Herald-Tribune | by Matt Soergel | December 22, 2020
It was early Friday afternoon, and Craig McFarland had a big decision to make in the next couple of days.
“Right now it’s a three-way tie,” he said, “between Yale, Harvard and Stanford.”
McFarland, 18, valedictorian of the senior class at Stanton College Preparatory School, has been accepted by all eight Ivy League schools.
Yale said yes first, and then so did the others: Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania.
He got accepted into other prestigious schools as well, and set one non-Ivy, Stanford University, on his top-three list.
He notes the difficulty of what he’s accomplished: “These schools have a 3- to 5-percent acceptance rate, so just from a statistical standpoint, to get into all eight, that’s a 3 to the 8th power. Then you include Stanford … “
He has full-ride offers from all three finalists, along with private scholarships he won during his extraordinary tenure at Stanton’s tough International Baccalaureate program, from which he graduated with a weighted 4.98 GPA. He said he’s been told that’s the highest GPA anyone has reached there.
The path he took through high school was clearly remarkable — more on that later — but so is the story of his young life.
In brief: He is the middle of three children raised by Donabel Santiago, an immigrant from the Philippines. His father, he says, wasn’t around much.
He’s had to do much of his academic work on his own, as his mother was taking college courses when he was younger and has spent the last six years commuting long hours to Palm Coast for a job as a registered cardiac stenographer.
His family never had much money, so he took a part-time job as a tutor to pay for the clubs and activities he wanted to do.
His family has moved about 12 times throughout Jacksonville, eventually settling in the Arlington area. Even making one move, as a kid, can be tough, he says. Now try a dozen.
He’s half Filipino, half black, and says that at times he’s felt rejected by both Filipinos and blacks. He’s heard racist slurs, repeatedly.
He’s been to the Philippines twice, once at age 4 and again in 2018, but in the United States he’s never traveled outside Florida — so he’s trying to pick a college without ever once setting foot on its campus.
McFarland says both his background and his academic achievement got the attention of college admission officers.
“I’ve taken 48 different courses throughout high school, and you’re only required to take 24,” he said. “I’ve won so many first-place awards, all these academic accolades. But what truly differentiated me was how i was able to present myself as a person, through my story.”
He said he’s had a “mixed relationship” with Stanton, a prestigious school that often shows up toward the top of school rankings.
He found many students were competitive, always talking about test scores and homework. “Everything revolves around who they are as students, where I‘m more concerned about how was your day, what movies do you like, what kind of music do you listen to?”
McFarland admits right away that he’s proud of his academic achievements, the clubs and academic teams he led, his time on the track and field team.
But he’s also really happy he was named the school’s homecoming prince against some tough competition
“Winning homecoming prince, it’s a matter of how much people like you,” he said. “It’s a better measure of who you are as a person.”
Stephanie Szymczyk, a school counselor at Stanton, raves about McFarland, the person. “I want people to know how humble Craig is,” she said. “I have never met a young man as humble and kind and sunny and down to earth as Craig is.”
McFarland would often come to her office and help other students figure how to boost their GPAs. He’d help them with homework and personal problems. The two of them went to International Baccalaureate classes to lead discussions on the college admission process — and students were much more attentive when he was there.
All he accomplished seems to come effortlessly to him, she said. But he does have to put the work in, and she’s seen him get tired — though being tired seems to fuel him to keep pushing.
Szymczyk thinks she knows a little of what motivates the star pupil.
“The uncertainty of his life day to day never stopped him from trying to make something certain,” she said. “He made school his stable place, his place of just exploring different things.”
She watched him do most of the college application process by himself. And trying to get into all the Ivys? That wasn’t a stunt, she said — he researched every school and gave her explanations as to why each had a different appeal to him.
“He did it because he really found a passion and a reason to attend every one of them,” she said. “He likes options because he’s never had many.“
His feat has garnered some attention already: The New York Times had a short story on him, as did local TV stations. CNN is working on another.
McFarland admitted he felt a little let down by some of the stories, which really didn’t explore how much work he put in to get where he is. That 4.98 GPA and all those admissions didn’t just come from nowhere, after all.
• He was a National Merit finalist, won top awards at the state’s Ethics Bowl. He won prizes in public speaking and for his senior writing portfolio, as well as 1st place in column writing at the Times-Union’s high school journalism awards.
• He took 48 different courses in high school, twice the usual, by enrolling in virtual classes to explore his interests.
• He got a national Advanced Placement award and took close to 20 AP tests, more than double the usual.
• He was president of multiple clubs and team captain of multiple academic team. He competed in pre-calculus, mock trials, French, debate and others.
• He was on the varsity track and field team, and would often go from that practice out to the beach to run with a high school marathon club.
Language learning is his favorite pursuit: He knows English, French, Spanish, Tagalog and a Filipino dialect, and he’s studying Arabic and Italian.
“it’s always intellectually stimulating because you can never stop learning a language,” he said.
For him, each course he takes satisfies some of this intellectual thirst. “This greater understanding, it’s so addicting to be able to understand things more and more.”
At college, he’s thinking of law or medicine, perhaps a double major in biochemistry and linguistics.
“I don’t want to be just a STEM person, I don’t want to be just a humanities program,” he said.
Why get pigeonholed? “I’m super passionate about women’s rights, LGBT rights, social progress,” he said.
McFarland said he’s looking for a college that will let him pursue his passions, where he and the school would be a good fit.
“When you’re passionate about something, it’s easy to do well in it,” he said. “Passion fuels motivation, and if you have an endless supply of motivation, your’re not going to feel burned out.”
Saturday evening he finally made the decision as to where he was going to take that motivation: Yale, class of 2024.
Photo: Winter Haven News chief. Provided by Craig McFarland