Student Perspective: Joseph Schiavone

The Middlesex County Academy is not really a school, it’s an opportunity. If you let it, it will transform you from an ambitious student into an incredible and wholesome person. The question is whether you are the sort of person who can take advantage of that opportunity. The Academy is definitely not for everyone, but for the right people it will provide the experience of a lifetime.

The Academy is a magnet school, which means it takes only the best middle-school students. So if you’re considering the Academy, you probably fit that description. Feel good about it! You’ve been working hard for a while now, and you were probably so good at your studies that after a while school just became easy for you. Now you’re probably looking for a challenge, something that will really stimulate you and thrill you. If that sounds like you, you’ll love the Academy. I promise you, you will not lack for a challenge. All of the classes are taught at a very high level, and the workload is reasonable, but high. I would spend many a day working while my public and private school friends played outside or partied. Don’t get me wrong, it was good work. I learned a lot and am glad I did it. But if the idea of working when you could be playing bothers you, don’t even bother applying to the Academy, it’s not right for you. The Academy is for people with a thirst for knowledge, and a strong drive to learn.

Which brings me to my second point. You can work hard and come out of the Academy a brilliant student ready to kick butt at college. Or you can cave under the new level of academic pressure, decide success is not worth the effort, and do just okay. The fact is, most students at the Academy came from middle-schools that didn’t challenge them at all. They barely had to work to get straight A’s, and got used to that. That ends the moment you walk into the Academy. Be prepared to work hard for your A’s, or you won’t earn them. Chances are you’ll get a B on your first science test, and that might get you down. Then you face a choice. Possibly one of the most important choices you’ll make as an Academy student. You can decide that the Academy is just too hard to get A’s in, and continue as a B student, or you can kick into overdrive and fight for that A. If you think you’ll make the former choice, then the academy is not for you. If you’re passionate and stubborn enough to persevere, read on!

Now we get to the really good stuff. I hope I haven’t scared too many people away. There are five main things about the academy that make it amazing, besides the high level of education (that goes without saying).

1) The Academy gives you the skills you need to excel in college and in your career. I don’t mean math, physics and writing. I mean time management, a good work-ethic, and presentation skills. You’ll learn to budget your time in order to get your work done on time. All of your classes, and I mean all of them, will assign projects and PowerPoint presentations. You’ll learn to work as part of a team, and maybe even as a team leader. You’ll learn to get up in front of an audience and talk to them for half an hour. You’ll learn how to construct engaging presentations, write convincing essays, and conduct research. These are the sorts of skills that you never get from reading a textbook, and not enough high schools teach them. By the time you graduate the Academy, you’ll be a master at all of them. As a student at Harvard, I find that I had substantially more experience in giving presentations and team leadership than most of my peers, and it’s really given me an advantage!

2) The Academy is a family. If you are even a reasonably agreeable person to interact with, you will be friends with everybody. As a tiny school, we all know each others’ names, and school is as much a social event as an academic one. That’s not to say we just sit around talking all day. But when you eat lunch with the same people you sit next to in class, and they’re the same people you’re working on a project with and on the soccer team with, school becomes a real bonding experience. Even after more than 2 years at college, I still feel closer to many of my high school friends than I do my college friends. And the friends I made at the Academy weren’t just students! The teachers and administration are quite friendly, and by senior year I would joke around with them as if we were old friends (in a way, we were!). This brings me to item 3:

3) The faculty really know their stuff. These aren’t mediocre teachers who started teaching because they couldn’t find a job anywhere else. These are some of the best educators in central New Jersey. Most of them have done impressive work in their fields, and they are quite knowledgeable. What’s more, they’re very helpful! Many of the faculty stay after classes are over to advise student groups or serve as chaperones for after school social activities. My biology teacher would hold extra lectures during lunch for people who wanted to get ahead. My 12th grade English teacher took it upon herself to write a lengthy recommendation and application for me to be chosen as a U.S. Presidential scholar. She labored for days on this application, and in the end it worked! Because of her efforts, I spent half a week in D.C. and met the President! The teachers really care about their students, and they will mold you into real achievers.

4) I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but the school teaches engineering. Most students don’t get a chance to learn any engineering before college, and that’s what makes the Academy really special. Every student spends 88 minutes a day learning valuable engineering skills in an area of their choice. The hands on experience I gained from my engineering class rapidly accelerated my college career, and has allowed me to thrive as an engineer.

Academy teachers also do a fantastic job of integrating engineering into their curriculums. They assign many interdisciplinary projects which allow us burgeoning engineers to flex our creative and technical muscles.

This raises an important point. Should you attend the Academy if you’re not interested in engineering? The answer is that it depends. If you like Science or Math, and can tolerate Engineering, then the answer is a resounding YES. If engineering just rubs you the wrong way, then don’t apply. A good example of this is my sister, who attended the Academy after me. She had never really thought about being an engineer, but she loved science. After two years of the Academy, she decided she definitely did not want to be an engineer. But she could still appreciate the material, and got by with pretty good grades in it too. This is a perfect example of a non-engineer who belongs at the Academy. She may not be reaping the benefits of the engineering program, but the level of academic rigor, college preparation, valuable skills and intimate friendships she formed make the Academy worthwhile.

5) Last and not least, the Academy is flexible. While it may not offer many extracurricular activities, students are encouraged to participate in after school activities at their local high schools (which are required to admit Academy students if they are qualified). I participated in an FRC robotics team at Piscataway high school, since the Academy did not have an FRC team. I had to leave class early sometimes to go to Piscataway, but the teachers knew I was a good student, and trusted me to catch up on the material. Also, the Academy only offers Spanish, which I speak natively. However, the administration at the time allowed students who already spoke Spanish to take another language course at the community college, which is right next door. I took Italian for 2 years. It was Molto Bene!

There is one good set of reasons not to go to the Academy which I have not talked about yet. The Academy offers excellent opportunities, but they are limited in scope due to the school’s small size. If you really want to do art or music, the Academy (sadly) has neither. If you want to play Football but practice at your local schools is at 2PM (The Academy goes until 3:30), then maybe the Academy isn’t a good idea. Also, if you’re a crazy math whiz (ready for pre-calculus or equivalent as a freshman), then the Academy is not right for you. While we have a rigorous math program, it’s also very small. We don’t have enough faculty or students to teach many different tracks of math! If you’re a math genius, you might be better off at a big public school which has a plethora of math classes to choose from.

In summary, if you are academically driven, a hard worker, and like science/math/engineering, definitely apply to the Academy! I promise it will change your life for the better. It gave me the skills I need to succeed academically and beyond. I’m really glad I chose the Academy, and I hope you do too!

About Joseph Schiavone:

Joseph Schiavone graduated from the Academy in 2010 and studied Computer Science and Physics at Harvard University. Over the course of his internships, he built robots at iRobot, dabbled in finance at Bridgewater Associates, and worked on the self-driving cars at GoogleX. He also took time off from college to build rockets at SpaceX along with his fellow Academy graduate, Kevin Lyman. The duo also founded a technology startup in the recruiting space and participated in the Alchemist startup accelerator. He is now a forward deployed engineer at Palantir Technologies, traveling across the globe to solve problems for institutions in energy, healthcare, and beyond.

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