By Eleonor Spasova

Opportunity Funds Program participant Eleonor Spasova shares her remarkable journey to UPenn that includes a clownfish and a whole lot of hard work! Her inspirational story and tips to future university applicants testify to the amazing success of EducationUSA Bulgaria’s flagship programs – the Virtual Group Advising Program and the Opportunity Funds Program. 

This spring, I’m a senior at the Sofia High School of Mathematics. I was accepted to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania on Early Decision. As a Wharton student, I will pursue a BS degree in Economics while concentrating in Finance and BEPP (Business Economics & Public Policy).  

I started preparing to apply to college at the beginning of 11th grade. At the time 90 percent of my achievements and activities that made me a competitive applicant were non-existent. This is why I would describe my EducationUSA/Opportunity Funds experience as life-changing. The college application process can change your life completely, even if you don’t get into your dream school. It not only taught me how to present myself, work well under pressure, and perform great in interviews, but also gave me the motivation to grasp every opportunity for personal growth.  

Knowing how college admissions work is extremely important, so I attended every virtual presentation Fulbright/EducationUSA consultant Snejana Teneva gave in 2023. I also completed all her essay assignments, which helped me get a better understanding of how I needed to convey my personality on paper. I would definitely highlight the one-week essay writing course with Sophia Kleinsasser as one of the most useful Opportunity Funds activities. The course provided us with truly invaluable advice on how to write the perfect essay and fill out the Common App sections most effectively.  

Unlike many other students, I didn’t write many drafts of my main college essay. I abandoned my writing ideas about concert performances, volunteer work or competitions because I was convinced that admissions officers had read thousands of such essays, so my story wouldn’t impress them much. My English skills wouldn’t allow me to make an impression with my use of vocabulary either. What made my essay memorable was the unique topic – taking care of my marine aquarium and how this has shaped my work ethic. I never imagined that breeding clownfish would help me get into an Ivy League university, but it somehow did. So I would say that including a weird or fun fact about you in your essay could be a great way to make it stand out and get the reader to remember you. 

What are the chances of being admitted or getting a full scholarship? They are certainly not as small as you think if you work hard enough. I’m not a genius; I haven’t won any international competitions; I didn’t even get the highest SAT score in my class. Still, I worked extremely hard to achieve my goal: I was involved in clubs, played the electric guitar, participated in the school play, led the Student Council, and much more. Being involved in various extracurricular activities also isn’t enough to be successful. They should be presented on your application in the best possible way, so don’t hesitate to provide vivid descriptions of your achievements. 

Here are a few of my tips for the college application process: 

  • Show excellence in your desired area of study. Knowing I wanted to major in economics or finance, I did research under the mentorship of a former minister of the economy, competed in trading simulations, managed a stock portfolio, did an asset management internship, took MOOCs, and won the National Financial Literacy Competition. Colleges must understand you’re not only passionate about something but also constantly striving to enhance your skills in that area. 
  • Practice answering interview questions. Do not appear shy or miss out on opportunities to highlight your activities out of modesty. I was denied an award and a mentorship program because of that. College interviews usually last only about 30 minutes, so use them wisely in order to impress your interviewer. 
  • Join Fulbright’s essay writing course and watch videos on YouTube by current university students about how they wrote their essays. This will help you avoid mistakes and come up with topic ideas. 
  • Look for unusual activities – standing out with your application is key to getting admitted. For example, I took care of a marine aquarium, played a grandma in the school play, and had a huge obsession with learning thrash metal guitar solos. 
  • Be creative – there are no limitations to what you can include in the additional info section of the Common App; I included links to videos of my school play performance, my guitar playing, and my marine aquarium. I also added some pictures of my activities and a link to my LinkedIn profile. Colleges don’t require proof of your achievements but providing some could benefit you. 
  • Start preparing all application components early. I submitted the wrong version of my “Sweet Child O’ Mine” solo performance video as part of my MIT application because I was uploading everything at the very last moment. Your application is a reflection of who you are, so read and edit it as many times as possible before submitting it. 
  • Don’t exaggerate the number of hours you’ve practiced an activity. I was spending only two or three hours a week with Student Council activities but that didn’t hurt my application. I believe admissions officers can easily recognize a lie, so being genuine in your application will make it more competitive. 
  • Passing on your knowledge is important. If you have tutored younger students or advised them on any topic, highlight it in your application. 
  • Last but not least – the application process is difficult and time-consuming but is worth it because of all the skills you gain. Keep in mind that even if you don’t get into your dream school, in the end, you’ll have an impressive resume that will likely get you into most universities in Europe. No matter what the outcome is, your efforts will not be in vain. Every activity, even breeding clownfish, enhances your knowledge and shapes your character in its own unique way! 
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