Reprinted from CNN
Kelly Hyles got into all eight Ivy League schools, plus MIT, Tufts, Johns Hopkins … the list literally goes on. In fact, Hyles, a 17-year-old who lives in Queens, got 21 acceptance letters from colleges around the country.
While she’s a straight A student, she’s the first to admit that getting into so many schools didn’t come without a lot of hard work.
Her studiousness is ingrained in her: Hyles spent the first decade of her life in a small village called Vryheid’s Lust in Guyana.
“They were a bit more serious about school,” said Hyles of kids from her village. “Teachers are allowed to beat you — It wasn’t anything severe, but it keeps kids in check.” She moved to the U.S. when she was 11.
Hyles lives with her mother, who has set an example of what hard work looks like. Her mom works two jobs — she’s a home aide and a certified nursing assistant. Hyles commutes an hour and a half every day to the High School for Math, Science and Engineering in Harlem, one of New York’s nine specialized high schools.
“It’s required a lot of sacrifices,” she said.
Here’s how Hyles attracted the attention of so many prestigious colleges:
Take a broader view of the world
Hyles is one of less than two dozen black students in her senior class, which has more than 130 people.
It’s a common theme throughout New York City’s specialized high schools, a fact she found troubling.
“I am convinced that the decrease is not due to intellectual aptitude, but to lack of preparation and confidence,” she wrote in one her personal statements.
So she did something about it. Hyles partnered with the DREAM program, which prepares students for the Specialized High School Admissions Test. For three summers, she spent every weekday mentoring students at her former Brooklyn middle school.
“My main goal remains to replace self-doubt with self-confidence,” she wrote.
When Hyles took the SAT for the first time in May 2015, she wasn’t satisfied with the results.
“It didn’t go as well as I had wanted,” she said. “I was a little bummed and discouraged.”
She channeled that energy into studying more. A classmate gave her text books he no longer needed.
“I reused his books — and did much better,” she said.
“My biggest sacrifice was sleep,” she said, adding that she averages about five hours a night. “Sometimes, I wanted to sleep late or go to the movies or a party with my friends, but I had to prioritize.” Hyles said she knew her mother wouldn’t have enough money to put her through school.
“I knew I had to at least get academic scholarships, if not need-based scholarships,” she said, adding that college application fees were waved due to her financial standing.
Know that grades aren’t everything
Being a great student isn’t enough, though. “I knew I needed to be well-rounded,” said Hyles, who is also a cheerleader and a dancer. “I heard stories of people that made amazing grades that didn’t get into the colleges they wanted.”
So Hyles and two other students started a Black Student Union at her high school in 2014. “There were no clubs in which students could voice their outrage,” she wrote in one of her favorite college essays about the unrest after the shootings of unarmed black teens.
The group hosts weekly meetings to discuss social issues and black “excellence.”
Once a month, she hosts a “Blackout day” to celebrate black culture.
“The most rewarding part of Blackout day is finding parallels between seemingly different cultures,” she wrote. “I am confident that an aura of self-love will continue to reign in my school.”
Follow your passion
“I always had a plan. I knew what I wanted to do for a while,” said Hyles.
Case in point: Hyles loves math and science, so she applied to a science track at her school. As a senior, that enables her to spend half of her day at school and the rest of it at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
Seniors in the specialized track are paired with research labs — so Hyles spends her time researching the effects of a specific gene (which is associated with type II diabetes) on beta cell mass. “It’s pretty unique,” she said.
Get comfortable with yourself
Hyles, who was recently named a Ron Brown Scholar, said she was well aware of the negative stigmas ahead of her: She’s black and a woman.
Instead of letting those beliefs win — she embraced things like her skin color and her kinky hair.
“I was ‘Unapologetically Kelly,’” she said. “I did not see my race or gender as a limiting factor, but rather as a reason to work harder.”
Hyles added that moving to a new country at a young age “was culture shock,” but it taught her to be adaptable.
She said she waved at a woman, “Good afternoon, auntie” while riding her bike when she first moved to the U.S.
That’s the typical greeting in Hyles’ village — but not so here. “She looked at me like I was crazy.”
All of this has prepared her for wherever she lands. Hyles applied to 22 schools and was waitlisted only at Stanford University. She said that while Harvard has been her dream school, she’s considering all of her options.
“Honestly, I’ve had so many changes in my life I feel like I can adapt to fit in anywhere,” she said.