You've sent out your applications and can't stop envisioning yourself at your top-choice school. But then the unthinkable happens: you get a college rejection letter. You start to wonder: what went wrong? What do I do now? Is it still possible to attend my top-choice school?
The truth is that I've been in this exact same situation. In 2008, I got rejected from my top-choice school, Stanford. Though the rejection letter hurt, on the plus side, it taught me a lot about what I did wrong, both in my application and my overall high school career.
In this article, I use my own rejection experience as a guide to explain how likely a college rejection is for you, how to avoid getting rejected from college, and the steps to take in case your top-choice school just isn't that into you.
How Likely Is It That You'll Get a College Rejection Letter?
First things first, how likely is it that you'll actually get rejected from college—more importantly, from your top-choice school?
The answer to this question varies depending on two main factors:
- How competitive your top-choice college is
- How strong your college application is
How Competitive Is Your Top-Choice School?
As you might've guessed, your chances of getting rejected from college depend a lot on how hard your top-choice school is to get into.
Now, what do many of these schools have in common? That's right: extremely low acceptance rates. These rates dramatically affect your likelihood of getting accepted (or getting rejected).
Below are the acceptance rates for the top 25 universities, as determined by the most recent US News rankings for 2020. All schools are listed in order of ranking. (Pro tip: click the school name to learn more about its admission requirements!)
|School||US News Ranking||Acceptance Rate|
|University of Chicago||6 (tie)||7%|
|University of Pennsylvania||6 (tie)||8%|
|Johns Hopkins||10 (tie)||11%|
|University of Notre Dame||15 (tie)||18%|
|Washington University in St. Louis||19||15%|
|UC Berkeley||22 (tie)||15%|
|Carnegie Mellon||25 (tie)||17%|
As you can see, your chance of acceptance to top-tier colleges ranges from just 4% to as much as 23%. Your chance of college rejection is highest for schools ranked in the top 10. At these colleges, the typical applicant has a whopping 90-95% chance of getting rejected.
These are very, very general estimates, though. How high or low your chances of rejection are will ultimately depend on the overall strength of your application (we discuss this more below). To get a slightly more accurate idea of your admission chances to a particular school, use our college admissions calculator.
Still, the point is clear: most applicants to highly selective schools get rejected. Your chance of getting a college rejection letter will be less likely if your top-choice school is ranked lower and has a higher admission rate.
You have a lower chance of getting rejected from NYU than you do from Columbia. (jpellgen (@1179_jp)/Flickr)
How Strong Is Your College Application?
The other major factor that affects your chances of getting rejected from college is the strength of your application.
A strong college application usually has the following features:
- A high GPA and rigorous, challenging course load
- High test scores on the SAT/ACT, SAT Subject Tests, AP exams, etc.
- A compelling personal statement
- Cogent letters of recommendation
- An impressive resume/CV—particularly one that showcases your ongoing commitment to a particular field
- A high class rank (if your high school calculates rank)
For the Ivy League and other highly competitive schools, you'll definitely need to stand out from other applicants. And the best way to do this is to create a big spike in your application. A spike is essentially something you're passionate about and have continuously striven to master. It could be anything from a love of writing short stories to a passion for chemistry.
Most importantly, your spike should be a field you're truly committed to and for which you have sufficient evidence to prove your commitment.
If you have a spike as well as high test scores, a high GPA, etc., you'll have a much better chance of being a top-choice candidate for your school.
All of this also means that you should avoid aiming for a well-rounded application. This can put you right in the crapshoot of college applications, significantly reducing your chance of acceptance (and thereby increasing your chance of rejection).
My Experience: I Got Rejected From Stanford
Some of you reading this might be wondering why I'm writing this article. Well, let me start with some facts.
Rejection is nothing new to me. I applied to college in 2008 (yeesh, I'm getting old!). At the time, Stanford was my top choice, so I applied restrictive early action, meaning that my application was due earlier (by November 1) and that Stanford was my #1 pick for college.
A little while later, I received a rejection by email. It was the first university I heard back from in the application process, and its letter was by far the most painful. I remember bursting into tears as soon as I finished reading it and then running to my parents for comfort.
So many questions ran through my head: how come they didn't like me? What did I do wrong? Did I mess up my application somehow? Was I simply not good enough?
