Do Dreams Come True?: My Princeton Experience


As an entering Sophomore at Princeton University, I cannot help but reflect back on my freshman year and the absolute awe that followed my arrival on campus. It felt like a dream come true. However as I reread my journal today, two particular entries reminded me of how my dream to of Princeton has evolved into my reality as a student. Like many high schoolers, Princeton initially was a dream come true. But I soon realized that Princeton placed me in an exhilarating environment with beyond talented individuals, challenging academics, and inspiring opportunities. Princeton turned out to be much more than I had dreamed of. 

October 12th, 2022: 

Every time I walk past Blair Arch, I remember that I’m literally living out my dream of going to an Ivy League [school]. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The odds were not in my favor. The acceptance rates are so small. Yet here I am. I never thought much of that, but now I realize how momentous it is! “

A month into school, and I am very clearly enamored with the “idea” of Princeton. 

March 22nd, 2023:

“I got an iced coffee at Campus Club today. The weather is still cold outside, and the crisp air kindly reminds me every morning that I live on the East Coast rather than Texas. The old wooden doors of Campus Club welcomed me in as I ordered an iced coffee. As I sat down, I found it odd that I’m currently sitting inside an old mansion: the only way I can truly describe eating clubs to my friends back home. Dark wood frames the diamond patterned windows, and I feel cozy inside here. The room is quietly bustling with student activity, and I eavesdrop on other students discussing math and physics. I observe the room around me, wondering what's happened in this room, a room with 100+ years of history. It’s odd that this room used to only occupy men, and now here I am, occupying this space. Drinking my coffee, a young woman, bright and curious, diving into my electrical engineering homework. “

By my second semester, I found a more accurate dream of Princeton. I recognized the privilege of this education on a deeper level. Princeton is not just a name or the face of our iconic Blair Arch, is a school with complex history. I take pride in being a woman in STEM, continually contributing to Princeton’s history--while drinking coffee in Campus Club. Since my first year here, I’ve realized that my dream of going to an Ivy League school has not really come true. As a woman in STEM, in an amazing academic environment, rich with history, I've been given a spot. I believe my dream has just started
 


It's That Time of Year Again: Welcoming the Class of 2027


It’s that time of year again. My team and I are making last minute tweaks to the incoming first-year class.

We’ve spent the past several months reading, re-reading and discussing the applications that many of you reading this blog put hours of preparation into. We have appreciated learning about your academic pursuits, the activities that intrigue you outside of the classroom and the factors that led you to apply to Princeton. We have laughed at your funny anecdotes, cried (yes, cried) over some of the situations you have trusted us enough to share and thought about how you might add to this vibrant community. And now it comes down to your receiving a decision.

You might not believe it, but this is not my favorite part of my job. Don’t get me wrong, I think I have one of the best jobs on this campus – being able to serve my alma mater in a way that introduces her to prospective students around the world. But in this moment, providing decisions that will exhilarate some and devastate others is not my idea of fun.

So, each year, I try to remind ALL applicants that receiving a decision from a college (whether it’s Princeton or some other amazing institution of higher learning) should not make or break you. If you receive positive news, that’s excellent! Celebrate, decide if it’s the place you can see yourself learning and growing inside and outside of the classroom and base your decision on whether or not to enroll on whether or not the school is a fit for you academically, socially and financially.

If you receive not-so positive news, know that one school’s decision does not indicate anything about your ability to be successful in college. I can only speak for Princeton, but each year we receive applications from many more highly qualified students than we could possibly admit. And, each year we have to say no to many of those same students. I realize that doesn’t take the sting out of receiving anything other than an admit. Still, I hope that you will not let the received decision keep you down. Rather, take a minute to absorb it, and then regroup and put your efforts into your senior year activities. Importantly, remember to enjoy the remainder of your high school senior year, as making those memories are as important as figuring out the next phase of your life.

Whatever decision you receive from Princeton or any other college or university you have applied to, please know that we have enjoyed getting to know you. Your story is unique to you and important. And whatever campus community is allowed to benefit from your presence will be all the better for it.

Good luck with this next adventure!


