Besides grades and standardized tests, what do the best colleges look for to understand a student’s potential?
The best colleges look beyond grades and standardized tests to understand a student’s potential. What does it mean?
Whether it is the Ivy Leagues in the United States, Oxbridge in the United Kingdom, the University of Toronto in Canada or Ashoka University in India, the best colleges receive thousands of applications for their few hundred places. However, their admissions processes go beyond grades and standardized tests to understand a student’s potential.
What does it mean? Here are some key markers:
Intellectual Vitality: It means having an inquisitive mind and the energy to feed it. Intellectual vitality shines through independent study, research work, academic essays, the ability to draw meaningful ideas from books, online courses, and topical blog writing.
Stretch potential: This is reflected in your choice of courses in school and the achievement of meaningful goals in activities beyond studies. The depth of any activity is essential in demonstrating stretching. Taking a sport or art form to the next level, competing in multiple tournaments, and staying true to your passion over the years is proof of that.
Initiative: Unlike simple leadership potential, admissions officers look for demonstrated leadership. It means setting goals, taking risks, dealing with failure and persevering towards success. Some examples of initiatives might include running a debating club with multiple chapters; organize a food distribution network during the pandemic; a fundraising initiative for social causes such as the distribution of green stoves among disadvantaged groups; conduct learning programs for different age groups…
Community connection: Contrary to popular belief, this does not necessarily mean social work. It is important to know that some popular projects such as teaching underprivileged children and cleaning the Yamuna are so common that they fail to impress. Taking on leadership positions at school and then making a real difference is an option that almost every student can pursue. This involves setting up a coaching program for new sports players, creating an opinion section in the school magazine or even calling on a series of social entrepreneurs to take the speech in the school business club.
Besides being nearly impossible, the formula Great grades + start an NGO + be on a sports team + play an instrument + write an academic paper + awards + good AP scores = Stanford admission usually doesn’t work.
This is largely because quality trumps quantity. Most students are unable to do so much at sustained high quality levels while dealing with adolescent issues.
Enter the pointed profile. It means showing passion with impressive results in a field, backed by excellent academic performance. It could be a sport you play nationally or coach students at school. It could be a set of ed-tech games you built to teach science to students, or a passion for neuroscience that leads you to publish a research paper or complete several internships. As UPenn points out, “A well-rounded student can accomplish as much as a well-rounded student.”
The risk with a sharp profile is not to win: what if I never win anything at the national level? What if my games are never adopted by anyone? What if I don’t have a mentor to research with? What if the book never arrives?
Profile or brands?
Top colleges are looking for students with A1 grades in a few subjects and A grades in all. These are students who score higher on standardized tests like a 34-36 on the ACT tests or above 1550 on the SAT. In a world where testing is increasingly optional, standardized test scores still add a lot to the academic profile of an international student competing among thousands of others!
Advice matters too. While top marks from the IB and IGCSE program are enough to make the cut, students from the CBSE and ICSE boards often have to take additional AP exams to meet the required qualifications and compete with the rigor of these programs.
So, is there a simple formula? Yes and no. The formula is to choose topics and activities that motivate you, set ambitious goals in a few areas (not all), then challenge yourself to achieve them despite obstacles and setbacks. The challenge is to know and understand each other and to create a profile that highlights you – not an ideal perfect student who can do no wrong!
The author is the founder and CEO of Inomi Learning, a Gurugram-based career and academic counseling company. [email protected]