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Giving Shape to Your College Application

U.S. universities look for a mix of academic excellence, extracurricular achievements and impressive recommendations and essays.

Nikita SachdevaDuring my 12th grade at Delhi Public School R.K. Puram, a very interesting opportunity came my way. I was offered an internship in developmental economics with the World Health Organization (WHO). The opportunity was so enticing that I decided to take a gap year, during which I not only worked as an intern, but I also took salsa lessons, played tennis and applied to colleges in the United States. The bridge year not only made my application strong but also gave me exposure to large scale research work, helping me evolve as a person.

I kickstarted the application process by visiting counselors at my school and the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF). They informed me about the requirements for applying to U.S. universities. I began by appearing for the SAT exams and my scores came in 99th percentile, making my application academically strong.

My next target was to finalize the list of institutions. The plethora of colleges and universities in the United States makes it taxing for a student to decide on a list of 10 to 15. I knew I wanted the size of the institution to be neither very small nor very large and I wanted it to be situated in a major city. Reputation mattered because it is an indication of the quality of faculty, classes and students. I was also inclined toward the core curriculum.


U.S. Currency

The basic unit of exchange in the United States is the dollar ($), which is divided into 100 cents (¢). One dollar is commonly written as $1 or $1.00. There are four denominations of commonly used coins: 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents and 25 cents. Americans usually refer to coins not by their value in cents, but by their names. A one-cent coin is a penny, a five-cent coin is a nickel, a ten-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. There are also one-dollar coins and half-dollar (50-cent) coins, but they are seldom found in circulation.

U.S. paper money (often called bills: for example, a “one-dollar bill”) comes in single-bill denominations of one dollar ($1.00), two dollars ($2.00, but these are rare), five dollars ($5.00), ten dollars ($10.00), twenty dollars ($20.00), fifty dollars ($50.00), and one hundred dollars ($100.00). U.S. bills are similar in appearance, but differentiated from each other by the number value and with the portrait of a different U.S. historical figure on each denomination. U.S. coins are also marked with the coin’s value, and each denomination is a different size.

Source: EducationUSA booklet “If You Want to Study in the United States.”

I shortlisted some 25 institutions and did extensive research on them. University Web sites were informative, but gigantic. I switched to the Fiske Guide to Colleges that gave me an overview of how my four years would be at each college. In addition, I received a list of 20 colleges from USIEF. After considering the inputs from all sources, I decided to apply to 11 colleges.

Next in line was the task of making a résumé. It helps in organizing all the grades and certificates, and facilitates the filling up of the common application. What I had in hand were excellent high school grades, satisfying SAT scores and decent extracurricular activities. These allowed me to devote my energies toward the essays, the crucial part of every college application.

My counselor repeatedly said, “Your essays should sing, and that will happen only if you are passionate about the topics.” The essays are the only way through which an applicant can express his personality, thoughts, experiences and future plans. An essay can be about varied topics. It provides a chance to applicants to take risks, to be innovative and appeal to the reader’s mind. Sufficient time should be given to all the essays because they require a lot of thinking and editing.

While I was working on my essays and internship, I took out time to make trips to my school. I met my counselor and teachers in order to complete the remaining paperwork. The most important segments of this were the recommendation letters. Admission officers use the letters of recommendation to see the applicant through the eyes of the teachers and the counselor. They like to read experiences that the teachers have had with the applicant in the form of short stories, and highly value their opinion. An applicant should choose teachers who highlight different aspects of his or her personality and caliber.

Most applicants think that sending out applications is the end of the process. But many universities want to know the applicant better and that happens through interviews. So, I would advise all applicants to request for interviews. They can be very enlightening not only for the admission officers but also for the applicants as they get a chance to ask questions about the universities. Finally, after my interviews and the long wait, the decisions were released. To my delight, I made it to my dream school.

I realized that top universities in the United States look for a package in every applicant. The package should have all ingredients—academic excellence, impressive recommendations, extracurricular achievements, expressive essays and, most importantly, an honest student behind each application. There is no definite formula to get into any school. It’s all about the “fit” at the end of the day. The university should fit the applicant and vice versa. Applicants should not get swayed by where their friends are going or what their relatives say. Instead, choose a college which leaves no scope for any regret.

I am happy I decided to attend The University of Chicago for economics and math. It has the perfect class size, a world class faculty and a reputed economics program. The school inspires innovation and values ambition. As I embark on this new journey, I know that the university is another name for novelty and I am ready to think, transform and thrive in such a community.


Nikita Sachdeva is a student at The University of Chicago.