You may have been going through your life believing that you are awesome. Life experience may have taught you that you are intelligent, talented and more able and motivated than most of the people you see around you. Your actual achievements to date may have coincided with this belief. Perhaps your parents have reinforced this notion with unconditional support and praise from the moment you were born. They may have driven you to think you can do anything you put your mind to. Friends and family may have always looked up to you. And you, naturally, may have become the one seen as “most likely to succeed” in your circle.
Then, on a day like any other… boom! Several rejection letters arrive from your favourite universities – institutions all very well-known and prestigious – and the sky fell on your head like a thunder on a clear day. You start to question yourself: “Am I not as good I think?”
Truth be told, you need not be so harsh on yourself. When it comes to the most prestigious (and selective) universities in the world, it is more than likely that you are in good company: the normal rate of acceptance these days fluctuates between five and 12 percent. That means that of every 100 students that apply to, say, Harvard or Yale, only five will receive an offer of admission! It is an overwhelming fact that you might want to warm up to.
It is worthwhile, in this context, to understand the parameters used that the most selective universities adhere to. First, these institutions have the luxury of scanning the globe and choosing from a pool of the most brilliant candidates, as well as select those who better suit their needs at any particular year.
Financial considerations or ability to pay usually have no bearing on the decision because many of these institutions (such as the Ivy League in the United States) follow a practice called ‘Need Blind Admissions,’ whereby students are evaluated on their academic merit without regard to their financial need or capacity to meet the demands of the tuition costs. The admissions committee reviews this information after admissions decisions have been made.
What, then, are the things that elite universities are looking for? Although most of them apply a holistic form of evaluation – where the student is evaluated not on a single factor but as a whole person and from many angles – clearly academic indicators take priority over anything else. A student’s school performance during secondary education is primordial. A thorough analysis of the quality of programme undertaken during those years (expecting a most challenging one) and the marks obtained in them are the single most important factor. These institutions – in 90% of the cases, more or less – will expect to admit students who have performed consistently in an exceptional manner and rank at the top of rankings of their secondary school cohorts.
In addition, universities will ask students to sit entrance examinations such as the SAT, IB, IGCSE or other. In most cases, external examination results for admitted students will be expected to be among the top two or three percent of the world’s population of students at that age.
To give additional support and weight to academic performance rankings and high test scores, elite universities require students to submit letters of reference on their behalf. These documents need to be written by professionals such as teachers, counsellors, coaches, people who have worked closely with the student, know them very well and can attest to things like their true ability, university potential, work ethic, attitude and other specific skills. References should also focus on non-academic strengths such as ability to get along and work in groups, leadership, initiative, creativity and motivation. These traits play a crucial role when universities try to differentiate students whose academic records are usually strong and very similar.
A factor that helps differentiate students even more finely is the personal statement or essay. All candidates are asked to submit one or more written statements about a topic chosen by the university or by the candidates themselves. In these statements, candidates not only demonstrate their ability to conceive and execute a well thought-through essay, but also show off their writing skills, which are very much essential in higher education.
Complying with all the academic indicators mentioned above still still not get you across the finishing line, however, as there are more admissible students than actual seats available. That is a sad reality of life when applying to top universities across the globe.
To further assess and compare candidates with others, universities will scrutinise students’ lives outside the classroom, the non-academic part of life if you will. What do you do with your free time? How do you spend your vacations? Are you a leader? Do your peers look up to you? There will be enquiries about your extra-curricular activities, in sports, the arts and community service etc. They will be curious about your passions, your dreams, your career plans and your life goals.
To better get a handle on this part of you, many institutions will require a personal interview either in person, or via the Internet. This is a tremendous opportunity to let a personality shine and give you the chance to tip a decision in your favour. The interviewers can – and do – ask anything about your academic and personal life.
There will be cases where admission are based on what I often call ‘the X factor.’ In this case, in an unpredictable manner, the candidate may possess a combination of factors that a deciding committee likes. Or the candidate may have a unique talent that the university wants to exploit in that particular year – imagine that you are an outstanding musician who plays an instrument the band needs, or perhaps you are a gifted, say, soccer player and the coach is lobbying for you. These particular ‘hooks’ as they are called, distort the admissions process and the resulting statistics because those mentioned students gain a tremendous advantage, sometimes over more qualified candidates. Another ‘hook’ is being the son/daughter of a famous and successful person, or being one yourself.
Universities look at diversity too and they desire to create a group of students that is heterogeneous in as many ways as possible. Thus, if you offer diversity somehow, and you are not just another student among thousands, standing out, you too will have a hook. It is incumbent on each applicant to reveal to the committee in what way they are unique and how they can bring diversity to the campus.
Lastly, there is Lady Luck, who has her own hand in the process. On many occasions it has been a mystery to me why some students gain admissions and others do not, even when there is no apparent rationale to explain it. Lady Luck simply smiles most unexpectedly on some.
So there it is. Competition for winning places at elite universities is fierce. It is a good idea for every student, every family, to look in the mirror and ask honestly: am I made of that stuff? Can I make it into one of the most selective schools?
It is called a reality check. Try it.