Local student earns more than $2m in scholarships

(Photo by Maggie Storm)

Colleges offered more than $2 million in merit scholarships to Culver City resident Terrin Busby Thompson this spring, but he turned them all down for the chance to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Busby Thompson, a senior at Qualia: The School for Deeper Learning in Calabasas, was showered with a range of enticements, ranging from a four-year full-tuition/room-and-board scholarship at Clark University to a four-year full-tuition scholarship at Sarah Lawrence College, two of his favorite schools before MIT offered him admittance.

“I know anything I take at MIT is going to be modern and the newest in its field,” Busby Thompson said about his eventual choice. Also, upon visiting MIT, “I found spaces where I felt really comfortable and I met people I could really connect with. Everyone there is so driven, which produces an environment that’s really supportive of doing things one enjoys.”

Before his admittance, Busby Thompson, 18, whose family moved to Culver City when he was three months old, had spent little time thinking about MIT and other colleges that are sometimes described as “highly rejective,” such as Brown University and Carnegie Mellon University, two schools where he also gained entrance. He knew the likelihood of acceptance was so low, around 4 percent at MIT and Brown and the computer science department at CMU, that they weren’t worth considering unless he received an acceptance letter. Instead, he sent off the applications and focused on learning about the variety of other colleges that were likely to admit him.

He knew his qualifications were strong. He was named a National Merit Semifinalist in the fall, plays both piano and alto saxophone, and was a straight-A student with strong extra-curricular activities, including long tenures in the NTYME Jazz Band and UCLA Math Circle. He also expected to receive enthusiastic recommendations from his Qualia teachers with whom he had developed particularly close relationships through his small, passion-driven high school. 

Jon Cassie, the school’s co-founder and his college counselor, had deemed one of his application essays, “a masterful piece of work.” Cassie wrote, “The last paragraph, in particular, so confidently and clearly addresses the prompt that I could use this as a model to teach other students how to write these kinds of essays.” 

Busby Thompson, who takes the school’s Westside bus to campus every morning, hoped that several acceptances would come his way, but he had no idea that he would be in store for so many and that they would be accompanied by such hefty scholarships. For example, Case Western Reserve University offered him $174,000 over four years, while both Occidental College and the University of Redlands gave him scholarships worth $140,000 to encourage him to pick their school.

In fact, by April 1, he had become so overwhelmed by acceptances and financial enticements, that he knew he could study happily at more than a dozen schools, including Oberlin College and Conservatory, Grinnell College, and Chapman University. He also received offers of strong financial aid (more than $1 million for his freshman year alone) from schools that give few, if any, merit scholarships, but do meet applicants’ need, including not only Brown, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT, but Harvey Mudd College, Reed College, Swarthmore College, Williams College, Emory University, and Washington University in St. Louis.

“It feels nice to be wanted by all of these different places,” said Busby Thompson, who graduates June 9 and plans to major in computer science and music with the goal of creating his own video game company one day. “I’m honestly a bit sad that I don’t get to attend some of the other places, but there’s only one you can choose in the end, and I think MIT is the one where I would feel most comfortable and happy.”