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Writing a Stellar Undergraduate Application
By Tanya Sharma
| Category: Education

As the application season for Class of 2019 closes, many future applicants worry about their fate. I am no outsider to that feeling. Last year, I was on that very same boat - terrified of applying to American universities with jaw-dropping acceptance rates. Thankfully, for me that uncertainty is over. Looking back, the admissions process has been full of reflection, reevaluation, and rigour.


In this article, I will underline my experience of applying to university in the US, and shell out my two cents.


1. Start Early


American schools are interested in growth - consistent growth. One way to show this is through your academic transcript: your records from Class IX onwards. So, do pay special attention to your grades early on.


Starting early gives you the option of finding out and spacing the tests you must take. For example, if applying to a first-tier school, you would know that you have to take Subject SATs along with the SAT Reasoning Test. Here, a good strategy would be to write the SAT Reasoning Test in Class XI, so that you can dedicate your time to in Class XII to Subject SATs, boards, and college applications.


A great way to boost your application is to undertake a challenging high-school curriculum like the IB or the CIE A Levels. If this is not an option for you, try convincing your school to let you take more, or diverse subjects in the CBSE curriculum. Be aware that only some schools are so flexible. American schools do love students who challenge themselves. And following a demanding curriculum gives them an idea that YOU are that kind of a person. Only starting early can give you these options.


2. Find a mentor


Find someone who is experienced in the admissions process, and can coach you to college. This could be a school counsellor, a friend who is already at university, or a professional consultant. Look for how willing and able someone is to mentor you. I had various mentors at various points - friends, teachers, parents, and acquaintances. However the two people who saw me through the final application season were Poshak Agarwal and Rahul Subramanian, two Princeton graduates, who offer professional guidance to students hoping to study in top American schools.


My mentors helped me write the best essays I could possibly write, made me critique my work, gave me constructive suggestions, debated with me endlessly to streamline my thoughts, took me to various talks by academics and networking events, and prepared me for interviews. Applying to college is not about “packaging yourself well” - that sounds like cheating. It is about truly challenging yourself, and reflecting the depth of a challenge on your character. A good mentor(s) can help you do that.


3. Be “well-rounded”


Colleges look for “well-rounded” individuals, but their definition of well-rounded is not quite literal. A well-rounded individual does not mean someone who is “good” at everything, but good at everything and best at something. In my case, I was School Head, academically well-rounded, and actively engaged in music and debate. However, most applicants to the US have these traits, and most top American schools expect them. So how does one stand out?


The answer: add “spikes” to your application. Pursue something very unique, and pursue it far. In my case, this was my NGO Handbook, a compilation of my analyses of various social endeavors, from which I derived common lessons for aspiring social entrepreneurs. On viewing this handbook, a member of the WEF Global Shapers Community offered me to co-author her newspaper column. Another successful applicant I know spiked in her voracious reading habit. She presented this interest through winning the National Spelling Bee, writing for newspapers, and maintaining a critical literature blog. So while it is necessary to develop “holistically”, you must also offer something unique and specialised to the university.


4. Structure your application


The question now arises: how should you show your “spike”? The answer is: structure. You claim to be an environmentalist, but do you have concrete participation in environmental organisations like the WWF, Greenpeace, etc,. to show? You claim to be a highly skilled drummer, but do have studio or concert recordings, or a YouTube channel to prove it? Structurally presenting your achievements gives weight to your application, by verifying your commitment to your interests.


I had executive and volunteering experience with NGOs and social impact groups. However, simply stating that I had worked for a set number of hours could not do justice to my interest in studying NGO structures, improving existing programs, and helping the community. I needed to structure my interest, my work, and the experiential data I had gained. I did this by composing My NGO Handbook.


Structure indicates professionalism. And professionalism is appreciated by American schools who are to place their trust in you, the applicant.


5. Develop your verbal abilities


You may be a star athlete, an accomplished musician, a culture enthusiast, gifted with artistry, and/or a theorising philosopher. At the end of the day, your titles are less important than your expression in conveying experience, character and growth. Remember that four years of your life are to be condensed into four sheets of paper. To do this well, verbal abilities are essential. As Mark Twain wrote “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”


But it’s not just the “right words”, you must also use the right style and the right structure to powerfully impact the Admissions Committee - which sees between 12,000 and 92,000 applications, depending on where you apply.


To write compelling college essays, you can take essay-based subjects in school, have your mentor(s) correct your writing pieces regularly, and rework your college essays with advisors, teachers, and other professionals.


6. Show interest


Remember that American schools look for a spirit of self-improvement, consistency, and commitment. You can show this not just by presenting a great application about yourself, but also by highlighting your interest in the university. For example, if you are applying to UChicago, you should show awareness about the academic-centric dynamic of the school, and consequently show how this community suits you (and vice-versa). You can also frequently visit the UChicago Centre in New Delhi, involve yourself in UChicago efforts in India and so on. By communicating your interest in the university, you send out a clear signal of commitment.


7. Spread your risks


As international application numbers to American universities break ceilings every year, acceptance rates drop dangerously low, and often your acceptance depends on sheer chance. It is a bad idea to pin all your hopes on top schools, only to have no university to attend in the fall. To avoid this, strategize your resources: time and money.


From the Common Application portal, you can at most send 20 applications. Chalk out your dream (reach) schools, mid-level safeties, and safety schools. This strategy ensures that you spread your resources so as to maximise your chances to attend an American university.


The US is undoubtedly an enriching place to study. It offers liberal, integrated education, and some generous funding opportunities for students. There is an inherent dual-emphasis on learning for learning’s sake and preparing individuals for work. Having said that, competition for places at these schools is unfathomable, especially for international students. Therefore, work as hard as you can, take a leap of faith, and hit Apply. 


Tanya Sharma is the author of My NGO Handbook, political commentator, researcher, columnist, and blogger. Tanya hopes to study Economics, and has secured admission in prestigious American universities including Cornell University, University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. 


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