What top-tier colleges really look for

It was a warm Thursday afternoon and Rahul couldn’t be happier. He had scored 750 on the GMAT (Graduate Management Aptitude Test)—a prerequisite to apply to most B-schools across the world. With a 96 percentile score, he was sure nothing could stand between him and his ‘dream’ school.

On the same warm Thursday afternoon, Gaurav couldn’t be more dejected. He had scored 640 on the GMAT. He was sure that nothing he could do would get him into his ‘dream’ school now.

I have met several Rahuls and Gauravs, and they have one thing in common—they believe that there is a clear formula, one that normally relies greatly on test scores, to get into top-tier educational institutions. However, contrary to popular perception, there is no “formula” to get into a top-tier institution. This revelation disappoints most students, and they run from pillar to post to various advisors, trusted colleagues, mentors, professors even their friends. Everyone has different advice though ‘focus only on the GMAT’ is the most common gyaan the student is likely to hear.

Having studied at an ivy-league institution, I have acquired an insider’s perspective on admissions, and I’ve had candid conversations with the admissions directors of a number of top-tier colleges. Here is what I have learnt.

* Your  academic record matters a great deal. The grades you got in high school, in board examinations, and in undergraduate institutions are important.

Insider’s  tip: What matters here is the consistency of your performance. Did you always get top notch grades or did you pull up your socks 2-3 semesters before you decided to apply to college? How do perform on analytical subjects? Do you only do well at languages or math, or are you well balanced?

* Next, comes the standardised test score—be it the GMAT, GRE or SAT. The admissions committee uses this information to gauge your aptitude on an objective scale, which implies putting applicants across the globe on the same level. Admissions committees believe this is the best indicator of an applicant’s performance once they get admitted to college, even better than your academic record. So yes, your score matters.

Insider’s  tip:  The break up of the score i.e. the score in math and the score in verbal, individually, is given more importance than the overall score. Similarly, the percentile scored is of maximum importance as it gives the committee information about your performance relative to that of the other test takers.

* Your work experience and extracurricular activities also matter. Put simply, the committee seeks to know how you do at work and how you do outside of it.  It is important to be factual here (and everywhere else in your application for that matter!) as admissions committees consist of trained professionals who are easily able to tell fact from fiction.  Colleges want applicants who are passionate not only about the work they do but also about their other activities. This leads to a well developed individual who will contribute actively to the student community.

Insider’s  tip:  While the years of work experience matter, quality easily scores over quantity. Why then do schools prefer candidates with about 3- 5 years of full time work experience, you may ask. It is the easiest way of ensuring that the candidate will have done meaningful work as part of a team and will have reached the stature of now managing teams. It is this experience and not the number of years that is viewed as a valuable asset. However, if your work experience shows you to be a high achiever in a short span of time, with the correct positioning your application can be equally competitive.

Colleges prefer applicants who have a few focused interests and have pursued their interests single-mindedly as opposed to applicants who have put their finger in every pie and are not committed to any particular interest.

* Pay attention to your essays and letters of recommendation. This is undoubtedly the MOST important and often MOST underrated part of your application. The essays and letters of recommendation help admissions committees understand the person behind the great academic record and standardised test scores. Remember, they do not judge you, they judge your application. Great essays help them delve deeper and understand your strengths, weakness and passions.

Insider’s  tip for essays:  It is essential that both the essays and the letters of recommendation work hand-in-glove with the rest of the application. Often applicants use these as ‘brag sheets’. The best essays are the ones that are honest and simple, and give the admissions committee a glimpse of your personality. Use this opportunity to share with them your ‘secret sauce’ or your point of differentiation. Remember, there are plenty of people just like you applying for limited seats, so come up with something unique, and emphasise that in your essays to ensure you stand out.

Insider’s tip for letters of recommendation:  Choose a person who knows you well, rather than a person at a higher designation who knows you briefly, as your recommender. The letter should clearly explain your relationship and level of interaction with the recommender. It is more powerful when the class teacher writes an accurate recommendation rather than a recommendation by the school principal who knows you fleetingly.

* Colleges accept people and not just applications. They want to ensure the person they are admitting is personable, dynamic, exciting to be with and will contribute actively and positively to their student community immediately and the alumni network in the future.

Insider’s  tip:  Interviewers are most impressed by applicants who have a good sense of why they want to apply to their particular college (it shows that applicants have done their homework), have a clear idea of their future goals and their intended contribution to the college. Extremely glib or rehearsed candidates turn off interviewers immediately.

* The character test poses a mystery to most applicants. This is what we mistake for “luck”. This explains why your popular friend with a higher score got rejected and the one with a lower score and fewer extracurricular activities came out with flying colours. The admissions committee judges an applicant’s character based on the recommendation of  the people on the five panels we’ve discussed so far. After careful analysis and using past experience they are able to ascertain an applicant’s sensitivity to diversity, desire to succeed, and ability to be a true friend and colleague.

Nine months later, on a cold Friday morning both Rahul and Gaurav board the same flight. While Rahul is off to Boston to attend Bentley College, Gaurav has been accepted to Harvard. With a deeper understanding of what it really takes to get into a top-tier college, you too can ensure your hard work pays off.

Quick reporting of TOEFL scores

Students and the universities around the world to which they apply for admission will receive TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores much more quickly, say ETS officials.

The time taken to report TOEFL scores on the web has been reduced from three weeks to two weeks, and printed score reports will also arrive faster. The improved turnaround time is part of ETS’s ongoing efforts to improve the experience of test takers and score recipients.  Additional improvements in score reporting time are planned.  “Test takers requested faster score reporting and that’s what we gave them,” explains Teresa Sanchez-Lazer, Executive Director of Global Product Management at ETS.  “Reporting scores more quickly helps test takers and universities in a very tangible way,” says COO David Hunt. “Scores get to universities sooner and test takers learn of admission decisions much quicker.”

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