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USA Tips and Advice 5: Acceptance Trends at Top Schools

Thu 12 May 2016

Have you ever wondered what it takes to get a full scholarship to Harvard, Stanford and Yale?

I know I wonder this all the time.  Well, my close friend An from Vietnam just achieved this.  When I was a counsellor four years ago, I helped An get into a boarding high school in America.  What stood out to me was not her grades at all – but her energy and passion.  Particularly helping others who are less fortunate. 

An started an organization called International Catalysts for Empowerment with a few students from different countries – India, Korea and America.  They set out to undertake meaningful volunteer projects in their summer vacation time.  She also was involved in other clubs and activities in her school – such as Model United Nations, Key Club and was a member of the Yale Young Global Scholars program. 

The reason why I mention An (and I also deeply respect her privacy) is because we were both shocked when she got accepted at these top universities and offered a full scholarship.  She didn’t think she would get in anywhere with her grades and test scores!

The key was her passion.  This is something that can’t be taught or studied or learned – but it is a useful testimonial for what some of the top universities in America are looking for.

American schools value more than grades

Many people understand this.  The UK and Australian education systems are more predictable – as students can have a pretty good idea based on their academic results on the types of schools they gain acceptance to.  The US system is different.  A student may have straight A’s, a perfect score on the SAT, but still not get accepted at a top university.  Why?  Because it is not a ‘science’ of getting accepted (or gaining scholarship) but rather admissions teams look at the complete profile of the student applicant. 

This can be via their essays or letters of recommendation and often times schools will require applicants to list their activities.  Sometimes students just ‘check the boxes’ and list a few sports and clubs they participate in.  Schools know when students do this. There is a difference between participation and passion. This comes through in the essays, teacher letters or personal interviews.

So can the USA teach students to be well-rounded or do students need to be like this before entering America?

My firm opinion is that studying and living in the USA can teach students some of these valuable traits.  Not everyone is going to go to Harvard.  But all schools will give students the chance to develop their passions – both inside and outside of the classroom.  It starts with a liberal arts based curriculum whereby students need to take a broad range of subjects in Year 1 – as they do in the ONCAMPUS programs.   

It also comes through living in the campus community. All of the programs – be it in California, Texas, New York or Boston – provide a strong community where student life is valued. Clubs, activities, social events, international cultural days….it would be hard to find a day or a week where something is not going on. Oh how I miss those days!!

One further note is that the student An above had some of this passion already – without question. But heading to a boarding high school in America was clearly the path for her to put some of her passions into action. In some countries, the opportunity for these passions is limited – so attending a high school in America such as CATS Academy Boston is a very wise choice for some students and families. Many students don’t even realize their strengths and passions until they have the facilities and resources to explore them!

Current acceptance trends at US universities

In the news quite a bit recently is a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education which points to a US-wide movement to reform college admissions and cultivate a concern for the broader interests of society instead of focusing on individual success. 

The report is endorsed by a coalition of university admission offices across the US and it argues that university admissions can shape a student’s character by clearly signaling that schools highly value moral and ethical attributes.  Community service that stems from the student’s passion is more likely to promote empathy and generosity. 

I know this is strange to many parents – and I always smile at fairs when I get the questions like: “What score do I need to get accepted?” “What grades do I need to get scholarship?” 

Many parents, especially of international students, focus on achievement.  But redefining achievement, especially when it comes to community service and helping others, is something new to them.  But it is one of the most important and growing areas in which students can make themselves stand out to US universities.  And if this may be lacking in a student – it is all the more reason to have a student enter the US through a pathway program like ONCAMPUS, where they can live in a supportive on-campus environment and build some of their passions and hobbies. 


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