Months later, I got accepted to USC and decided to attend that school instead. And I had a blast: I joined a couple of clubs, wrote for the school newspaper, worked on campus, made good friends, and had an overall fun and eclectic experience I'd never trade for anything.
Sometimes, though, I think back to that initial college rejection and wonder: how did I manage to get through such a difficult, stressful time in my life? And how can I use what I know now to help other students in the same position I was once in?
Here's why I'm telling you all of this:
- I want you to know that I'm speaking from experience: This is not an article coming from one of those top students who got into every Ivy League school and has never dealt with the crushing pain of rejection. Trust me, I've been there—and I know exactly how it feels!
- It's important to know that you're not alone: Lots of students get rejected from college—honestly, more than you might think!—and it's a totally normal part of the college admission process. Yes, some lucky people will get accepted to all the schools they apply to, but the fact is that most students will get rejected from at least one school, especially if they're applying to highly competitive ones.
- Rejection is part of life: It sucks to admit this, but it's the truth. The better you can learn to handle rejection, the easier it'll be to move on and look for new (and better) ways to achieve your goals. (As a bonus, I've also gotten rejected from grad schools, so once again I'm pretty experienced at this rejection thing!)
Now that you know my story, let's start with the positives: how to avoid getting rejected from college in the first place. If this doesn't work out for you, no worries—I'll also give you advice on what to do if you do get rejected.
Unfortunately, my tips for avoiding rejection don't apply to asking people out on dates.
How to Avoid Getting a College Rejection: 6 Tips
Since getting my first college rejection from Stanford, I can tell you this: I've learned a lot about what I did wrong in my application.
For one, my application wasn't unique enough. I didn't have a "spike" that made me stand apart from other applicants; instead, I naively believed in the misconception that well rounded was what all top schools wanted the most. (Hint: it's not!)
In addition, my SAT score wasn't up to par. At the time I thought I'd done fairly well on the test, but I didn't realize that pretty good isn't usually good enough for top schools like Stanford. These days, you'd need to score around 1460 (or in the top 3%) just to meet the average at Stanford!
Finally, I didn't take advantage of the AP/honors classes available at my high schools (I moved and attended two schools). I remember thinking that two or three AP classes and a couple of high AP scores would be good enough. Again, though, this isn't that impressive to top-ranked schools.
So what can you do to ensure that you have a better chance of getting into your top-choice school? Here are my top six tips.
#1: Maintain a High GPA While Also Challenging Yourself
Most students probably know this, but you'll need a pretty high GPA to keep from getting rejected. Why? Well, a high GPA proves that you're not only responsible and studious but also capable of performing consistently well in a variety of disciplines. By excelling in several classes, you're providing direct evidence of your deep commitment to learning and academic success.
So what constitutes a high GPA? The answer to this will depend on the school you're applying to. If you're applying to a top-25 school such as Stanford, aim for a 4.0 (unweighted) or pretty close to it.
If you're not sure how high of a GPA your school expects, try looking on the school's website for any information or data about the average GPA of admitted applicants.
That being said, getting a high GPA alone isn't as important as getting a good GPA and taking a challenging course load.
Here's what I mean by this: when applying to top colleges, a 4.0 unweighted GPA is no doubt great. However, you'll be a much more competitive applicant if you have, say, a slightly lower 3.8 GPA and have also taken loads of challenging AP/honors courses.
This means that you could get mostly As and a couple of Bs in challenging AP courses and still have a higher chance of getting accepted over someone who got all As but took only easy classes. This is because colleges like to see that you're continuously challenging yourself.
For me, this was a critical point I didn't get at all in high school. I took a few AP and honors courses, but I didn't take nearly as many as I should have. Instead, I stuck mostly to classes I knew I'd get As in and refrained from truly challenging myself by taking harder ones. This is probably part of the reason Stanford rejected me.
#2: Get a High SAT/ACT Score
Like the tip above, this is kind of a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how little I thought of it when I applied to college back in 2008.
While colleges understand that the SAT/ACT is just one part of your application, it's still pretty important to get a high score on one of the two tests—especially a score that sets you apart from other applicants.
