The most encouraging (some call it 'intriguing') difference in the admission process of an international university (specifically those in the US, and more so, increasingly, in other parts of the world) is the way applications are scrutinized to arrive at a holistic picture of the student.
If you are from a South Asian background, you would have gotten used to being evaluated in a discrete set of intervals, based on mid-terms and semester examinations (during school, and in many cases, even during UG courses)! Given the pressure youngsters are subjected to in such environments - requiring to study tomes of prescribed books - they tend to make what they learn from these books their top priority.
However, the holistic evaluation of an aspirant, as a student and a human, pursued by Western Universities, takes into consideration the following:
(a) Academics: Ace academic subjects with aplomb, implying getting high grades consistently
(b) Standardized Tests: Once you do that, cracking the standardized tests becomes a cake walk.
(c) Extracurriculars & Social Work: Invest in your holistic development through extracurricular activities & pursuit of your passion!
(d) Statement of Purpose: Have a plan for your life, and narrate it well in your Essay (aka, Statement of Purpose).
(e) Letters of Recommendation: Network furiously, and manage an edifying set of Letters of Recommendation.
Let us now deal with each of these topics in detail.
The importance of academics cannot be emphasized enough!
While it is true that the universities do not always look for Perfect-A's in a student's transcript (report card), they do feel encouraged when students display consistently good academics or scores that are steadily improving. The student's background could have an impact on the grades, but if s/he displays consistently high scores, or demonstrates an improvement story, then the motivation to offer admission surely gets a fillip. This act helps universities maintain their high academic standards, drive their deep rigor in research and diversity amongst the student cohort.
A standardized test is one that (1) expects test takers to answer the same (set of) questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a "standard/consistent" way, enabling it to compare the relative performance of test-takers (or their sub-groups). These tests are usually offered to students in the familiar multiple-choice format; and can also include true-false questions, essay questions, short-answer questions, or a combination of those.
Standardized tests are generally considered to be an objective & fair way of assessing the academic achievement of students, mainly because of their structure. In addition, the computerized scoring is considered to reduce the potential for any kind of bias, subjectivity, or favoritism. Standardized tests are used for college admissions; and help in deciding the kind of students who will be admitted to a college program. The tests are used as indicators of intellectual and academic potential. Some institutions tend to veer towards believing that the standardized tests are capable of predicting an applicant's capability to do well in the post-secondary program.
In case of students going abroad for quality education, the list (not exhaustive) of standardized tests include: SAT or ACT (for Bachelor's), GMAT® or GRE® (for Master's), and TOEFL® or IELTS™ or PTE™ (for non-native English speakers). Getting a perfect score in these tests is a distinct possibility. An understanding of the fundamental concepts of the subjects being tested (predominantly high-school-level difficulty), coupled with speed & accuracy of responses, is all that is required!
This is where the typically studious student starts to tread on unfamiliar ground. The quest for a 'great' student includes the demand for a conscientious one too. And that requires him/her to be not just academically strong, but also socially aware & multi-disciplinarian in skill set.
A performance track record on extracurriculars and social work will be of great help in bolstering the candidature of the student, which can reflect these attributes. Consider these examples:
These are some randomly assorted examples that illustrate the kind of holistic nature possible in a student's profile. As stated while discussing the Academics topic, even here, consistency is important. The ad-com members, veterans in their field, can easily identify a quick-fix interest displayed by the candidate and deny him/her admission. This pursuit of passion has to show across a period of time, with no sudden bursts of intensity in between. So, to get a good, green tick-mark on this parameter, it is important to start early and stay put in doing good.
A statement of purpose (SOP) is an important component of your college application. It tells the ad-com who you are, why you are applying to the college/stream you have chosen, how your candidature is stellar, and what you intend to do in future. An SOP is also called an application essay, a personal background note, cover letter, or something similar.
The SOP should
An ideal SOP would be around 1-page long (not more), use 12-point Arial or Calibri font (the most popular & legible ones; we recommend Serif fonts like Times New Roman, Georgia or Cambria OR Sans Serif fonts like Arial, Calibri, Trebuchet, Verdana, etc.). To maintain clarity & legibility, we recommend that the page margins be at least 1 inch on all sides, and the line spacing be maintained at 1.25 or 1.5!
In the first paragraph, focus on introducing yourself and your fitment to the program being applied for. Also include how your immediate career goals dovetail with the program of choice. Always remember to include in the first paragraph only those topics that help your candidature to be related to the program being applied for.
In the second paragraph, you should relate to the ad-com why you are applying for the program. It should come through clearly in this paragraph and is best stated directly. The linkages should be established without doubt; and these should strongly justify your interest in the program.
The third and fourth paragraphs carry a brief note of your experiences related to the field of interest and the program that you are applying for. Internships, work experience, project work, and any other pro bono efforts find their place here. You can also use the school's program guide to help refine your presentation about the related experience you have had. The fourth paragraph is more for additional information that you consider the ad-com may require to have.
The last paragraph of the SOP should be a brief description of your long-term career goals that use the first paragraph's immediate career goals as a starting point, and take them to a logical conclusion.
Colleges often seek letters of recommendation issued by people who know the applicants and would testify about their skills, personality, and accomplishments in academia and/or workplace.
The LORs provide the ad-com with information that the transcripts may not be able to reveal, while also adding value to the student's profile documents with opinions about the student's character & information about his/her personality.
Letters of recommendation work best for students if they can shed the best possible light, showcasing his/her skills, personality, and abilities.
Some tips to get the best LORs:
(a) Choose recommenders carefully - after scanning the college application forms for any specific requirements
(b) Choose recommenders who know you well, so that the recommendation has a high degree of respectability
(c) Choose recommenders who can give a balanced viewpoint - not so much a fulsome praise that the ad-com suspects something is amiss
(d) Choose recommenders who can be related to by the ad-com - an arts teacher's recommendation for a STEM program may not be appropriate
(e) Give recommenders enough time so that the quality of the LOR is not compromised.
These five topics - Academics, Standardized Tests, Extracurriculars & Social Work, SOPs, and LORs - put together make for a complete application. Making each of them count adds immense heft to your candidature. Best wishes!