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What do highly selective colleges in the US look for?

education Updated: Aug 18, 2010 09:25 IST
Arjun Seth
Arjun Seth
Hindustan Times
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The most important thing you should know about the admissions process is that your candidature is evaluated holistically. What this means is that your academic standing as a student is not the only thing they care about. Your extra-curricular profile and personal characteristics are equally important.

In this article I’ ll explain how your academic performance is reviewed. Fortunately, college admissions officers are trained to look beyond SAT scores and give adequate consideration to school grades, teacher recommendations, rigor of curriculum, awards and performance in enrichment programmes outside of school.

Grades in school and recommendations from teachers
This is probably the single- most important criterion. Talking about this, Ratnika Prasad, a student of Cornell University (www.cornell.edu) says, “Top institutions that offer scholarships and financial aid to international students consider a consistently high level of academic performance as a pre-requisite. I am glad I had a good track record and my perfect score in most math exams, including the CBSE Class X, helped build my case as a strong overall student.”

Students should approach teachers who are able to describe their academic qualifications, learning preferences and validate their work. Students should request teachers to reveal something substantive about his/her contribution in class and their relationship with him/her.

Rigour of curriculum
Colleges consider the CBSE or ISC courses to be equivalent to courses of any other international curriculum like the International Baccalaureate or A levels.

Moreover students who have four years of English, math and science are considered to have challenged themselves by taking a rigorous course load in high school as compared to students who’ve opted for humanities or commerce streams. Divya Balaji, a student of DPS R K Puram who is enrolling at Yale University (www.yale.edu) this fall, found herself making a choice that very few students from her school opted for. Says Balaji, “In grade 11 I had opted for humanities with math. However, I loved biology and so requested the school administration to allow me to take biology as a sixth subject. This was a great decision for me and I did extremely well in all biology exams, including the SAT II biology test."

Academic awards and honours
Preet Angad Singh, who is enrolling at Stanford University (stanford.edu) says, “I am glad colleges notice national and international level honors. I received high ranks in NSTSE (All India Rank - 1), the National Cyber Olympiad (AIR -9) and the International Benchmark Test (AIR -1). All of these added to my profile and I believe were crucial factors in my admissions to Stanford.”

SAT I reasoning test
Colleges publish their mid-fifty percentile score range for individual sections of the test (critical reading, math and writing). Simply put, that means 25 per cent of the students that are accepted have lower scores than this and another 25 per cent have higher scores. So if your SAT I scores are in the mid-range along with requisite school grades, you have a “foot in the door”, the rest of your application will determine how the admissions committee decides your case. Shivangi Jain, a student going to University of Chicago (www.uchicago.edu) this September says, “I knew that my 2360 score in SAT I was an advantage, but I also knew that SAT scores are not the be-all and end-all of admissions.

Thankfully, my interest in economics was demonstrated by school grade and my extra-curricular profile projected me as a well-rounded candidate.”

SAT II subject tests
Most highly selective colleges recommend taking at least two subject tests. These are subject-level achievement tests so students should write them only if they are certain of high scores. Commenting on his preparation Abhijit Navlekar a sophomore at Rice University (www.rice.edu) says, “With the high level of math and science instructions I received at my engineering entrance class I found the subject tests to be relatively easy. Getting perfect scores definitely provided me the edge in my applications.”

Interests beyond school
Participating in academic activities outside of school is an option very few students explore. Given a chance you should participate in Olympiads, competitions write the advanced placement exams and apply to summer enrichment programmes. Says Preet Angad Singh, “I have a keen interest in math and computer science and was selected to Stanford University's math camp (http://math.stanford.edu/sumac) in 2009. I was also selected to the University of Pennsylvania’s Management & Technology Summer Institute (www.upenn.edu/ fisher/summer/faq.html). Both these validated my belief in my abilities and gave me the confidence to apply to Stanford University for higher studies.

The author is an independent college admissions counsellor and can be contacted by email at arjunseth72@gmail.com.

He also runs www.YouCanWriteNow.com, a blog assisting students write college application essays

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