A good SAT/ACT score will vary depending on the schools you're applying to. For example, if you were applying to Harvard, you'd want to aim for 1590 on the SAT or 35 on the ACT. These are the 75th percentile scores for admitted applicants to Harvard. In other words, get this score level and you'll have a higher score than 75% of applicants.
Even if you got slightly lower than this—such as a 1570 on the SAT or a 34 on the ACT—you'd still be in relatively good shape. The point, however, is that you want to shoot as high as possible so you can give yourself the best chance of admission.
On the other hand, if you were applying to a less selective school like the University of Houston, you'd only need an SAT score around 1280 or an ACT score around 27. Again, you could still get accepted with slightly lower scores than these, but aiming high ensures you'll have a great shot.
As you can see, what's considered a high SAT/ACT score will depend greatly on where you're applying. If you can hit (or almost hit) your top-choice school's 75th percentile score, you'll stand out and lower your chances of rejection.
To find your school's test score information, search for “[School Name] PrepScholar" on Google. Click our link to the school's Admission Requirements page to see the school's average SAT/ACT scores and its 25th/75th percentiles.
Here's an example of our Admission Requirements page for Stanford:
#3: Work On Developing Your Spike
This piece of advice is essential for those applying to the Ivy League or Ivy League-level institutions (and it's definitely something I wish I'd known back when I applied to Stanford). And here's what it is: part of crafting an incredible college application is working on developing a spike.
I briefly introduced this concept earlier, but now let's look at in detail. Your spike is what makes you stand out from other applicants. This is typically an ongoing passion for and commitment to some kind of academic or personal interest.
For instance, perhaps you're a lover of writing who's published his own self-help ebook and tutors elementary school students in creative writing on weekends. Or maybe you're a science whiz who's conducted numerous experiments and submitted her results to conventions.
Get the picture here? Think of this spike as the opposite of being well rounded.
When I applied to Stanford, I assumed that well rounded = automatic acceptance. I was a member of my school's honor society, ran on the cross country team for two years, and played the piano in my spare time. All of this, I thought, made me a well-rounded, ideal candidate.
Boy, was I wrong.
In truth, colleges—particularly selective ones like Stanford—see tons of applicants like this. This is likely a big reason I got rejected: I wasn't unique enough! Instead, I should have spent more time developing the hobbies I enjoyed most and participating in activities more strongly tied to my most passionate interests.
That's what I did wrong. Now, here's what you can do right. Below, I list some options you can try to help you further develop your spike:
- Take classes related to your passion: Into writing? Take extra writing-oriented classes such as newspaper, yearbook, or journalism. Also, if possible, opt for the hardest versions of these classes (e.g., take AP English instead of regular English).
- Join a relevant club: If you're a lover of geometry or calculus, join the math club. Putting in extra time shows that you're interested in this field outside of school as well.
- Enter fairs, contests, and conventions: This tip is especially relevant to those in the science field. Say you've got an invention, made a discovery, or created a piece of art that you want to show off. Don't just keep it for yourself—submit your project somewhere in order to highlight your commitment to making a change in the world.
- Teach younger students: Becoming a volunteer tutor/teacher demonstrates your devotion to helping others develop their passions in a field you enjoy. If you're an artist, volunteer to teach drawing or painting classes to students at a local Boys & Girls Club, for instance.
- Get a relevant part-time job: Not all students have the time or opportunity to secure a part-time job in a field relevant to their interests, but if you can, I highly recommend doing so, as it can stress both your commitment to your field and your responsibility as an employee.
All in all, don't rely on the trap of being well rounded, particularly if you're trying to get accepted to highly selective schools.
The only thing you want to be well rounded is the bubble you're blowing.
#4: Write a Compelling Personal Statement and Consider Context
Even if you've got both stellar grades and a high SAT/ACT score, schools want to see that you're an interesting, passionate person who is committed to learning. This is why it's important to spend a lot of time crafting an impactful personal statement for your application.
In general, a good personal statement will accomplish the following:
- Introduce who you are as a person (not just as a student!) and why you're applying
- Provide context for your academic accomplishments, passions, and future goals
- Focus on your spike and what makes you unique
- Answer the prompt clearly and fully (if given one)
- Use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation
- Be the correct length and file format (e.g., PDF, .docx, etc.)
- Make the college want to admit you!
