Students often ask me whether they would be able to get into a top-notch college. My answer to this is a short ‘Yes.’
If a student believes in herself and work hard towards her admission, she would invariably be able to make it.
Last year, I worked with over hundred students – many of them were what you would call ‘average profiles.’ However, each one of them believed in his/ her ability to make it to the best school and they were ready to work towards that. Eventually, all of them could make it to at least one of their top three choices!
Let us look at some of these successful admissions application and draw lessons that you can use.
Lesson # 1: Don’t listen to your friends:
If you are thinking of a top-ten university, then invariably you are different. Peers, or friends and relatives typically base their assertions on limited information and often are ill-informed. It is a good idea to build your views basis your own research. In case of doubt, it is good to connect directly with the college admission office. The information that you would get directly from your own research or from your direct communication with colleges would be more reliable and actionable.For instance, a lot of people look at the profile of a student and pre-judge him/ her to be good for a certain set of colleges or not. That is an incorrect approach. Nobody can say upfront whether a student is good enough or not. From having studied at places like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, etc. we can vouch for the fact that every one of you is capable of getting into a good institute! You just need to believe and work towards that goal.
Lesson # 2: Poor Academics may not matter if supplemented by other ‘Aces’:
A student flunked his grade X examinations. He took the exam again and subsequently managed to pass. He barely survived grade XI and XII. He wanted to get into MIT into the fabled course VI – Computer Science and Electronics Engineering. His English was pathetic – he could not even write a sentence properly and would stutter while speaking. He was a brilliant programmer though! He managed to write a part of ‘matching algorithm’ – (to match buyers of a service with providers of a service) - when he was in grade XI and eventually sold it to Airbnb for half a million dollars. His admission application was essentially a part of this code. Not only did he secure an admission without SAT or TOEFL, he also secure full scholarship to study at MIT.
Our point is simple – each one of us has a unique trait. We need to cull that out and showcase it in our admission application. If we are able to do that, notwithstanding poor academics, we shall have a good shot at getting into a top-notch college.
Lesson # 3: Consistency and Rigor are important:
There was a student of mine who scored 65% in his Grade X examinations. Yet, he dreamt of getting into Stanford and MIT to study game design and computer science. Most people would laugh at the proposition but we thought that it was possible. He had been a gamer for the last ten years and has been playing computer games for an average of 3 hours every day. That is more than 10,000 hours of gaming – the time that it takes to develop deep skills in an area (Malcolm Gladwell, 10,000 hour rule.) We figured that it would be a good idea to build his profile basis his interest in gaming. There were a host of things that he did around his skills in gaming including building a following on YouTube, taking specific game-design courses, participating in game-championships around the world, etc. Notwithstanding his poor SAT scores and average academics, he could make it to Stanford!
Lesson # 4: Tell a story:
There is a tendency to ‘tell everything.’ Most applications encourage you to get into a ‘full –disclosure’ mode. However, the story that you need to tell has to be crisp and usually that means that you focus on a few aspects of your life and leave out the rest. A student of ours talked about the fantastic academics projects, sporting activities that he had participated in, social service, extra and co-curricular activities – it was like reading the bio of Superman and some more! Together, we removed all of that and started focusing on things that were most important to this person. Very quickly a story emerged which was not just powerful, but also relevant and contextual to his admission application. He just talked about his love for Maths and how he could solve a Rubik’s cube in 45 seconds. The entire story revolved around how he learnt to solve it and how he had built algorithms to improve his timing. In the end, it was a story that connected with him and was infinitely more powerful than the ‘superman’ dump of information that he had before. He got into Georgia Tech!
Lesson # 5: Iterate:
A Psychology Masters student of ours wanted to go to King’s College London – one of the best places to study Psychology. She had built out her profile and had done a bunch of things in support of her application and was ready to prepare her admission material – essentially her Statement of Purpose (SOP). The value of that document cannot be overstated – it is the most important constituent of your admission application along with your profile, academics and general test-scores. She iterated her SOP documents at least 100 times – in the end she was exhausted with all the writing. However, the document turned out to be her way into not just King’s but also UCL, Cambridge and Oxford – all the institutes that she had applied into.
The lesson is clear. Make sure that the essays that you are submitting have gone through a rigorous process of editing and convey your story in a compelling fashion. Please be cautioned to not use existing templates or ‘essay-writers.’ There are software programs that can catch such things. It is best to write your own story. (You can take help in designing the storyline, but the actual writing should be done by you) – And the more you iterate, the more powerful your story will be!
Lesson # 5: Do not give up even before trying:
We got a student who was not sure whether she could get into any decent college, leave alone IVYs. And she was willing to pull in efforts to make her application stand out. We applied our UAH process of knowledge-mining and went through the process of design-thinking her admission essays. However, we could not pull out anything that was exceptionally powerful. We continued to work.
While researching the colleges, we could find a new program at one of the top five university which was being launched in that year only. While the university had 7% acceptance rate for international students, we reckoned that particular course would probably have a higher acceptance rate because in general, people would not know about it. Along with a few other universities, she applied into that particular program as well!
She eventually got accepted at that new program! We later got to know that in that year, the program has a 19% acceptance rate (which later came down to 7% - same as that of the university.) Had she not tried and given up, she would not have got the admission. It is important to try – there is no downside to that. Who knows, you might get in!
Remember that you would be spending a good amount of money on your education – often running into a few hundred thousand dollars. That money would be far more effective, if spent at a great education institute.
In the end, remember that an admission team is trying to build a cohort and they are not just looking for academic superstars. They are looking for students who have different interests and have different kinds of aces up their sleeves – sports, dance and music, problem solving, interests like photography, bird-watching, etc. If you can build a story which is differentiated and which has elements of rigor, there are good chances that you shall get an admit. All the best!
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