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What do Top Colleges in the World Look for in Successful Applicants?

Over the last 12 months, we have met with more than thousands of students through our sessions, webinar, and discussions. The most often question asked by many parents and students around the world is “How do I get into top colleges such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford etc.?” What do top universities look for in an applicant?


The answer to this question is very simple! There is no golden ticket and there is no set formula! So, don’t spend all your time figuring it out. Don’t spend all your time checking off all the extra-curricular or don’t worry about checking off the “community service” box on your application.


If you are a student who has aspirations of applying to one of the top colleges in the world, follow these simple rules. We have put these together based on our interviews, discussions with a number of admission counselors, fmr. Admission officers, and by researching the admission data at these universities over the last 10+ years.


So, what do these colleges look for in an applicant? They look at a student and try to assess their:


1)  Aptitude – Based on his previous grades, school records, test scores etc., does the student has the aptitude to cope and do well with the rigor of program at the school. This is the reason why the Ivy Leagues had created an “Academic Index” to make sure that athletes and other students admitted to the program meet the basic academic requirements. They asses the aptitude of a student based on his or her 1) Grades across 4 years of high school 2) Rigor of coursework 3) Progressing over the high school years 4) Test Scores 5) Tests Taken  and 6) other projects etc. done.


2)  Attitude – This is all about a student’s approach, thinking and use of their time outside the school. Here the admission team uses the awards, extra-curricular, LORs and essays to get an idea about student’s attitude. They are less concerned about the final outcome or achievement, more around what they see about from these data points to get a picture of the student.


3)  Leadership qualities – Every College wants student or alumni to play a critical and impactful role within the college community and the wider community once they graduate. Here they want to see data points around the student’s communication, dreams, aspirations, lifelong learning, driving results and teamwork (all qualities of a great leader). For them, the leadership of a young student is less about if they have solved the “Middle East Problem” or the “Poverty”; it is more about the basic qualities of a leader. Every student has some or the other leadership quality, key is to bring them forth and make them useful for the benefit of others.


The above three variables remain the same across colleges….only thing changes is the weightage of these variables. For example, universities in Canada, U.K, Singapore and the large public colleges in the U.S. tend to provide a lot of weightage to the “Aptitude”. While the top Liberal Arts colleges such as Pamona, Reed, Harvey Mudd, Grinnell etc. tend to provide more weightage to the “Attitude” and “Leadership”.


Below is one of my favorite blog/article written by one of the MIT Admission Officers in early 2000s. I love this blog as it simply explains what the admission team at top colleges look for in a successful application.


Here it is….enjoy!


What do Top Colleges Look For


“Now that you are Zen calm, liberated from the pressures of not having cured cancer by your 18th birthday, what should you do if you still want to come to MIT?


         Do well in school. Take tough classes. Interrogate your beliefs and presumptions. Pursue knowledge with dogged precision. Because it is better to be educated and intelligent than not.


         Be nice. This cannot be overstated. Don’t be wanton or careless or cruel. Treat those around you with kindness. Help people. Contribute to your community.


         Pursue your passion. Find what you love, and do it. Maybe it’s a sport. Maybe it’s an instrument. Maybe it’s research. Maybe it’s being a leader in your community. Math. Baking. Napping. Hopscotch. Whatever it is, spend time on it. Immerse yourself in it. Enjoy it.


If you get into MIT, it will be because you followed these steps. If you do well in school, you will be smart and prepared for an MIT education. If you are nice, then your letters of recommendation will convince us that MIT would be a wildly better place with you on campus. And if you pursue your passion, you will have developed a love for and skill at something that helps distinguish you from other applications – something that is your “hook.”


But what if you don’t get into MIT?


Well, you may be disappointed. But you learned everything you could, so now you’re smarter; you were a positive member of your community, and you made people happy; and you spent high school doing not what you thought you had to do to get into a selective college, but what you wanted to do more than anything else in the world. In other words, you didn’t waste a single solitary second of your time.


Applying sideways, like a mantra, means don’t do things because you think they will help you get into MIT (or Harvard, or CalTech, or anywhere). Instead, you should study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion, because then you will have spent high school doing all the rights things, and, as a complete side effect, you’ll be cast in the best light possible for competitive college admissions.


Sometimes, you really can have the best of both worlds.


Others Blogs by this Author:



Scholarships and Aid for International Students

How to land my dream job after college?


Author: Ajay Singh

Ajay is the co-founder of Stoodnt and spent 20+ years in senior leadership roles with companies such as American Express, Cendant and Intel prior to starting Stoodnt. He has a M.B.A. from Harvard, M.S. in Computer Engineering from U.T. Austin and B.Tech from I.I.T Roorkee (India).


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