Looking Beyond Student Potential

This article was first published in the Hindu on January 15, 2022.

Be it the Ivy Leagues in the U.S., Oxbridge in the U.K., the University of Toronto in Canada or Ashoka University in India, top colleges get thousands of applications for their few hundred seats. However, their admission processes look beyond marks and standardised tests to understand a student’s potential. 

What does this mean? Here are some key markers: 

Winning elements

Intellectual vitality: This means having a curious mind and the energy to feed it. Intellectual vitality shines through independent study, research work, academic essays, the ability to derive meaningful insights from books, online courses, and writing topic-based blogs.

Stretch potential: This comes across in your course selection in school and achieving meaningful goals in activities beyond academics. Depth in any activity is critical to demonstrate stretch. Taking on a sport or an art form to a higher level, performing in multiple tournaments and sticking with your passion over the years demonstrate this.

Initiative: As opposed to plain leadership potential, admissions officers are looking for demonstrated leadership. This means setting goals, taking risks, facing failure, and persisting towards achievement. Some examples of initiative could include running a debate club with multiple chapters; organising a food distribution network during the pandemic; a fundraising initiative for social causes such as distributing green stoves among disadvantaged groups; conducting learning programmes for different age groups.

Community connect: Contrary to popular belief, this does not necessarily mean social work. It is important to know that some popular projects such as teaching underprivileged kids and cleaning the Yamuna are so common that they fail to impress. Taking on leadership positions in school and then making a real difference is an option almost any student can access. This means instituting a coaching programme for new players in sports, starting an opinion section in the school magazine, or bringing in a series of social entrepreneurs to speak in the school’s business club.

Pointy profiles

Apart from being near-impossible, the formula Great grades + set up NGO + be on a sports team + play instrument + write academic paper + awards + good AP scores = admission into Stanford doesn’t usually work.

This is largely because quality trumps quantity. Most students are unable to do so many things at sustained levels of high quality while also dealing with adolescent troubles. 

The risk with a pointy profile is not making the cut: what if I never win anything at the national level? What if my games are never adopted by anybody? What if I don’t get a mentor to research with? What if the book never happens?

Profile or marks?

Top colleges look for students with A1 grades in a few subjects and A in all. These are students who have a top score in standardised tests like a 34-36 in ACT tests or beyond 1550 on SAT. In an increasingly test-optional world, standardised test scores still add a lot to the academic profile of an international student competing among thousands of others!

The board matters too. While top grades in the IB and IGCSE curriculum are enough to make the cut, students from CBSE and ICSE boards often need to take additional AP exams to meet the required credentials and compete with the rigour of those syllabi.

So, is there a simple formula? Yes and no. The formula is to choose subjects and activities that motivate you, set stretch goals in a few areas (not all), and then take on the challenge of meeting them despite roadblocks and failures. The challenge is to know and understand yourself and create a profile that showcases you — not some ideal perfect student who can do no wrong!

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