The statement is a great opportunity to explain what your spike is, how you got interested in it, and what kind of role you see it playing in your future. For a detailed look at what makes for a powerful personal statement, check out our analysis of more than 100 college essays.
In addition, the personal statement lets you explain the context of your academic situation. For example, does your high school not offer any AP or honors courses? Or are you the first person in your family to attend college?
It's important to answer questions like these in your essay so that the school can take into account your personal circumstances as well as how these might have influenced the quality of your application. This way, you won't get rejected simply because you didn't take any AP courses (even though none might have been available to you!).
Many schools stress the importance of considering each applicant's circumstances. For example, here's what Stanford says on its website:
"We take into account your background, educational pathway, and work and family responsibilities. By focusing on your achievements in context, we evaluate how you have excelled in your school environment and how you have taken advantage of what is available to you in your school and community."
And here's how Duke considers context in applications for admission:
"We think about what a student has accomplished within the context of the opportunities and challenges he or she has faced."
Evidently, the personal statement isn't just an opportunity to showcase your spike and strengths—it's also a chance to explain your personal situation. Do all of this, and you'll be far less likely to get rejected for something like a slightly lower SAT score.
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#5: Apply Early Action/Early Decision, If Possible
Most early action/early decision deadlines are November 1 or November 15. These deadlines are about a month or two earlier than most regular decision deadlines.
So how does applying early action/early decision affect your admission chances? Data shows that those who apply early action or early decision typically have higher acceptance rates than those who apply regular decision.
This doesn't necessarily mean you'll get accepted. I applied early action to Stanford and still got rejected. Nevertheless, an early application might give you a slight edge over other applicants, as it shows the school you're committed to it and really want to continue your education there.
The only drawback to applying early action/early decision is that the early deadline gives you less time to put together a strong application. If you're struggling to prepare an effective application for an early action plan, consider applying regular decision instead to give yourself more time.
This leads me to my next point ...
#6: Take Your Time—Don't Rush the Application Process!
Whether you're applying early action/early decision or regular decision, it can be tempting to rush through the application process, especially since most students are extremely busy at the start of senior year.
Even though this is a stressful time, try your best not to rush through your application to your top-choice school. Simply put, don't write your personal statement the day before the deadline, and don't ask for letters of recommendation from teachers at the last minute.
Why is this so important? If you spend too little time working on your application, you run a much higher risk of doing the following:
- Misreading application instructions
- Forgetting to submit a required (or very important) document/application component
- Turning in subpar materials, such as a poorly written essay
I advise spending at least a few months on your college applications. And while all applications are equally important, it's OK to spend a little extra time on the application for your top choice, if only because it's the school you're most interested in.
Also, don't be afraid to ask questions by emailing or calling the school. For example, confused about application instructions? Send an email. Not sure what a "supplementary document" is? Call the admissions department. Better to make sure you're following the rules than to risk getting your application disqualified because you made a huge (but entirely preventable) mistake.
When I applied to Stanford, I thought I'd taken my time to do the application, but I really hadn't. It was only after I submitted it that I realized I'd made some dire mistakes.
Here's my most memorable: at the time, Stanford allowed applicants to attach supplementary files. So I attached a sample chapter from a novel I was writing to prove my passion for writing. But after submitting my application, I reread the application instructions and realized that chapters of fiction was something Stanford specifically requested applicants to not send in. Oops!
Got rejected? It's OK to get a little dramatic.
How to Deal With College Rejection: 5 Essential Tips
Unfortunately, even if you heed all the tips above, you could still wind up with a college rejection letter. I'll be honest: getting rejected sucks. But it certainly doesn't mean your academic career (or life, if you're dramatic like me) is over.
Here are some ways to cope with a college rejection, as well as options on what to do after you get rejected from college:
#1: Give Yourself Time to Process the Rejection
This is really, really important. Once you get the dreaded college rejection letter from your top-choice school, it can feel as though the whole world is crashing down around you. I'm here to tell you that this feeling is totally normal. After all, you're essentially grieving—sounds cheesy, I know. But it's the truth.
And when something bad happens, it's important to take time to let yourself feel sad about it. In this case, even though you likely worked really hard in school, you lost the opportunity to attend the college of your dreams. All of your future plans must change, which sucks. It's OK (and even expected) to be upset about this.