Dear Prospective Transfer Student: Know That You Are Valued and Supported


For prospective transfer students considering Princeton, know that you are not only valued here, but supported financially, academically and personally by systems that were created specifically for you. You can experience a residential liberal arts college as robustly as any other student without compromising your goals and individual needs. Princeton’s incoming transfer students have a supportive cohort within the tight-knit transfer and veteran student body as well as across the greater community. And when it comes to your strengths and achievements – not only academically, but also otherwise, such as in your military service, professional work, etc. – know that these are valued and appreciated in our process not in spite of their difference compared to the average traditional student, but because of them.  The life experience and perspectives you bring from those achievements — and maybe from the learning experiences and tenacity you have shown in overcoming some negative experiences — give us a unique perspective about your ability to thrive and contribute to an environment where academic rigor and exploration are encouraged, and close community relationships are forged.

When presenting your body of work since your high school years — which can be from a range of time and experiences across the transfer student spectrum — we ask for the full range of academic records and non-academic experiences so we can best understand your trajectory, and how you have become the strong and motivated student you are now, and how you’re prepared for the kind of experience offered at Princeton. Academically, your level of preparation will mostly be evaluated on the strongest, most recent academic record in place of maybe suboptimal prior experiences. If there are reasons to explain why past experiences — academic or otherwise — did not meet your current high levels of achievement, it’s helpful to address those extenuating circumstances, regardless of whether they were within or outside of your control. This can be in the form or a resume charting out the road map, or a short paragraph in relevant optional sections of the application.

Whatever the case may be, and whether you traveled the straight and narrow path to this juncture, or a wider, more meandering one, know that you can absolutely be a worthy and highly competitive candidate for Princeton or any similar elite college that values transfer and non-traditional students, no matter how highly selective. Do not be discouraged by statistics of admission rates or academic metrics that are largely comprised of the majority of our applicants in much more linear pathways who do not bring the range of life experiences and perspectives that you might. Instead, show us your strengths as they exist today, as well as the road you traveled that contributed to who you are and why this is the right moment where your goals in higher education and beyond intersect with what a college like Princeton can offer you, and what you can offer to the community in return. Find your greatest advocates in your current community — whether that’s at your college, at your job, in your military cohort, or elsewhere — to support you in this process, and importantly, reach out to us directly, as well as our counterparts in the offices of other colleges you’ll be applying. This process is complex enough for any student, and we’re happy to assist and support however we can on our end as you continue this journey, and prepare for the next steps ahead.


We Have Enjoyed Getting to Know You: Bringing in the Class of 2027


It’s that time of year again. Here in New Jersey, the weather has turned colder, the trees have surrendered the last of their leaves, and my team and I are making last minute tweaks to the incoming first year class.

We’ve spent the past several weeks reading, re-reading and discussing the applications that many of you reading this blog put hours of preparation into. We have appreciated learning about your academic pursuits, the activities that intrigue you outside of the classroom and the factors that led you to apply to Princeton. We have laughed at your funny anecdotes, cried (yes, cried) over some of the situations you have trusted us enough to share and thought about how you might add to this vibrant community. And now it comes down to your receiving a decision.

You might not believe it, but this is not my favorite part of my job. Don’t get me wrong, I think I have one of the best jobs on this campus – being able to serve my alma mater in a way that introduces her to prospective students around the world. But in this moment, providing decisions that will exhilarate some and devastate others is not my idea of fun.

So, each year, I try to remind ALL applicants that receiving a decision from a college (whether it’s Princeton or some other amazing institution of higher learning) should not make or break you. If you receive positive news, that’s excellent! Celebrate, decide if it’s the place you can see yourself learning and growing inside and outside of the classroom and base your decision on whether or not to enroll on whether or not the school is a fit for you academically, socially and financially.

If you receive not-so positive news, know that one school’s decision does not indicate anything about your ability to be successful in college. I can only speak for Princeton, but each year we receive applications from many more highly qualified students than we could possibly admit. And, each year we have to say no to many of those same students. I realize that that doesn’t take the sting out of receiving anything other than an admit. Still, I hope that you will not let the received decision keep you down. Rather, take a minute to absorb it, and then regroup and put your efforts into your senior year activities and any other applications that need to be finished. Importantly, remember to enjoy the second half of your high school senior year as making those memories are as important as figuring out the next phase of your life.

