In the early ’90s, before Microsoft launched Windows 95, I worked inside the MIT admissions office as a student worker to support myself. I remember transporting heavy boxes of student folders and hearing the sound of different textures of paper sliding against each other and the occasional rattle of metal. Oftentimes, I would be curious and peer into those heavy boxes. You may be surprised to hear that it was not just stacks of printed out student applications. College applications were very personal at that time; inside the folders, our officers would find hand-written personal statements, original newspaper clippings, hand-drawn comic strips, sometimes even simple mechanical devices. To this day, I still remember holding those thick bundles of material we received, each carefully curated by a hopeful applicant.
Nonetheless, MIT’s bar was very high. According to an admissions officer I spoke to in 1994, about three-quarters of the applicants to the school were “academically qualified”. So, he lamented that he could not simply use GPA and test scores to accept students and instead must let go of a lot of very hardworking and excellent candidates every year. After all, places at MIT were finite.
Frequently, I would hear my bosses chat about the applicants they were assessing. I watched as they quickly set aside students without the scores and sighed at applications with nothing other than good school grades. I remember noting that having neat handwriting was an advantage as it would give the officers an easier time reading and set the right impression. As I sifted through the documents, there was always something magical about touching the original photos or artwork or handcrafted items from students. The items exuded an earnest request for consideration.
Fast forward to 2007, I was studying for my MBA. My time in the MIT admissions office left an impression on me and even after ten years in another industry, I remained enthralled. I now wondered what had changed in the past decade since I worked inside an admissions office. My research project, which was also submitted to a business competition, was focused on the US university admissions decision-making process. I interviewed admissions officers from MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley College, and collected data from many top schools around the nation.
The goals of all admissions offices were similar – to find the most accomplished and best-fit candidates for their respective school. The general procedures were still the same as I could recall from my days in MIT – first, to make a cut based on the academics; second, to read the letters of recommendation; and third, to review all the materials from the students including the essays, activities, and supplemental materials. But there were many subtle changes I noticed – the high number of applicants from overseas, especially from China, the number of perfect GPA and SAT applicants, and most alarmingly, the unimaginable new standard for students’ activities, as rigorous curriculums like the IB Diploma Program pushed students to reach new heights through initiatives like CAS (Creativity, Action, Service) and serious research endeavors such as the required Extended Essay. Long gone were the piecemeal scraps of yellowing newspaper and tactile novel textures that came with each unique file. They had now been replaced by stacks upon stacks of printed paper. As China had become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) only a few years ago and foreign investments surged in various regions in China, most admissions officers I spoke to were excited to see more applications from China. Candidates from China were generally considered more hardworking, more disciplined, and more accomplished compared to the average candidate from the States.
Or, at least, most of these high-achieving Chinese candidates looked outstanding on paper.
Most of the students from China had multiple certificates and diplomas for their accomplishments in musical instruments. They all had near perfect to perfect SAT scores. They were highly involved within their local communities, often teaching English to students in rural parts of China. More amazingly, many of the engineering candidates had multiple patents (the highest number of patents I heard from an MIT reader was 16), while the business school candidates would have internships at international financial corporations (something most US university graduates would dream of having!).
Indeed, when I began working as a professional Admissions Consultant in Hong Kong in 2008, the job in front of me seemed easy. We had the Chinese candidates these prestigious universities desired, and so many students that came to me had great profiles. Even applications to the Ivy League Plus schools seemed simple. We were delighted to see IB students because, even if their scores were a little less than perfect; the IB curriculum automatically provided these students with an opportunity to write in-depth academic research papers (the Extended Essay) while developing rich service and activities through the CAS program.
But this didn’t last very long.
By 2010, many international schools in Hong Kong and China had turned to the IB, making the IB Diploma much more commonplace. With the educational landscape being flooded by a deluge of students in the same curriculum targeting the same universities, many students also began struggling with having overlapping topics for their academic research paper and similar levels of service and activities. As more students used test prep companies, such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review, getting 800s in the SATs and subject tests no longer gave anyone the prestige of being in the 99th percentile of scorers. For top applicants, they became the norm. It was around this time when I learned from friends in the banking industry that many banks in China would automatically offer “internships” to their clients’ children after receiving a sufficient amount of money deposited in the bank.