Here are some healthy options for coping with a college rejection:
- Cry (hey, it worked for me!)
- Spend some time alone to help you get used to the fact that you got rejected
- Talk it out with close friends and/or family members
- Distract yourself in positive ways with activities such as video games, homework, or hanging out with friends
- Commiserate with other rejectees, either in person or on college forums such as College Confidential and Reddit
- Rip up, shred, or burn your rejection letter (let's be honest: dramatic expressions can make us feel great)
Although grieving is important, don't let yourself get wrapped up in your sorrows for too long. Once you've given yourself ample time to cope, get off the ground and focus on the other options you've got in your life.
Also, try not to let the rejection negatively impact your grades, extracurriculars, and other college applications (if you haven't finished all of them yet).
#2: Get Excited About Other Schools
While your top-choice school might've rejected you, remember that this is just one school, and you (hopefully) have several others you're applying to or already applied to. These are the schools it's time to get excited about, regardless of whether you've heard back from them. There is a reason you applied to each school you applied to.
As you go through the schools you've been accepted to, concentrate on the specific features and opportunities you liked about each school. For example, what inspired you to apply there? Can you envision yourself feeling at home on campus? What kinds of classes and majors does it offer? Do you like its emphasis on Greek life? What about its awesome football team?
If possible, talk to current students at the schools so you can start to imagine yourself attending them. Doing this will not only make you excited about your other options but will also prevent you from daydreaming about what might've happened had you been accepted to your top choice.
Finally, remember that you will likely be able to study what you want to at these other schools as well. Just because your top-choice school rejected you, that doesn't mean you still can't get a BA in Psychology or a BS in Computer Science.
Apparently, you can even make your own Disney degree at UC Berkeley!
#3: Take a Gap Year and Reapply Later
If you didn't get accepted to your top-choice school, a gap year can help you figure out what kind of education you want in life while also providing you with some interesting experiences (which could potentially strengthen future college applications!).
After your gap year, you can then reapply to your top-choice school, with a fresh perspective and a slightly better understanding of where your application might've gone wrong before.
While there's nothing wrong with taking a year off before college, be sure you're actually making your gap year worthwhile. Neither colleges nor your parents will be impressed if all you do is sit at home and play video games all day. Make your gap year an adventure: work a new job, travel abroad, intern at a company, join a community club, learn a foreign language.
Hopefully, you'll get experiences out of your gap year that'll help you in the field you want to major in. For example, if you're thinking about majoring in English, taking a year off to write a novel and submit stories you've written to literary magazines would be an excellent use of your time (assuming your parents are OK with it, of course!).
Later, when you begin the process of reapplying to your top-choice school, you can explain in your application what you did during your gap year and why you chose to take a year off before starting college.
If you decide to reapply, it's a good idea to use your old application as a reference. Think about where you might've gone wrong and how you can improve on it this time (ideally, by incorporating some of your gap-year experiences into it).
A word of caution, though: don't put all your eggs in one basket. In other words, don't expect to get admitted simply because you applied before and now deserve to get in. Admissions is often a brutal process, and nobody (except those on the admissions committee) knows what a college is looking for in terms of applicants.
So as you reapply to your top-choice school, make sure you're applying to other schools as well—ideally, a combination of reach schools and safety schools.
#4: Remember That Transferring Is an Option
If you decide to attend a different school you got into (which most people do, including myself!), know that it might be possible to transfer to your top-choice school in a couple of years.
While I wouldn't attend a different college with this exact plan in mind, knowing that transferring is an option in case you still really want to attend your top-choice school should make you feel a little more at ease with your decision to (temporarily) attend a different school.
Note that to transfer to a school, you'll usually need to submit an entirely new transfer application meaning that it can't be the same one you submitted before when applying as a freshman.
Moreover, transferring is not guaranteed. Many schools, particularly the Ivies, accept very few transfers each year.
In 2012, Harvard admitted just 1% (15 out of 1,448) of transfer applicants. As you can see, here you actually have a lower chance of getting accepted as a transfer student than you do as a freshman applicant (the current acceptance rate for which is 5%).
If you're curious about the transfer acceptance rate at your top-choice school, contact your school directly or check out CollegeTransfer.net, which contains tons of data on schools and their transfer rates.