Whatever decision you receive from Princeton or any other college or university you have applied to, please know that we have enjoyed getting to know you. Your story is unique to you and important. And whatever campus community is allowed to benefit from your presence will be all the better for it.

Good luck with this next adventure!


Giving a Tour of Princeton


On a recent Sunday, my friend Hannah took the train from New York City to visit me in Princeton. In planning our itinerary, I considered what sites would be essential to give her the complete Princeton experience. I wanted to show her the traditional Princeton sites and give her a feel for what a typical day of traversing campus for classes, meetings, and activities is like for me. These are the locations I decided to include on the tour, and we had a lovely time exploring them throughout the afternoon.

1. The Dinky

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Silver train stopped at the Dinky train station in Princeton, NJ

The first stop was meeting Hannah at the Dinky train station. The Dinky is a short rail line connecting campus to Princeton Junction, which is a major train station hub with connections to cities like Philadelphia and New York. Once off the Dinky, Hannah entered the Wawa there to grab a coffee while she waited for me to arrive (who was caught off guard by how fast the Dinky was, and consequently late!)

2. My residential college

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white hotel exterior of Forbes College

After leaving the Dinky station, our first tour site was naturally Forbes college. Forbes, my residential college, is located just across Alexander Street from the Dinky. I explained that the building was formerly the Princeton Inn, and I showed her where my dorm was.

3. Nassau Hall, Firestone Plaza, and Blair Arch

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Author standing with camera and arms outstretched in welcoming pose in Firestone plaza

Next up on the tour were several historic sites without which no Princeton tour would be complete. We walked up to Nassau Hall, the iconic ivy-covered building just past the front gates, passed through Firestone Plaza, and posed for a photo in front of Blair Arch (cover image of this blog), the famous steps of which used to welcome visitors off the train (the train station was moved a quarter mile south, to its current location near Forbes, in 1918). With my camera and map in hand, I think I looked much more like a tourist than a student here!

4. Fountain of Freedom

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Children and adults wading in reflecting pool of the Fountain of Freedom

It was a very hot day, so we decided to cool off by the Fountain of Freedom. The breeze blows a spray of water as you pass by, which was cooling and much appreciated that afternoon. There's also a reflecting pool in which children play and swim, and it was so hot that I took off my shoes and decided to wade in too! It was a much-needed refresher.

5. Eating Clubs

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The cannon and lawn in front of the historic mansion that is the Cannon Dial Elm eating club

I'm not a member of an eating club, but I still felt a Princeton tour would not be complete without a stroll down Prospect Avenue to see the eleven historic buildings. We appreciated the architecture and peeked through the windows to see inside the (summer-emptied) clubs.

6. Palmer Square

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Brick and wood façades of storefronts in Palmer Square

After exploring campus, I took Hannah down Nassau Street to see the town. We window shopped in Palmer Square (a high end shopping and dining square in the heart of town), and we actually shopped at my favorite thrift store, Nearly New. I'm pleased to report I found some Princeton socks for $3.

After exploring campus and town, we walked back to the Dinky and Hannah departed suburbia to return to the big city. There are certainly more sites to see, but I think my tour provided a nice overview of the campus and town.


Dear QuestBridge Matches: Playing Life on Hard Mode


Dear Great QuestBridge Match Class of 2027,

Has it sunk in yet? The fact that you are now an invaluable member of Princeton’s newest class?

It may not fully sink in until you step foot onto Princeton’s campus for orientation and your first day of classes, but regardless, I welcome you to Princeton’s Great Class of 2027!

Not to date myself, but I am a member of the QuestBridge Match Class of 2025. Even though it’s been two years since the fateful day when I matched to Princeton, I remember the process like it was yesterday: I remember the suspicion I first felt as I googled “Is QuestBridge a scam?” I remember the feverish race to submit all of my supplements by November 1st. Most clearly of all, I remember the day I received my match letter. I remember my hands shaking as I opened the email notification and the adrenaline that coursed through my body as I realized that everything I had been doing for the past four months—heck, the past four years—was about to culminate with this. Exact. Moment. 

