Overcoming stereotypes: How Albert Choi made it to Harvard

July 9, 2015
Incoming Harvard University freshman Albert Choi gets congratulated by the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea in Washington D.C. (Courtesy of Albert Choi/South Korean Embassy)

Incoming Harvard University freshman Albert Choi gets congratulated by the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea in Washington D.C. (Courtesy of Albert Choi/South Korean Embassy)

Albert Choi at the Korea Times headquarters in Los Angeles (Angelina Widener/Korea Times)

Albert Choi at the Korea Times headquarters in Los Angeles (Angelina Widener/Korea Times)

By Brian Han

Incoming Harvard University freshman Albert Choi developed an odd daily routine that he says may have helped him excel in high school.

“In the middle of my junior year I developed this weird schedule where I was so tired from football practice that I would get home, shower, sleep and then wake up at 3 a.m. every morning and just do all my homework,” he said. “No one else is awake then so there were never any distractions.”

Who knows? Maybe that’s the secret to unlocking one’s academic potential.

Well. Probably not.

But it does reveal something vital about Choi’s success. He’s not afraid to try things differently — something that applies to multiple aspects of his life.

Even so, he did fall into certain Asian American stereotypes.

Choi thought about college admissions as early as the seventh grade. He was taught to hold test scores paramount and excelled in both math and science. He became a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

These qualities are not disadvantageous by any means, but in the college admissions process, it can get an applicant lost in a sea of very similar individuals.

“Growing up, there was this joke that I fit that Asian stereotype perfectly,” Choi recalled. “And even though it was a joke, it really got me thinking about who I was.”

It was then that he decided to reinvent himself.

His first attempt was trying out for the football team in middle school — an uncommon sport of choice for Asian Americans.

“I never would have thought I was going to be a football player, but I just figured why not?” he said.

The sport became a therapeutic escape from the daily stresses of a teenage student with thoughts of college constantly looming.

It also put him in touch with other students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds with whom he would have never socialized otherwise.

“I met one of my best friends, Desmond, who lives in Inglewood,” Choi recalls referring to a more urbanized part of Los Angeles. “I had never met anyone from Inglewood before and I started visiting him every weekend. It opened me up to this whole new world that I had never seen before.”

The experience informed a new philosophy that he believes helped him grow into a person that elite schools were more than happy to admit.

“My biggest thing is to thrust myself into uncomfortable situations so I can learn and grow from them,” he said.

What resulted was a domino effect.

Choi decided to start writing poetry and took a philosophy course that would become his most gratifying academic experience yet.

He now had the confidence to run for student council and by his senior year he was both captain of the football team and part of the prefect council.

“I’m not the most athletic person by any means, but I really dedicated myself to the sport and my teammates responded well to that,” he said.

Choi believes that too many students focus so much on crafting an image of themselves that they believe elite schools want to see, but fail to appreciate what is right in front of them.

“I think the issue with a lot of students is that all their effort is directed towards getting into college, but the idea of spending all four years of high school for the sole purpose of getting into college is a little absurd to me,” he said. “You’ve got to work hard, but try to enjoy yourself along the way.”

It’s not as if Choi distanced himself from his roots though.

He still takes every opportunity to celebrate his heritage and gives credit for his 4.41 GPA and perfect SAT score to the work ethic instilled in him when he was younger.

He was also accepted to Stanford University, but eventually chose Harvard where he plans to major in either philosophy or english while also fulfilling his premed requirements.

He most recently traveled to Washington D.C. to be inducted into the Presidential Scholars program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Approximately 100 students were chosen from around the nation to attend the event.

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