In the end, though, who knows what'll happen? You might end up loving the school you attend and wouldn't even consider transferring out of it.
#5: Consider Challenging the Rejection
There is one final option you have when it comes to college rejection, though it's one I honestly don't recommend doing: appealing, or challenging, your rejection.
Challenging a college rejection is pretty much what it sounds like. When you get rejected, you have the option to tell the college you think they're wrong and ask them to reconsider your application.
So what's the problem? You can't appeal your rejection simply because you're upset that you didn't get accepted. This is not a good enough reason to ask a college to look at your application again. Even if a school did agree to reevaluate your application, it's unlikely a second look-through would change their minds (particularly if your main complaint is that they failed to recognize how absolutely incredible you are).
Instead, you can only appeal a college rejection if you have any new, significant information to add to your application, or if there was a major error or problem with your application. For example, did you win a big award or somehow dramatically improve your GPA? Then see whether you can appeal the rejection. (Not all schools will let you do this, though!)
In terms of technical problems, did your SAT/ACT score get reported incorrectly to your college? Or did your transcript get messed up and show you got Ds when you actually got As? Then appeal the rejection; most likely the college will allow it in this case since the problem is not actually your fault.
In some cases, colleges will not allow you to appeal your rejection at all (even if you won the Nobel Peace Prize). In fact, most top-ranked schools don't allow appeals of admission decisions. If you disagree with their decision, you simply have to wait and reapply the following year.
If you're not sure whether your top-choice school allows appeals or not, look at the school's official website or contact the school directly.
While rare, it is possible to get into a college through an appeal (though it's admittedly far less likely to get in this way). Here's an example of a student who got accepted to UC Berkeley through an appeal.
Seriously, first a Disney major and now a successful appeal? Starting to think I should've attended Berkeley ...
Conclusion: How to Deal With College Rejection
After getting my Stanford rejection letter, I cried a lot and talked to my parents. Eventually, I moved on and started to get excited about my other options. I ended up attending USC, where I had a fun, stimulating, and all-around memorable experience—something I wouldn't trade for the world!
Still, getting rejected isn't fun. Unfortunately, it can be a likely consequence if you're applying to highly selective universities and don't have the grades or test scores your school expects.
The easiest way to avoid getting rejected from college is to produce the best application you can. For top schools, this means you should typically have the following:
- A high GPA and a challenging course load
- Strong SAT/ACT test scores
- A pronounced spike in your extracurriculars and hobbies
- A well-written and impactful personal statement
If possible, apply early action/early decision to your top-choice school. Applying early raises your chance of admission just slightly, as it highlights your commitment to the school.
Finally, make sure to take your time with your application—don't rush any part of it!
Let's say you do all of this, though, and still get rejected from your top-choice school. Bummer. At this point, you've essentially got five options (which you can mix and match, as desired):
- Take your time to process the rejection: Find a shoulder to cry on. Talk to family members and friends for support. Scream, "Rejection sucks!" while punching a pillow. Do whatever you need to do (in a healthy way) to make yourself feel better as you grieve.
- Get excited about your other schools: One rejection shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of your academic dreams. Remember that you applied to other schools for a reason, so start to think about what those can offer you instead.
- Take a gap year and reapply later: For some people, taking a break from school is exactly what they need to feel better and figure out what they want to do with their lives. It can also help you put together a stronger, more versatile application the next time you apply. Just don't expect an automatic acceptance from your top-choice school—more than likely, it'll still be just as hard to get into as it was the first year you applied!
- Remember that you can transfer later: Though not guaranteed, transferring is an option you might have a couple of years down the road if you still want the chance to attend your top-choice school.
- Consider challenging your rejection: I don't recommend this option, but it's there if your school allows it. Though it's rare to get in based on an appeal, it's certainly not impossible!
No matter what you choose to do, take care to remind yourself that getting rejected doesn't mean you're a bad student or that your application was horrendous. It just means that the school could only admit so many people, and you happened to not be one of them.
Even though the college admissions process can feel like an uphill battle, just know that you're definitely not alone. As we say at my alma mater, "Fight on!"
Want more tips for raising your chances of getting accepted to college? Check out our handy admissions calculator to learn how to estimate your chances of acceptance based on your current GPA and test scores.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.