sergey really tried to connect with me by asking questions on a personal level, but I felt like I was like in some trivia show and have to give only the right answers to make him like me. It did not go well, so at some point, I had to do Uber eats and deliver food. It was a very humbling experience, I remember thinking how embarrassing it would be if people saw me delivering food in San Francisco.

Returning back to Kazakhstan

That’s when I decided that it was time to close my US chapter and return to Kazakhstan. I came back feeling like a failure and entered a sad period of my life until I met Arman from one of the best coding schools in Kazakhstan who invited me to join him in Business Development. After that my life became super eclectic, I did everything: I was the CEO of a startup funded by a Singaporean firm, I became an art manager for Central Asian artists, I worked in education and production, created a mindfulness community. For the past 4 years, I’ve been helping people create stories so they get into the best universities abroad. Now I am doing acting and directing at Almaty Cinema School. I feel like I am having student life version 2.0, which I really wanted!

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from Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Duration of Study

Aug 2012 — Aug 2016


Industrial Engineering

Learn more ->
University of California Berkeley

University of California Berkeley

Berkeley, US🇺🇸

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    2 years ago