Tips for Students Applying to International Universities in 2021

This article first appeared in the online edition of the Hindu on April 17, 2021.

It’s been a tough year for top college admissions. Contrary to expectations, applications around the world grew dramatically and competition intensified. In the U.S., some universities saw a surge in applications and a plummeting of acceptances. In the U.K., UCAS had a 20% surge in early international applications outside the EU. Liberal Arts universities in India saw a 20-30% increase in applications.

Why did this happen?

Test optional policies were the primary motivators. Many students who applied to top colleges may not have done so if they had been competing with students with top grades and outstanding SAT and SAT subject scores. As standardised test got removed from the picture, the focus turned to the student — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It often takes high-quality — and expensive — coaching for students to ace SAT and ACT scores and many students applying this year felt less intimidated as colleges went test optional.

Also, students applying abroad applied to many contingency options in India. Delhi University saw its applications rise by almost 20% last year, as did Ashoka University and OP Jindal University.

An interesting trend was a disproportionate surge in applications to top colleges. MIT saw applications increase by 66% while the Common App saw only a 11% surge in applications. Acceptances rates at Harvard hit a new low of 3.6%! International applicants to Oxbridge and to medical colleges in the UK increased by about 20%.

Students felt emboldened to take a chance on their dreams and colleges responded by making space for disadvantaged and under-represented groups. And by the opportunity to meet their diversity targets.

Unfortunately, however, some hard-working and ambitious students got caught in the cross winds. Many from leading schools with high grades and above average profiles found the doors of top colleges closed.

What next?

If you are one of those who did not make it to your dream college for 2021 intake, know that you are not alone. Here is what you can do.

Take the best option you have and rely on your inner genius to build your career. There are plenty of examples to prove that you can make it, even if you are not from a Ivy League or top college. Economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale’s research indicates the correlation between a college’s ranking and a student’s earning is close to zero if you adjust for school grades, student ambitions, SAT scores and parental background. Simply put, that means that students who performed well in school and standardised tests were ambitious and came from enabling family backgrounds and performed well in life irrespective of which college they finally went to. 

If your heart is still set on a top college, consider a gap year. The world is full of projects and internships that can bolster your profile and this gives you the time to re-jig your college list and carefully choose colleges in this new environment.

If you are applying in 2021 for 2022 intake, consider these points:

Be conservative in your college lists. Top colleges are flooded but the next levels are still looking for great students and ready to share financial aid and scholarships. So, set your sights a little lower but maximise your potential in that zone.

Focus on your grades compared to testing. Good grades in these tough times stand out and testing is often optional. Given how few people get to take the tests, high SAT and ACT scores also have less value than before. Take Advanced Placement exams to showcase your profile better.

Build depth in your projects. As applications become more competitive, students need to work harder to stand out. So conduct research, raise funds, write, create content, code, design, connect with people. Do more of one thing, rather than many small things.

Make your essays deeper and more authentic. Research the colleges, find the courses that interest you and what type of student they value. Basically, do more of what you would do ordinarily for your application year.

Image credits: Forbes

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