College admission has become increasingly competitive, but one Des Moines teenager found a unique way to distinguish himself from the pack.
Dezell Turner, a senior at East High School and Central Academy, submitted a video explaining the history of calculus on an Etch A Sketch when applying to some of the country’s top engineering and technology schools.
The 18-year-old recently learned he’d been accepted to MIT and Caltech — two of his “dream” colleges.
Although there’s no way to know for sure, Turner said the video, which he originally created for an AP calculus course his sophomore year, might have played a role.
Like thousands of teenagers, Turner said he was looking for a way to display a bit of his personality — beyond his excellent grades and test numbers — and possibly catch the eye of admissions officers.
That’s something more students are doing when applying to the nation’s most competitive schools. MIT, Stanford
and nearly every Ivy League school set record-low admission rates this year.
“What matters to them is what matters to us,” Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment at Grinnell College, said about students applying to the highly-competitive Iowa school. “We want to know what they’re passionate about.”
Grinnell accepts about 25 percent of applicants.
Instead, she encourages students to share something about their lives, whether it’s caring for a sibling, a passion or their long-term goals.
That’s the approach Turner took.
In his college essay — which Iowa admissions officers said was the best way for students to share themselves — he wrote about volunteering at a camp for autistic children.
He knew he had a good resume, but the odds of gaining entrance were still slim. He applied to five colleges — four of them he called his “reach” schools.
One, MIT, admitted just 7 percent of applicants in 2017.
To ease the stress, Turner reminded himself that he’d be alright wherever he landed.
Do you need a ‘hook’ to distinguish yourself?
Many colleges allow students to include things like music, art, a computer programming project or a YouTube video when applying.
But not every student needs “a hook,” Iowa admissions officers say.
“The rhetoric around what you have to be to get into college these days can be really overwhelming,” said Anne Kremer, dean of admissions at Drake University.
And she cautions against taking on a project just to build a college resume. “My advice to students is to always make sure, with your essays or anything you do, that you’re using your authentic voice,” she said.
Admissions officers can sense when a student is trying to fit into a certain mold, she said.
Sketching the history of calculus
A family friend, who’s a student at MIT, suggested Turner include the Etch A Sketch video.
The time-lapse video, which took about 20 hours to make, details the history of math to ancient Greece and centers on a mathematical controversy: Who invented calculus, Gottfried Leibniz or Isaac Newton?
But Turner also ad-libs jokes about the mathematicians’ hairstyles and the stress he’s understudying for an AP calculus test.
It’s a no-frills video. A shadow can be seen across the Etch A Sketch, cast from where his iPhone was propped on a stack of books.
The video also shows his skills with an Etch A Sketch — he started doodling on the toy as a seventh-grader, first drawing the Millennium Falcon from “Star Wars” while home sick from school.
Turner began Etch A Sketching on weekends — mostly superheroes and characters from science fiction shows. He’d record the process and post time-lapse videos online.
The senior has since taken at least 11 AP courses — when listing them out he loses track and says there might be others — and other college-level classes at Central Academy.
He’s earned 4.5 GPA in high school. This year he was named valedictorian at East High and was voted Senior Scholar at Central Academy by his classmates.
“It was worth it,” he said, “but it’s a ton of stress.”
Turner said he’s still trying to decide whether he’ll go to Caltech or MIT.
His ultimate goal is to work as an aerospace engineer at NASA. He wants to help design spacesuits for a mission to Mars.
About Dezell Turner
- Age: 18
- GPA: 4.5
- Schools: Cowles Montessori; Joshua Christian Academy; East High; Central Academy
- Awards: Valedictorian at East; Senior Scholar at Central
- Aspirations: Earn a doctorate; work as an aerospace engineer for NASA
- Colleges: Deciding between MIT and Caltech
- Study tip: Make detailed flashcards; study “twice as hard” and take ample breaks
- Favorite movie: “Guardians of the Galaxy”
- Favorite app: Netflix
- I won’t leave home without: My calculator
- Tips for college applications: Start early. Include “mid-range” schools in addition to “safety” and “reach” schools. Figure out what makes you “you” and embrace it.