Alisha graduated from Harvard University with a full scholarship, majoring in Psychology and Economics. After graduating from college, she co-founded OnCourse Vantage. As CEO, she has helped to expand the business across the globe, branching out from just consulting to hosting life-skill based programs from high school and college to the adult education space with a strong emphasis on developing the company’s technological capabilities. A national-level squash player, Alisha can be found on the squash court in her free time. She also serves on the board of ‘Khelshala’ a charitable organization committed to enhancing the future of underprivileged children through sport.
Why do students with impeccable academic records, and a ‘perfect’ resume often get rejected from some of the top colleges?
Last year, admissions rates saw a drastic drop with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia accepting under 5% of applicants, and Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Penn, accepting under 7% of the applicant pool. While 2020 could potentially be considered an anomaly, given that submitting standardised testing was optional (thus increasing the number of applicants), getting into Ivy League Colleges has always been a dream that most students/parents aspire to achieve.
So, what does it really take to get into some of the most prestigious US universities?
I like to break this up into 3 broad categories: Grades, Standardised Test Scores, and “The Everything Else.”
Grades: Of course, to get into a top university, you have to have stellar academics. Most of the Ivy Leagues accept students who are within the top 1-3% of their graduating class. A common misconception amongst Indian students, is that only their predicted grades matter. However, universities are looking for consistency across high school (Grades 9-12). Universities are looking to see if you’ve challenged yourself academically. They like to see an interdisciplinary approach to learning- since that is the crux of the US education system.
Standardised Test scores: SAT/ACT scores. Why are they important? Standardised tests establish parity in the entire admissions process. While admissions officers receive applications from a variety of international curricula, these scores help them evaluate applications on a level playing field. They give universities a chance to see how you cope in pressure situations. Typically, the average test scores range from 1520-1560 on the SAT, and 34+ on the ACT. That being said, universities do recognize that Standardised tests are a mere 4 hours, compared to four years’ worth of data they see in your school grades.
To say that universities look at grades and SAT/ACT scores is almost stating the obvious. It’s your passport for getting into a top university. However, it’s the uniqueness of the student that pushes them over the line. Once you’ve crossed the grades and test score barrier, then how do these admissions officers differentiate you from the rest of the pool?
The “Everything” Else:
In the past few years, at OnCourse, we’ve seen students face tremendous amounts of pressure- pressure to get the perfect grades, to get the best scores, and to pursue activities that “look good” on a resume. In my opinion, this is counter-productive. It’s important to note that universities understand that they’re admitting 17 and 18 year olds. Can a student really excel in every activity they dabble in? Do all musicians really HAVE to try and excel in sports? Do all passionate writers NEED to learn an instrument? The answer is simple. No. So then, what are these universities really looking for?
A story. Think about how YOU would want to be remembered by an admissions officer reading a sea of applications. Are you the “self-published author who loves to code?” or are you the “sports enthusiast who also loves Broadway?”
Passion: They’re looking for students who have a genuine interest and love for what they do. Consistency is key- how long have you been pursuing the activity for? The longer you pursue and activity, the higher the chances that you’ve mastered it. Remember, quality over quantity always. If you’ve always loved music, is there a creative way in which you can showcase this interest? Besides just taking the exams (which of course, do add some validation), did you try to ever compose your own music? Maybe you’ve found a way to use your passion for music to improve the lives of those around you. The point is to challenge yourself and to take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. Go out of your way to seek unique experiences within your areas of interest.
Initiative: Universities like to admit leaders. Students who have the potential to change the world. It’s important to show the universities, what really drives you. How do you stand out as a leader? This doesn’t necessarily have to come through school leadership positions. Initiative could mean establishing your own social project. It could mean being an advocate for a cause that you feel strongly about within your school. It could mean taking a risk to start your own business. Again, think about what YOU care about.
Character: At the end of the day, universities want to admit good people. Students who are independent, students who may have failed in the past, but those who have learnt from those failures. They want to see how you’ve managed to deal with hardships (big or small), or how you’ve helped someone through it. They want to see that you have maturity to understand your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses -even in your application.
Essays: Luckily, the application gives you enough opportunities to showcases all these characteristics. While you can always add it in the form of a resume, at OnCourse we encourage students to showcase their achievements in a more tangible manner- links, videos, pictures. As you navigate the application process, you realise that colleges give you the opportunity to write about these initiatives in your essays. Use your essays to showcase your personality. To think out of the box. To really give them an opportunity to see why you would be the right fit for the university. Most importantly- the essay should be your voice. Remember, it’s not a writing competition- it’s just a platform for you to tell them your story.
At the end of the day, colleges are eager to see that you’ve pushed the boundaries of your own potential, and that you genuinely love the things you do- they’re not looking for “perfect.”