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A professor conducts a class on the steps of Angell Hall at University of Michigan. Photograph by BILL WOOD
A professor conducts a class on the steps of Angell Hall at University of Michigan. Photograph by BILL WOOD

How to Prepare a Successful Application

College acceptance in the United States continues to be extremely competitive. Here are some tips from admissions officials on how to rise above the crowd.


Over the past few years, American universities and prospective Indian students have developed a growing interest in one another. Top-ranked institutions like University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) have seen Indian undergraduate applications more than double since 2009, and acceptance rates for India nearly triple. The numbers are expected to continue going up, as more of America’s most competitive colleges and universities send recruiters to India with increasing frequency.

More Indians applying. More and more accepted. What’s this mutual affection all about?
“Global diversity,” explains Susan Wilbur, director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. “For a long time, the University of California schools have focused on recruiting students from California, as our first mission is to serve the people of our state. But we live in an increasingly global community, so we want to provide more and more opportunities for students to interact with people with different perspectives.”

Looking For a Harvard Education? Head to Mumbai

For more than a century, Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts has trained students who have reshaped the way business is conducted around the world. In March 2012, the school established a classroom at Taj Lands End Hotel in Mumbai. With a seating capacity of up to 82 students, the amphitheater-style classroom will offer state-of-the-art multimedia facilities and replicate the MBA classrooms in Boston.

The new classroom will house the executive education programs Harvard Business School already runs in India and replace the various temporary spaces the school has used previously.

"India is a key component of Harvard Business School's global strategy," says Dean Nitin Nohria. "Our aspiration is to expand our intellectual footprint by working with business, government and academic leaders from across the country, all the while contributing to important discussions about India's long-term economic growth."

The school opened its India Research Center in Mumbai in 2005 and has run executive education programs in India for nearly six years. Using the new classroom, Harvard Business School faculty will offer programs and symposia to leaders in business, government and academia on a wide range of subjects such as corporate social responsibility, building a global enterprise, case writing and course development. According to the school's Web site, "Indian business schools extensively use Harvard Business School cases in the classroom and over the past four years some 100 Indian faculty have participated in the school's Global Colloquium for Participant Centered Learning, where they learn from HBS faculty how to teach using the case method."

A classroom at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. Photograph courtesy Wikipedia.

India, in particular, offers a growing number of highly qualified applicants with solid English skills and an interest in studying at American institutions. “India, frankly, has become more of a hot spot for us,” says Rebecca Munsterer, senior associate director of admissions at Dartmouth College. “We increased our visits to India last year, because we recognized both an interest in Dartmouth there, and a lot of talent.”

As the number of applicants increases, putting together an application that rises above the crowded field becomes a bigger challenge. Admissions officers from four top-ranked colleges and universities spoke with SPAN to share advice on how Indian students can develop applications that stand out.

Begin with a good fit
Schools are looking for international students who will succeed even though they are far from home and in unfamiliar surroundings. Therefore, successful applications begin with students who have done their research and know if the school will be a good match for them. How long is the winter? What kind of community surrounds the school—urban, suburban or a quaint college town? Is the university residential or do most students live in apartments off campus? Which academic areas are the strongest and do they align with the applicant’s interests?

At Stanford University, where most students live in dorms all four years, admissions officers look for candidates who would make good roommates. Similarly, at Dartmouth, an Ivy League school set in a remote area in the middle of New Hampshire, applicants need to be able to live in dorms with a diverse group of students. “This can be a real challenge for some high school students who grew up surrounded by people who look, talk, eat and think like them,” says Munsterer.

Applicants can learn more about the schools before applying by meeting recruiters or alumni in India, and asking about the culture, the weather, the support systems in place for international students, academics, lifestyle and extracurricular opportunities. Information on these are also available on university Web sites.

Demonstrate strength in academics and beyond
Competitive American universities expect applicants to have proven academic success—excellent grades in rigorous coursework, high marks on external exams, and strong ACT/SAT and TOEFL results. But beyond these in-class results, admissions reviewers look for evidence of skills outside the classroom that reflect a student’s personal interest and sense of responsibility: leadership, awards and service to the community.