As a first-generation, low income student navigating Princeton for the past two years, I have grown immensely. I’ve grown, and yet I am continuously grounded my home community and the on-campus QuestBridge community. 

As I write this letter to you right now, I hope to share a core lesson I’ve learned this past semester that may serve as food for thought as you close out your high school career:

A couple weeks ago, I was participating in HackPrinceton, and I went to a team-building event to meet some of the students who had driven and flown in from all around the world.

I walked up to the first person: “Hi, my name is Aminah! What’s your name?”

“Angel,” she said, smiling.

“Angelica?” I asked, echoing back what I’d heard.

“Angel,” she clarified.

Next to me, my friend snickered, incredulous at how I could have misheard the name so badly.

But it gets worse: this happened repeatedly.

“What’s your name?”

“My name is Alayna!”

“Allison, you said?”

At this point, my friend was dying of laughter. “Wow, you’re really playing life on hard mode aren’t you?!”

This moment from the hackathon has stayed with me, and I realize that my friend was right. In almost every way, I have always approached life assuming that it would be more difficult than it sometimes actually was. I have always assumed that I would be asked to jump through more and more hoops ad infinitum.

Now, some of this is a product of my low-income upbringing: nothing has been given to me on a silver platter and so I have come to expect struggle and pain as necessary prerequisites to my moving through the world.

What I have as a response is not some grandiose solution or overarching statement, but a question: What if life (or at least some parts of it) is actually simple? What if there are areas in your life right now where you are struggling because you think you have to, not because it is actually necessary?

You’ve done it. You are on track to become a graduate from one of the top universities in the country. You are in great hands. You have an opportunity to end high school hopefully in person, as the ramifications of the global pandemic have begun to recede.

Take this win. You’ve earned it. Congratulations!

 

With infinite love, 

Aminah 

 


How to Research a University


While preparing for university applications and alumni interviews, I wanted to find out more about what the schools I applied to were really like. Now that I have attended Princeton for a semester, I hope I can share with you some of the things you may want to look out for in your research as well as some resources you can use to learn about student life.

Obviously, your first stop should be either the University website or the admission website.

 

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Screenshot of homepage of Princeton University website

Here, you can browse the tabs that catch your attention and allow interesting links to lead you on a trail. For example, I noted the concentrations (majors) and certificates (minors) that interested me, perused the research interests of professors in the molecular biology department and checked out the social media pages of extracurricular activities and student groups such as Triple 8 Dance Company (where you can now find an introduction of me!) and Manna Christian Fellowship. At the time, I got so excited that I noted down 25 activities I would be interested in participating in. As a vegan, I also looked for more information on the dining halls and found this guide written by the Greening Dining Club to be a wealth of information. We also have a student blog on being a vegan at Princeton.

 

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Photos of the residential dining halls: Butler College, Center for Jewish Life, First College, Forbes College, Graduate College, Mathey College, Rockefeller, Whitman College

To learn more about the astounding breadth of past, current, and new classes, head to the Office of the Registrar. It was here that I first found MOL460: Diseases in Children: Causes, Costs, and Choices in January 2020, and I still can’t wait for the opportunity to take this class in the future.

 

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Screenshot of the course description of Diseases in Children: Causes, Costs, and Choices

Another useful resource is what you’ve already found: the admissions blog! The blogs provided me with stories that put color and faces to the information on the website. There are also 13 current students who are more than happy to answer any questions you may have, whether you are a prospective student, an anxious or curious applicant, or a deferred or admitted student. Please don’t be afraid to reach out by email! I wish I did when I was in your shoes, even if just to hear more about what college life is like.

Princeton also has an incredible student-run daily newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, also referred to as the ‘Prince’, where you can get an inside scoop on what is happening in the Princeton community. I turn to the ‘Prince’ for University news, opinions on current topics, and funny cartoons. In true New York Times-style, the ‘Prince’ also features a crossword, podcasts, photos, and videos.

