Protecting Your Downside
At the end of one of my earlier columns (May 15th) I advised students to ‘select realistic back-up options.’ As I start preparing students for the upcoming application cycle, I find that this advice needs more detail. First of all the list of realistic options students have is almost always the same and secondly, it is rarely ever ‘realistic’. It seems like the colleges people choose as back-ups are the colleges where they have heard of other Indian students getting admission. I beseech all students who are applying this year to dig deeper into what is really important to you and apply only to colleges you want to attend. There are plenty of options.
Besides word of mouth selection some students choose colleges based on numbers, wrongly assuming that a college with a 45% admission rate is a safety school. There are many other factors behind these numbers. For example state colleges (e.g. University of Michigan, University of Virginia and most of the public ivy’s) high admit rates but 70-90% of admitted students are residents of the state, so the international student admit rate is different (and usually unpublished). In fact a private college with a low admit rate might be easier to gain admission if ‘institutional priorities’ are aimed attracting more students from India (you would need to know this information through an admissions office source).
It is also important to remember that any college with lower than a 10% admissions rate should be considered a “lottery school” and therefore always in the dream school category. For example, if you’re a great student, Princeton may look achievable, on paper. But colleges like Princeton always have many more applicants who hit the mark than there are seats available. After pulling out qualified students, the selection is based on other ‘soft’ factors like essays, recommendations and extracurriculars. Knowing what a particular school is looking for in these areas is likened to winning the lottery – hence the name: your chances are as good as winning the lottery, as long as you’ve bought a ticket (e.g. met the minimum criteria).
Preparing realistic options could mean looking at some smaller liberal arts colleges that might award you some financial aid. Colleges like University of Richmond, Tulane, Grinnell and Trinity College have a history of giving financial aid awards to attract international students with a strong academic record. If financial aid is not your top criteria, then look at large public colleges which have a high admit rate for International students like UIUC or Georgia Tech for engineering students, or Purdue or Indiana University. Any of the University of California’s 10 campuses are also great options and are simple to apply to through a single application.
As I have said before, there are literally thousands of colleges in the world from which to choose. While rankings and name recognition are important, it is more important to find the right fit for you and to realize that your criteria may not the same as that of your peers or your college counselor. You can choose based on campus location, campus size, student-faculty interaction, research and internship resources, housing and dining facilities, sports and extracurricular options, etc. Sometimes simply a gut reaction after a campus visit or a meeting with an admissions representative can also sway you toward a particular college.
Your college choice matters, but ultimately, what you do with your future is in your hands, any college can help you get there. Being clear about what you want and going after it is the first step.