The college admission landscape had changed. Instead of the meager 20 hours I would spend with students in the final year of the IB to perfect essays and college lists, I began working with students starting in their 9th grade, often spending over 200 hours over a period of several years to prepare students for their applications. Writing good essays and putting together activity resumes were no longer enough. I had to know my students at a personal level. By grace, a high percentage of our candidates were still able to get accepted into the top US schools including the Ivies, but my colleagues and I knew that the US admissions landscape was heading into a new era, one that was no longer predictable.
Then came 2013.
In October 2013, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) published a piece titled “Study: One in four Chinese students drop out of Ivy League schools.” The figure “one in four” came from a study on the recruitment of returned overseas graduates. In that article, it was stated that “The students, who were all high-achievers in China, were unable to adapt to the new environment largely due to differences in the educational system and language barriers”. Almost immediately, many major US news agencies did their own investigations and questioned the qualifications of the Chinese candidates from China. While the Ivy League schools remained silent on this matter, many top schools shifted their policies, such as Wesleyan University, which made interviews part of its application process only for students from China.
What happened afterwards was a period when we had an increasing number of education journalists in the US taking interest in the growing numbers of Chinese overseas students studying in the US. While many were neutral about the presence of students from China, focusing on their contribution to the local economy, I heard a rising voice among university officials about the need for their universities to diversify their international student populations. Indeed, when nearly 60% of the students from China majored in STEM and Business (according to World Education Services), Chinese students could hardly contribute to the diversity of many campuses.
To make things more complicated, around the same year, the US universities had shifted their focus from increasing their number of applicants to increasing their “yield” – the percentage of accepted students who enrolled after being accepted. Basically, in addition to competing to have the lowest acceptance rate, the top universities and colleges began focusing on accepting fewer students but with higher levels of commitment. This meant the admissions officers must work even harder to identify the right candidates that would accept the offer to ultimately attend their university over their other choices.
All these stories have brought us to the present. Now what?
Remember before we had Windows 95, students applying to their dream schools would submit their original artwork, neatly hand-written forms and essays, and even one-of-a-kind mechanical devices? When the admissions officers received these original pieces, they knew the student was genuine in their hobbies and was committed to their chosen subject. The amount of time spent creating these portfolios exuded authenticity and a sense of commitment that is incredibly difficult to replicate.
Today, sending in your original artwork and mechanical devices are generally forbidden unless you apply to specialty schools, and all applications are now electronic. So, what could the universities do to find out whether a candidate is genuinely presented in the application and whether he/she is committed to the school?
The answer is simple: Big Data.
In an article titled “How Colleges Use Big Data to Target the Students They Want,” published in The Atlantic on 11 April 2017, the author told us how some colleges were tracking prospective students’ digital footprints to find their candidates. In addition to obtaining data from the College Board and the ACT, since some schools were doubtful about the accuracy of some of the self-reported information provided by the students in their questionnaires, these schools turned to private contractors to help them track how prospective students use university websites. Basically, when a student has requested information from the university by submitting their personal information (their name and their contact), a unique email link would be sent to the student. And if the student uses the link in the email to browse the university website, they would be able to see what the students do after they have accessed the page, including what pages on the university website they then visited (perhaps major options or program information), the length of time they spent reading the university pages, etc. And naturally, these universities concluded that those who spent more extensive amounts of time on the websites would be considered a natural indication of commitment and interest.
Yet, there were many more schools, especially the ones with extremely selective admissions, who were not keen to use Big Data as extensively because these schools could always rely on more direct means to assess student suitability and commitment, such as on-campus visits, on-campus summer programs, and other in-person activities such as attending university fairs.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, all US campuses are shut down. One extremely selective school I spoke to recently had over 13,000 families sign up to visit their campus in June and now has zero visitors. According to the officer from that school, he is now turning to social media to learn more about the candidates.
