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Cambridge, Columbia, or Princeton? How Shirley chose between top-rated schools

It’s rare for a BC high school student to get into Cambridge, a school that fluctuates somewhere in the top three universities in the world. It’s even more rare for a student to be accepted into its ultra-competitive engineering program, and it’s almost unheard of for a student to turn Cambridge down. So why did Shirley, a 2023 Collingwood grad, do just that?

The answer lies in Shirley considering all of her options— and in finding the right “fit” beyond mere ratings. Collingwood’s University Guidance department works with students from Grade 8 through 12 and really gets to know students during the process. “We favour a student-centered approach with students that begins the moment they arrive at our Senior School campus,” says Jennifer Adriaanse, Collingwood’s Director of University Guidance. ”

Shirley received offers to 18 top universities in Canada, the US and the UK, the choices could be overwhelming. In addition to Cambridge, Shirley’s offers included Columbia University, Princeton, Duke, and UC Berkeley. Shirley had to balance all the pros and cons when choosing where to go to school and her decision was agonizing. 

Shirley cared most about the schools with impressive engineering programs that could hone her interest in electrical engineering and computer science. She had always imagined herself going to an American school but she fleetingly applied for Cambridge with zero expectation of getting in. 

Then, one day in the fall of 2022, in the middle of physics class, Shirley saw an email arrive from Cambridge. She was accepted, and suddenly, her plan to head to an American school wasn’t entirely certain.

“When you get into Cambridge, you go to Cambridge,” Ms. Adriaanse said. “And if students were to choose their post-secondary destination based on rankings alone, Shirley would have selected Cambridge. However, she was also concerned about the fit.” Shirley hadn’t yet heard from the US schools she’d applied to and wouldn’t for some time. She began to seriously consider going to the UK, but Ms. Adriaanse knew there would be more acceptances coming down the pipeline.

“Shirley is a prodigy. Her recommendation letters were the best I’ve ever seen in my career,” Ms. Adriaanse added. Shirley took full advantage of Collingwood’s personalized approach to learning, where each student can pursue what they are passionate about. For Shirely that included the academic rigour with Advanced Placement courses (university accredited courses) and other university level math courses. 

She has also built soccer-playing robots, fixed her parents’ refrigerator, took 15 AP courses, played in the West Vancouver Youth Band, and served as the Chief Technology Officer for the Collingwood Business Organization. Shirley also spent last summer developing a biopolymer fertilizer and published a research paper on her team’s findings–the fertilizer is now being used by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. She later traveled to Boston to present her fertilizer research to NASA scientists.

In April of her grade 12 year, Shirley was also accepted into Columbia University in New York and then Princeton University came calling. After visiting both schools, Shirley determined she did not want to live in New York City. She was not a “city person” and preferred the suburbs.

“Princeton had the best environment of all the schools I visited. It’s very natural and has the most beautiful architecture,” she said.

With Columbia out of the running, her choice flip-flopped between Cambridge and Princeton. 

“Cambridge is incredible in all aspects, and it’s one of the top STEM schools in the world, but I was always thinking of going to the US because there is a lot of green tech development going on there, and I wanted to be in that environment.”

Renewable resources and sustainability are topics close to Shirley’s heart and ones she plans on integrating into her engineering education. She also feels most comfortable designing solutions to problems when she fully understands how the humanities and technology are interconnected – and this is ultimately what her university decision hinged on.

She also found that Cambridge’s engineering program is solely focused on engineering and had few options to choose cross-disciplinary courses. Meanwhile, at Princeton she could have a more balanced course load.

“It’s a liberal arts university. Technology is connected with humanities and Princeton would allow me to have the social justice and economics classes on top of the technology work.” The UK was also an unfamiliar place – the culture, food, environment, and distance from home were all things Shirley had never experienced. Something about Princeton just fit.

“Princeton will give me the right foundation for what I want to do after,” she said. She has her sights set on the Bay Area for graduate school. 

If her university search has taught her anything, it’s to find the right fit, follow her heart, and go all in. We can’t wait to learn about Shirley's next chapter at Princeton!