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Beating the Odds in College Admissions

The admissions procedure is lengthy and it takes time and effort to create a stellar application.

With the 2011-2012 Common Application released on August 1 and most college supplements being released soon after, the college admissions season is beginning to heat up. Applying to a college in America is no longer just about filling a few simple forms. It is a lengthy, elaborate and time-consuming process. I decided to apply to colleges in the United States because I wanted to study a variety of subjects while focusing on my major, and the U.S. liberal arts system of education fit my requirements. I chose Harvard University in Massachusetts because of its faculty strength across departments, the sheer amount of opportunities available, the diverse and ambitious student body, its financial resources and proximity to Boston. After completing my studies I wish to do something related to human rights.

In order of importance, while applying for top schools, I would rank academic performance (rigor + class rank + percentage), SAT scores and essays as most important, extracurricular activities a close second, followed by teacher recommendations and legacy status. Top schools not only look for a student with great credentials, they also want to see passion and dedication demonstrated through long-time commitment to extracurricular activities and an interesting personality that shines through memorable essays. Remember, the essay is the only part of your application that you actually control. If you are naturally funny, let that show. Dare to try out unconventional topics. I wrote about Noddy and Harry Potter in one of my best essays. For top colleges, remember that it’s very important to stand out. Spend time on your essays and write about something you are passionate about as opposed to what you think the admissions committee would like to read. In my opinion, the first good essay needs at least one month of work. And, of course, don’t forget to proof-read.

Students who need financial aid should apply to several more schools than usual. To me, 12 seems like an ideal number. Make full use of the CollegeBoard.com Web site. It has great comparable information on merit aid, need-based aid, etc. While making your shortlist, please keep in mind that acceptance rates given on the Web site are only for domestic students and that acceptance rates for international students needing financial aid are much lower.

If possible, apply early. It’s easy to get confused between Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED). While Early Action is not binding (i.e., doesn’t require you to attend should you be accepted), Early Decision restricts you to applying to one school and is a binding contract. For students needing financial aid, I would suggest against applying under Early Decision as they would want to compare financial aid offers. Applying under Early Action to as many colleges as possible is a better option. Early Action not only forces you to prepare a presentable application by November, it gives you two more months to smoothen out the rough edges and create an even better application for the Regular Decision round. Plus, if you get into some schools  through Early Action, it makes that awful wait till March-end so much easier.

The admissions procedure is lengthy and you must spend time in order to create a stellar application. However, a common mistake amongst students is letting the application process take over regular studies, especially in the 12th standard. To manage both, you must plan ahead and set your priorities. Time goes by very quickly in the senior year and one should start with essays and try to finish short listing schools during the summer break. Trawling through university Web sites and reading student blogs are the methods through which one can gauge whether the school is a good fit or not.

There is no secret formula for success in college admissions. I am not going to mince words—the admissions process is long, frustrating and exhausting, but that blessed letter of acceptance in your hand, that tells you that it’s finally over and that all your work wasn’t for naught, is worth it. I wish you good luck.


Upasna Sharma is a student of physics at Harvard University.