What do Top Colleges like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford, Yale, Princeton, Caltech etc. Look for in International Applicants?

There are hundreds of predictive models, and thousands of counselors who have their own approaches and secret sauces of helping students get into the Ivy League college or top colleges around the world, most of the time confusing the students and parents than helping them learn what it takes to apply to the top colleges in the world. This becomes a lot more dreadful for any parent who may not have studied in the system (e.g. International students, first-generation migrants, or immigrant parents). In this article, we will look at the 7 key components top colleges look for in international applicants.

Over the last three years, as we founded Stoodnt and spent thousands of hours learning, speaking with fmr. Admission officers at the top school, speaking with independent counselors, reading tons of blogs, and analyzing thousands and thousands of data points on admission, here is what we have learned so far.

What do Top Colleges Look for in International Applicants?

First, there is no secret sauce or fixed formula behind admissions to these top colleges. All these colleges are looking for strong students who can bring a diversity of ideas, and the ability to manage the course load and graduate.

Second, the “Holistic” process of application review is very simple. The process of application review is based on a number of simple criteria. They use all these data points. Including the school’s reputation and performance of previous classes, to make an assessment if the student will be able to join and cope with the rigor of college studies, bring a diversity of ideas, learn from the college years to develop and try to give back to society, community, etc.

Here are 7 Key Components Top Colleges Look for in International Applicants:

1. Rigor of the Coursework, Grades (GPA), Consistency and Trend Line

The colleges pay a lot more attention to the courses taken than the GPA (i.e. performance in the coursework). They look if a student has taken rigorous coursework, courses tied to what they want to pursue in college, how well they did in those courses, and how they trend over time. If you want to be an engineer, better to have rigorous coursework in Math, Physics, etc. and you better be holding good grades in high school or improving them over time. There is a very fine line between rigor and performance, something each student and parent should keep an eye on as they progress in high school.

What do Top Colleges Look for in International Applicants
Requirements Can Also Vary from College to College

2. Standardized Test Scores

This information is used by colleges to make an assessment if you are a student who pushes the boundary, takes extra initiatives other than just completing your courses at school, and also how you compare against other students from all over the world on these tests. These tests and scores are important but not as important as your transcript and grades.

What do Colleges Look for in Applications

3. Letters of Recommendation

After your coursework, LORs play a very important component in your application. But note that generic LORs do not help as every application with a LOR has it. Get the LOR from teachers or others who know you well and can speak more closely about your values, performance, and who you are as a person.

4. Extracurricular 

The colleges look at extra-curricular from a different lens. Every college needs to have a sports team, need to have an editorial staff, need to have event volunteers, need to have musicians, need to have debate team, etc. As they build the class out, they look at admitting students who are interested in these extracurricular and also have experience. As a student, follow your interest but some activities may be highly competitive and some may not. For any activity you pursue, you just need to show your “spike” in it so some of the top colleges think about you when they are looking at the diversity of the admitted pool.

5. Leadership & Community Involvement

Every College likes to have students who are “good citizens” and want to do good. Leadership and community service is your avenue to show them how you have made a difference and how you plan to be a good community citizen. Many students try to check this off on the list by doing a few weeks’ work, but that is not good enough to impress the admission teams at the top colleges. You should show them your commitment through involvement over years or by meaningful participation and results. Read how colleges look at community work and volunteering.

6. Essays and Answers

This is a very important part of your application if you have the grades and scores that put you in the top 5-10% of your class. Most colleges want to know more about the student before admitting them. They use LORs to get to know you from others, but essays are a great way for them to know more about “You”, your aspirations, your dreams, your values, and what has shaped you to become what or who you are today.

7. Diversity 

What do Top Colleges Look for in International Applicants
Image Source: Huffington Post

As each college looks to have diversity among the student body, it is good to think about your unique story to the college and how you are different or bring a different perspective into the student community. There are some factors such as race, ethnicity etc. you have no control of, but there are things you can do to add a unique and diverse perspective to the college.

What do Top Colleges Look for in International Applicants
Source: Times Higher Education

All the above things have to tie into your story as a student. For example, if your interest is in “Sciences”, you should not only have rigorous courses in that particular areas, should have taken SAT Subject tests, AP classes/exams, spent your free time in research, done internships, taken part in competitions, your essays should speak about “why” and “your aspirations” etc.

It is not about putting a checkbox on all of the activities but building your own story on “who” you are, “what do you enjoy”, “Why do you enjoy” and “what have you done so far and what you want to do”.

Here is an example of how Stanford reviews the application. This is applicable for undergraduate and graduate students (esp. MBA)

“The strongest applications we see are those in which your thoughts and voice remain intact. The Stanford experience relies on authenticity among students. To understand how you will contribute to and benefit from the University community, we need to know who you are, not simply what you have done. Your experiences, beliefs, passions, dreams, and ambitions will help form the Stanford community.

Take time to reflect on who you are, and have confidence in yourself. We always remember that there is neither an “ideal” candidate nor a “typical” Stanford student. You should remember this, too.

While the Stanford community does include students who have pursued incomparable opportunities, most Stanford students have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. What you make of an experience matters to us, not simply the experience itself.”

Thirdly, whatever any counselor or company claims, it is very hard for anyone to crack the “secret code of admissions”.

The application review process is a mix of science and art. The colleges use the data associated with grades, scores, and achievements but also have a mix of the human element involved through essays, LORs etc. Given it is a team of humans making a decision, there is no set formula, just a simple assessment by a team that will be based on some objectivity, some subjectivity, and some luck.

So good luck to all the students applying for 2019 college admission cycle! You might also like to have a look at the following video and articles –

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My Harvard MBA Admission Journey

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How to Gain Admission to a Top Engineering College in the U.S.?

How to Get into Top Masters Programs Abroad with Scholarship from India

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