So, what’s my advice to students?
Well, since it is nearly impossible to fake your interest and character with nothing online being truly anonymous, I suggest you stay honest about your hobbies and interests and do the following:
1. Apply Early (via Early Decision, if available). There are mainly three types of admissions to US universities – Early Decision, Early Action (plus Restricted Early Action), and Regular Decision. Early Decision is binding and students who are accepted into the school through this decision MUST enroll, with very few exceptions. Early Action and Restricted Early Actions are not binding and so when students are accepted into the school through this decision, they are not obliged to enroll. The biggest advantage of applying Early Action is for the students to know their results early, either in December or in February depending on the Early Action deadlines. Regular Decision is just the “regular” option, where students will have their applications read by the admissions office within the “normal” timeline with no special consideration. Regular Decision results are announced in April.
Due to the binding nature of Early Decision, I advise students to show their interest and desire to enroll into their dream college by applying Early Decision. For colleges, having Early Decision is probably the best tool they have to increase their “yield.”
2. Campus Visits and Information Sessions (now done virtually). Before the pandemic, most of the top universities relied on their summer programs and on-campus tours to determine a student’s level of interest in the school. It always impresses me when I witness students and families traveling from far-off places like Asia, the Middle East and even Africa to visit a campus. With the COVID lock-down, most US universities have migrated their campus visits onto virtual platforms. I advise students to check out and sign up for any Virtual (LIVE, if available) Information and Tour sessions at the colleges they are interested in.
3. College Webinars. If a student has signed up for the mailing list to any university or college, he or she may sometimes find invitations to webinars by the university. As we should be aware that the US universities are tracking our students’ digital footprints, please join the webinars you find yourself interested in.
4. Contact the admissions officer directly! Nothing screams more personal than when you can exchange ideas with an admissions officer. But please bear in mind that if your questions can be easily answered in the FAQ section of the school’s website, your email is probably not going to make a good impression on the admissions officer. I suggest you first take the Tour and the Info Session and then invest some time into exploring what you really want to know about the school you want to apply to, before drafting your email to the officer.
5. Do the interview (even when it is not required). Unlike the UK Oxbridge interviews, the US interviews are mostly casual, informational, and not evaluative. When a student is given the chance to interview even when it is only informational, I always advise my student to take this opportunity because they may learn something personal from the interviewer about the school they want to go to. And sometimes, when a school gets desperate with a group of equally qualified candidates, they may even turn to interviewer notes.
6. Open your emails and the school’s website! After you have signed up for the mailing list or received an email from the college because you have signed up for its tours or information sessions, please open the email as soon as you can and follow the links inside the email to learn more about the school. The college knows how quickly you open the email and what you click on to read. And for how long!
7. Connect with the university on social media. According to the many webinars I have had with college admissions officers since the COVID lock-down in March 2020, the US universities and colleges have spent millions to improve their presence on social media, and they want you to engage with them! So, please smash the LIKE button on the school’s various social media pages, and follow university admissions office accounts, or even local/regional admissions officer’s Twitter, for the most updated information about the school.
8. Explain what you want to do at the school and why it is so good for you in your essays. Many students unfamiliar with US applications have not focused enough on the supplemental essays, which often ask “What do you want to do in your future and why do you think you are a fit to this school?” Please know that your readers, the admissions officers, are professionals and they often spend 10 hours a day reading college applications. The slightest hint of a copy-and-pasted essay can warrant an instant rejection. With this in mind, I advise our students to stay honest about your interests and really invest time to know the schools you think you should apply to.
In conclusion, the US admission landscape has turned from a puzzle that requires effort to decipher into a complex labyrinth of factors and considerations. The advantage Chinese students used to have, namely being considered an ethnic minority and high-scoring, have all but become commonplace and the computerization of applications means that authenticity is harder and harder to come by. More importantly than ever, students must do more and be more to stand out.
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research