For some more insider information, you can head to YouTube to see the beautiful buildings, numerous libraries, and various styles of dorms, as well as hear more about classes and what students do for fun. The University also makes a Year in Review - this year’s features the bonfire we had in celebration of the football team beating both Yale and Harvard - and provides more information on our Nobel Prize winners.

Don’t hesitate to chat with friends, family, and your high school counselor about your college plans - you might be surprised to find they have a friend who attended Princeton and would be more than happy to speak with you about their experience. I also learned a lot from asking my alumna interviewer about her time here.

Finally, you can take advantage of social networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook to find people in your area affiliated with the University or message someone who studied in a field that interests you.

Happy researching!


My Love Letter to Princeton


Princeton was the last stop on my college tour. This was not intentional by any means, it just so happened that I circled by Princeton last before heading to the airport. In retrospect, had I visited Princeton first, I do not doubt that the rest of the college tour would have been for naught because everything else faded in my memory as soon as I stepped foot in the Orange Bubble. 

I visited in the summer when Princeton is quieter, serene and as gorgeous as ever. There is something about the empty walkways and buildings that both intimidate and invite you in, and as a high school sophomore, I could see myself at Princeton, walking (or running, as I often do now) to class, weaving my way through the residential colleges in search of new study places (of which there are plenty), or sitting at a bench outside stealing a moment to myself in the midst of organized chaos. 

Now, speaking to you as a student who was lucky enough to be admitted, the beauty of Princeton extends beyond its exterior. To begin, there is also never a ‘standard,’ or ‘average’ day here. I might wake up expecting to attend my 3-hour seminar in a classroom, but instead spend the class time sitting outside with my classmates and professor discussing politics. I’ll think I’m spending the night eating dinner with my friends but instead find myself wading in the SPIA fountain on a whim and meeting so many new people. The opportunities and paths are endless here on a day-to-day basis, and they become even more varied the more time you spend here. 

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Me in front of Fitzrandolph gates

I also love Princeton for the people and how genuine they are. Even before I had committed to the University, Professor Ksenia Chizhova from the East Asian Studies department reached out to me to arrange a Skype call to talk about my interests and how I could pursue them at Princeton. She assured me of the attention I would receive from the professors and people here, and after I arrived, I saw how true this was. The professors are so attentive, friendly and care about their students. My professor for a course called “China’s Frontiers”  sent me a feedback email after the first class, complimenting me on points I brought up during the discussion. 

I also learn a lot from my classmates, who are inspirational in their drive and work ethic, their commitment to social causes and extracurriculars outside of class, and their willingness to lend a helping hand. Everyone here has an interesting story to tell, and my friends range from environmental engineers to future politicians. As someone who is greatly influenced by the environment I am in, I believe there is no other place where you will be able to become the best version of yourself than Princeton. So take the chance, and join our Princeton community! There is a place for you here.

 


Open Your Heart


Dear Great Questbridge Match Class of 2026,

Yes, it is official! You (yes, I mean YOU!) are a valued part of Princeton’s newest class, the Great Class of 2026. 

Maybe I’m moving too fast… let’s back up. In September, you worked tirelessly to submit the Questbridge National College Match application. Through October and the beginning of November, you waited with apprehension to see if you’d become a finalist. Then, once you became a finalist, you hurried to submit your supplements. The journey you’ve been through up until this moment has been filled to the brim with its fair shares of joys and challenges. I am intimately familiar with both (read: have you ever cried and screamed for joy simultaneously?). 

Despite the stress, not just from the college admissions process, but also from just being a lower-income or first-generation student navigating the U.S. education system, you have made it here to Princeton. I know you might not quite feel that you are “here” yet, and you may wake up many nights wondering if your match announcement was a dream or a stroke of luck. However, I am here to tell you that it was neither of those things. Even though you have yet to step foot in your dorm room or Frist campus center, or your freshman writing seminar, I assure you that you belong here. With every cell in your body, you belong here.

I remember that when I got my match email, I was sitting in my virtual French class. Although my eye fatigue was setting in at that point, my body jolted with adrenaline as soon as I saw the email at the top of my inbox. That moment felt like it would make or break my future. In many ways it did. I walked into my parents’ room, shaking as we opened the email together. In the rare moments that followed, my family’s joy pulsed forth in a sea of hugs and congratulations… finally, I had made it!

