CHAT WITH: HELEN GAO

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University of California, Berkeley

Third-year student

Major: Physics

Hometown: Taiyuan

High School: The High School Affiliated to Renmin University Of China in Beijing

 

 

 

 

 

Why did you decide to study in the U.S.?

I feel like there are more opportunities here. And because my hometown is in another city, it (was) impossible for me to take the college entrance exam in Beijing. So I decided to go abroad.

 

How did you select the schools to apply to?

I basically took a look at the rankings and selected some top schools and some backup schools. I wanted to major in science — and now I’m majoring in physics —so I researched schools focused on science.

 

How many did you apply to?

About 15.

 

What did you think of the application process?

I think it’s pretty detailed. It asks all sorts of questions. It’s pretty good, I feel — better than the ones in China which only depend on the exam scores.

 

It’s kind of like applying for a job. You have to fill out all your information and all your experience, extracurriculars.

 

What was the most difficult part?

As a high school student, you have to take care of both your academics as well as your extracurriculars and interests at the same time. That’s a pretty big challenge for international students.

 

I was in a Chinese training program in my high school. It’s not the international curriculum. So I had to take care of the academics required of Chinese students and I still also had to take the English exams and SATs.

 

Was there a school or private counselor who helped you with the application process?

I had a private counselor. She mostly helped me with my writing of my personal statement. I never wrote papers like that before. She gave me some advice on how to organize it and make it more attractive and engaging.

 

 

Why Berkeley? How did u know it was right for you?

 

I really like the weather in California. And Berkeley has great academic programs that I wanted to be part of.

 

The Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union at UC Berkeley is a popular hangout. (Courtesy UC Berkeley)

Did you visit the campus before you applied?

Yes, but that was years before, when I was 12 or 13.

 

Did you do any virtual visits or look at videos of the school?

No, but I looked at some photos.

 

 

 

 

What’s your favorite place on campus?

I like the library best because I like reading a lot. Before I came here I didn’t imagine that Berkeley would have so many books in different languages. (The Gardner Main Stacks library) is underground, and it’s always really cool and a lot of people study there. I also the MLK Student Union, because it has an open study area where people can talk and meet others and have fun too.

 

What were some of your hobbies in high school?

I play tennis, and I did a lot of student organizations in high school. We have a movie festival, and I made a movie with my classmates.

 

Have you continued any of those hobbies at Berkeley?

I’m in the drama club right now. We do stage dramas instead of making videos, but they are kind of similar.

 

What has surprised you the most about life in the U.S.?

 

In Berkeley, it’s really open. People can talk about whatever they like. And there are so many protests. It’s really special. I wouldn’t imagine something like this happening at any university in China. There are so just many different groups of people with different identities and interests that I can identify myself with.

 

 

What do you know now that you wish you had known before you came to America?

 

I’m not sure about that. I feel like I adapted to the U.S. college life pretty quickly. The culture here is really from everywhere. It’s not hard for me to find some Chinese friends. There are just so many people here and I can always find a group that I feel I belong to.

 

Are most of your friends international students or American students?

 

I feel like it’s both. It’s really half-half.

 

What would be 3 tips you’d give students from China who want to study here?

 

  1. Choose a university that has the best program instead of just looking at the rankings. I know a lot of Chinese students and parents only look at the rankings.

 

  1. Keep exercising! In California, everybody keeps fit and it’s really a healthy lifestyle. I feel like a lot of Chinese students who may be used to sitting every day and doing homework should (know) this.

 

  1. I would suggest reading a lot. When I first came here I (noticed that) on the subway, a lot of people would read (books) instead of look at their phones and that actually surprised me. I like reading myself, and I feel like students should definitely read more.

 

 

What are your plans for after graduation? Will you stay in the U.S. or go back to China?

 

I’m planning to work for a couple of years (in the U.S.) before going to grad school. Right now I’m interested in going to business school in the U.S. But after the business school, I’m still not sure where I want to stay.