“Our admissions decisions are not based solely on any single criterion but on the whole record,” explains University of Michigan’s international admissions and recruitment coordinator, Cindy Gould. “We use an individualized, comprehensive, holistic, multiple-review process in evaluating each student’s application. And we know that there is great variation among our applicants’ personal circumstances, home communities and high schools—even the curriculum available and the grading practices can vary widely.”

At UCLA, Wilbur suggests that students include additional comments on their applications to explain anything unusual about their educational system. “This can be helpful to admissions reviewers in the U.S.,” she notes, “as each studentcomes to us with a unique educational history.”

Seek out meaningful recommendations
In the United States, high school students typically participate in extracurricular activities such as athletics, arts, clubs and community service through their schools. Therefore in most cases, teachers see and get to know their students beyond a strictly academic setting.

OWU Students Learn About Gandhi

A group of students and teachers from Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware visited Lady Shri Ram College for Women (LSR) in New Delhi in March for a week-long academic and cultural exchange program to learn about the life and works of Mohandas K. Gandhi. They explored Gandhi from many perspectives, including peace and conflict resolution, and had discussions with LSR students and teachers. They also visited the Gandhi Smriti (earlier known as Birla House), where Gandhi stayed during his Delhi visits and places of worship of various faiths frequented by Gandhi.

"We began our course…with a prayer service on the lawn of LSR…. We were all deeply moved, many to tears, by the beauty of the music, the serenity of the prayers, and the unity of the human spirit reflected in the service," Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU) wrote in his blog. OWU students also participated in community service at a center for intellectually disabled youth and adults run by Muskaan, a nongovernmental organization.

The visitors and the LSR students discussed the possibility of sharing their talents and resources, including student and faculty exchanges, joint faculty development and short-term courses for students of both colleges.

Two years ago, Ohio Wesleyan University was selected by the Institute for International Education as one of 10 colleges and universities in the United States to participate in an International Academic Partnership Program in India. The program is designed to foster partnerships among institutions of higher education in India and the United States.

Read more about the visit at: http://blog.owu.edu/india

However, Munsterer notes, producing a robust teacher recommendation can be a challenge for the international student. “Student relationships with teachers and guidance counselors are different from the United States. International teacher recommendations might simply state that the student is smart and receives an A in class. So it becomes important for these students to show their intellectual curiosity themselves. In the essays, share what you did with math, not just how hard you worked to get the grade, for example.”

Dartmouth is one of the few institutions that also require a peer recommendation. “The prompts are purposely vague,” says Munsterer. “We’re looking for anecdotes about their experiences to help us add a layer about who they are and what they have to offer at Dartmouth.”

Share your personal voice
Although not all American universities require essays for admission, most of the top-ranked schools do. The essay provides an opportunity for the applicant to reveal her or his personal passion, unique experiences, struggles, humor, aspirations. Schools hope the essay will help them discover a student’s personal qualities, those less tangible elements of a student’s application that indicate what the person might gain from and contribute to the campus community if admitted.

In the American education system, students are often encouraged to express their personality in their writing. For students raised in an educational culture that emphasizes studying and scores, this expectation can be a challenge. Applicants should begin their essay-writing process by reflecting on both their achievements and setbacks in academics and extracurricular activities, recommends Gould at Michigan. “Students should complete their own applications,” she adds. “We like the student’s voice to come through and the essays create an opportunity for this.”

Stanford University’s admission officer Theresa Bruketta explains that due to sheer numbers they must turn away many qualified applicants. So the essay offers a real opportunity for a strong and passionate student to make an impression. “To stand out, an applicant must be both competitive but also compelling. This is not something that is easily defined because it is what makes that applicant unique. There is no formula for getting into Stanford. My best advice is for students to do what they love and to do it well. This will not only help them find their true passion and their true voice, it will also be the thing that stands out in our process.”

Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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