Hi, I'm Hyun Lee
This is the story of my
Hyun received a little over a full tuition scholarship for four years for his bachelor’s at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama along with an external scholarship of $1,000 USD from Burger King. Right after graduation, he received a fully funded scholarship covering tuition, insurance, and a living stipend for his Ph.D. studies in Computer Science at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a teaching and research assistant.
Hi! My name is Hyun, and I’m from Gangneung, South Korea. If you are not from Korea, you’ve probably never heard about Gangneung, but it is a pretty little town located on the east side of the country. The city is a popular vacation city for Koreans due to its great beaches, mountains, and lake. If you ever visit Korea, you definitely should visit my hometown because it is the best Korean city to visit in my very biased opinion.
I am excited to share my story of how I have gotten great scholarships for both my bachelor’s and my Ph.D. studies. I did plan and researched for a long time to get these scholarships. I went to high school in the United States, and that was helpful in my preparing for the college admissions process as well as the scholarship application process. I did my best to maintain a high GPA in high school, and I was able to graduate with a 4.0 unweighted GPA. Also, in the summer between my Sophomore and Junior year, I started studying for the SAT. I took the exam twice, scoring 2160 on the old SAT and 1490 on the new SAT (740 English / 750 Math). After that, I studied for SAT subject tests for Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Math Level II, scoring perfect scores for the first three tests and scoring 780 on Math Level II. The SAT Subject tests are now not being offered.
That’s how I’ve prepared to apply for undergraduate scholarships in the US, by maintaining high grades and preparing for SAT and scoring high on them. Because I wanted to become a professor, I knew that I had to apply for Ph.D. programs after graduating undergraduate program. With that in mind, I’ve only applied to liberal arts colleges, which have a small student-to-professor ratio, easily allow for undergraduate research, and have excellent academics. I’ve applied to around 10 liberal arts colleges, most of which offered to meet the full demonstrated need for international students.
I was accepted to only Birmingham-Southern College, which gave me a little bit over a full-tuition scholarship. I attended there, and I am grateful for the opportunity that I had at Birmingham-Southern College. There, I had excellent (AND caring) professors, research opportunities, and outstanding peers, all of which I sought at an undergraduate institution.
During my undergraduate years, I double majored in mathematics and applied computer science and thought about applying for Ph.D. in either Mathematics or computer science. I decided to prepare for Ph.D. in computer science because after I do receive my Ph.D., it was much easier to get a tenure track position in computer science than in mathematics. There are many institutions seeking computer science professors because many people, after their computer science Ph.D., go for industry research positions, where the pay is often 2x or more than that of academia. My end goal was to become a professor, and so, I’ve prepared to apply for a computer science Ph.D.
To prepare, I did well on the coursework, but I also did two individual research, one research on optimizing the evaluation function of AI in checkers and one research on computer science education using Block Programming. The thing that matters the most while applying for Ph.D. programs is the research experience and not your undergraduate GPA, and fortunately, Birmingham-Southern provided me with that. With those experiences, I have applied to 7 or so Ph.D. programs, getting accepted to North Carolina State University and the University of Alabama.
North Carolina State University offered fully funded scholarships guaranteed for four years covering tuition, insurance, and a living stipend of around $25,000 a year for Ph.D. in computer science. There was another opportunity that came up after graduation, and after thinking about the two paths for a couple of weeks, I decided to pursue another opportunity and did not pursue Ph.D. in computer science.
What Would You Have Done Differently if You Were Going Through the Same Process Again?
I think if I could do the whole thing all over again, for undergraduate scholarships, I would not have spent months preparing for SAT subject tests, but instead, spent that time increasing my SAT 1 score from 1490 to around 1550 hopefully. I think that if I’d put more time and effort into SAT I, I could have increased it close to 1550. Looking back at the SAT math problems with my math knowledge acquired in college, I probably could have gotten a perfect score on Math, which would make my score close to 1550. Also, I did not do much in terms of extracurriculars, and if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would do one or two extracurriculars that I am passionate about.
For Ph.D. admissions, if I had gotten involved in research early, like as a sophomore or even as a freshman, that would have been good since I could explore different fields. When I started to research (I think it was either the second semester of junior year or the first semester of my senior year), I did not have ample time to make significant progress on it before submitting my application for Ph.D. In addition, if I started early, I could delve into that subject or explore other areas that I was interested in. I had good grades, excellent recommendations (although I couldn’t read them, I knew my professors very well due to attending a liberal arts college), and some research experience; however, if I had done a more thorough job in research and published and applied for Ph.D. programs that had professors in my field of research, I would have been a stronger candidate.
What Advice Would You Give to People Applying for the Same Scholarships?
My advice to prospective undergraduate international students looking for scholarships is to do well on the SAT/ACT and try to get at least 1530 on the SAT and 34 on the ACT if possible to become the strongest candidate. I know many schools have gone test-optional, but having an excellent score on the SAT/ACT will make you a stronger candidate. Once you’ve gotten those scores, you should focus on your essay and extracurriculars and do something that makes you stand out from among the top scorers. Having an outstanding essay and extracurriculars will help your case more than getting closer to the perfect score when already have 1530+ / 34+. Also, if your family is financially able, try your best to make your Estimated Family Contribution to be bigger, as it is going to make a huge difference for need-aware schools. Although getting a full ride is possible and there are many that have done it, it is extremely difficult, and you have to be outstanding and be competitive for top-tier schools that are need-blind and meet the full need of international students.
I would also advise you to apply to state schools that give good scholarships to international students based on ACT/SAT and GPA. Some that come to mind are the University of Alabama, the University of Mississippi, etc. There are more definitely, but those are the ones that come to mind right now.
Also, there are external scholarships for international students, but there are not that many. You should strive to get a substantial university scholarship first and then apply to external scholarships.
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