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Birman brothers

Graduate profile: Twins off to Harvard and Princeton

At first glance it would be easy to label fraternal twins Elliott and Gabriel Birman as opposites.

Elliott is outgoing and talkative, while his older brother Gabriel is quiet and reserved. Elliott is brawny, Gabriel is brainy. Elliott led Upper Canada College’s student body government in his final year. Gabriel won the math award. Even their Myers Briggs personality test results attest to their differences: Elliott is ENFJ (Extraverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging) and Gabriel is ISTP (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving). On paper they couldn’t be more different.

Yet in discussing their upbringing and the decision-making process that led each to choose his respective school — Princeton University for Gabriel and Harvard University for Elliott — it’s the similarities that are more striking.

“We had a great mom who enrolled us in a lot of different activities,” says Elliott. “When we were really young, like two or three, we would be doing something every day, art or drama or a sport.”

They list swimming, piano and chess as activities they did together as kids. At UCC they pursued similar co-curriculars, both playing on soccer teams and in the senior jazz band. During the last few summers they’ve held jobs as researchers, albeit in different fields (Gabriel in physical sciences and Elliott in life sciences). They were always competitive, but not with each other. They always got along and still do.

It’s not surprising, then, that the schools they’ve chosen to attend mirror that “same but different” profile. Harvard and Princeton are inarguably two of the world’s most renowned liberal arts universities. They’re often mentioned together in the same breath. It’s only when you evaluate them side by side that their subtle differences become apparent.

“After you visit, you notice there’s a tangible vibe to each school, and they each have a different culture,” says Gabriel.

He really liked the smaller size and more bucolic setting of Princeton, whereas Harvard’s big urban feel appealed more to Elliott.

“Princeton’s also considered more rigorous, because Harvard has the grade inflation stigma associated with it,” says Gabriel, good-naturedly gibing his brother.

Elliott admits, “Yes, the GPAs tend to be higher at Harvard, but I don’t know if that’s to do with the quality of education, or … just kidding, it’s probably grade inflation.”

Whether you’re Tiger orange or Crimson red, both schools have one thing in common: They draw the envy of students everywhere who check off all the same boxes as Elliott and Gabriel and yet for various reasons don’t make the cut. What was the secret to their success?

“Be true to yourself,” is Elliott’s best advice. “The admission officers read so many applications, they can tell who’s done what just to get in, and who’s done what they’ve done because they genuinely like it.”

Gabriel reinforces the idea that leadership is important, but they’re not looking to admit a class of students who all have the same strengths.

“If you do activities, you don’t have to be head of the club or the team for everything you do. They like to see that you are committed and that you’ve excelled.”

As for what each plans to focus on at school, Elliott will enjoy the breadth of studies offered through Harvard’s liberal arts curriculum, while pursuing a pre-med track. He’s intrigued by the human regenerative and development biology concentration, which centres around stem cell research. Slavic studies or economics could factor in. He’s looking forward to building on the Model UN skills he gained at UCC, or helping behind the scenes by organizing conferences. There’s also public service.

Gabriel will likely follow an applied math track or possibly engineering.

“I’m also interested in pursuing languages, like Russian, German, studying abroad possibly,” he says. “Philosophy as well, and literature.”

Music and dance are big at Princeton, and the a cappella group interests him.

As we were saying, the Birmans aren’t that different after all.

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