As I write this letter to you now, sitting in one of Princeton’s six dining halls, I’ve grown so much. In retrospect, my last few months of high school and my first few months of college have flown by in a blur. I say this knowing that when I was actually living those days, powering through the endless virtual classes, it felt like college life could not come soon enough. They seemed to drag on. But, I urge you to make the most of your final high school months. In those months, you will soak up the company of your friends, go to your classes for the last time and say many hard goodbyes. Don’t let those precious moments slip away as you instead grasp towards a blooming concept of college.

You will be changed here at Princeton. I know I have. In the past months, I’ve become a person who takes showers at night (enough said). I’ve joined the Princeton University Band and discovered a love for playing the cymbals. I’ve traveled to New York for the first time, and went ice skating for the first time, too. 

 

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Me posing with my band outfit and royal joes

Once high school eventually comes to an end, you will face the difficult but rewarding task of transitioning to college life. Please open your hearts to the experiences here at Princeton.

 I’ve changed so much, and yet I am continuously grounded by my Questie community. Though high school-me didn’t start making my match poster until May of 2021, the Questbridge community here on campus has consistently been here to support me and cheer me on, especially through the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP). Believe me when I say that there are hundreds of people here who can’t wait to meet you! 

With all my love

       Aminah 

 

An Open Letter to Our Future Quest Scholars


To Future Princeton Quest Scholars, 

As a QuestBridge scholar, I distinctly remember how nerve-wracking and confusing the entire match process was, especially since I was one of the only students in my high school who applied through the match process. I had to navigate through the arduous task of sifting through each of the university-specific applications alone. When I applied, Princeton was a non-binding partner school, so I had the privilege of being able to experience campus life during Princeton Preview, the admitted students’ event, before making up my mind. Personally, it wasn’t the admission letter that fueled my decision to attend Princeton, but rather what was implied in between the lines.  I saw that the University had full faith in my future success: they chose me over thousands of other candidates, as might be the case with you, and that means quite a lot.

This year, Princeton’s QuestBridge decision is binding which means, if matched, you’ve committed to enrolling at the University! Though it may not seem easy to assess whether Princeton will be a great fit for you despite all the virtual offerings and the descriptions you may have read online, this can also be a blessing in disguise. While your peers are still trying to decide which colleges to apply to, you have already done the majority of the work. Now your application is in the hands of the Admission Office who take care to get to know you, your experiences and what you’ll bring to the Princeton community.

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Admission staff on Quest Day

At this point in time, you may also wonder what comes next after you match with Princeton. (Besides a heartfelt congratulations and sense of accomplishment, of course.) QuestBridge requires that all partner colleges meet 100% of need for match students. In fact, Princeton is one of the most generous universities and always covers 100% of demonstrated need for all students.

As a Quest Scholar you may wonder if you will fit in at an Ivy League institution. There perhaps exists a false perception that all students at Princeton are wealthy (I even believed this myself.), but that’s just not the case, around 60% of students are on financial aid and I have never been isolated because of my socioeconomic status. Instead, we are motivated to seek out employment and internship opportunities that are equally accessible to every student on campus. There are also plenty of resources available for students who are first-generation or lower-income like the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP), First-Generation Low Income Council (FLIC) or Programs for Access and Inclusion (PAI).

Additionally, one of the perks of enrolling at Princeton through QuestBridge is that you will get to know a community of students who can empathize with your financial situation. I was able to develop relationships with other students who matched with Princeton through Facebook and other social media platforms. Through our conversations, we all realized that we all faced many of the same worries and fears and we bonded over them. Remember that this is unfamiliar territory for everyone--not just you! While networking might be somewhat difficult during these unprecedented times, I still encourage you to make connections with other Questies because this will be the community with whom you will spend the next four years.

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Quest Scholars wearing a QuestBridge shirt that says "Dream Big"

I wish good luck to all future Quest scholars and I hope that you end up matching at the university of your dreams, regardless of whether that may be Princeton. We can’t wait to meet the Class of 2025!