Ivy/Elite Admissions Help for Student in India with Test and Grade Concerns

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Question: I am an International Baccalaureate student in India entering 12th grade. My 11th grade results of the second semester were a drop from the first semester. My test scores for math especially are not good. I want to rectify this but I don't know how. I assume I should take the SAT Subject Test for Math to show my potential, but is it too late? I really want to be eligible to be able to apply to the Ivies or UChicago or something in that realm. What can I do at this point?

I'm afraid that all “The Dean" can give you is bad news. If your grades aren't perfect (or close to it) and if your test scores aren't near-perfect as well, then your admission chances at an Ivy or University of Chicago are slim.

These hyper-competitive institutions expect that all successful applicants (with a handful of exceptions that I'll get to in a minute) will have tip-top grades and test scores. Yet great grades and test results only get candidates to the outer gates. Then admission folks ask, “What's special?" Here, admission committees are seeking students who can boast of truly atypical academic or extracurricular accomplishments. And at the exalted Ivy level, it takes a lot to qualify as “truly atypical." Candidates with unusual backgrounds may go to the front of the line as well ... those who grew up on houseboats or in homeless shelters or who stand apart from the crowd in some other way.

If an applicant is really exceptional in one area (whether it's due to publishing a prize-winning novel, starring on Broadway, breaking long-jump records or surmounting sky-high obstacles), then admission committees may overlook deficiencies in grades or tests scores ... but only minor ones.

And if that news isn't bad enough for a student like you who is concerned about second-semester grades and math scores, the even worse news is that Indian applicants are at an extra disadvantage. Some admission officials will concede this up front, while others are less forthright. But “The Dean," who holds no allegiance to any admission office, must candidly report that the “elite" US colleges and universities are swamped with candidates from India (as well as with domestic Indian-American applicants). And thus the bar is set even higher for this population, although Indian applicants — both from the US and abroad — tend to be strong as a group. So as a student in India, it will be quite difficult for you to distinguish yourself from your “competitors," and before you continue with your Ivy/elite plans, you need to ask yourself bluntly, “What is unique about me that admission folks will see in my application?"

While “The Dean" would never insist that you not apply to your “dream" college or colleges, I do find that my warnings are often ignored when I try to explain just how tough it can be to gain acceptance to the most sought-after US schools and when I point out how many deserving aspirants are turned away. Unfortunately, this is particularly true for international applicants. Therefore, any international student — and especially an Indian student — who wants to attend college in the US must cast a broad net when creating a college list. The Ivies and U. of Chicago should almost always be considered “Reach" schools and — in many cases — “High Reach" or “Out of Reach."

If you were to take a Math Subject Test and score well on it, it would help to a small degree to eclipse your lower math scores, but not by much. Too many of your fellow applicants will have earned perfect scores on both the SAT Math section and on Math Subject Test. So you'll need something else ... something BIG ... to stand out.

You should craft a college list that also includes “Realistic" and “Safe" schools, which can be hard to assess for international students, and especially for those who need financial aid. If you will be applying for aid, colleges that would ordinarily be viewed as “Realistic" or even “Safe" for you must now be labeled “Reach."

If you would like an expert opinion on your admission chances at the colleges on your current list, as well as suggestions on how to improve those chances (where possible) and on other colleges to consider, then you might consider investing $150 in a College Karma Stats Evaluation.

SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: College Karma is a consulting business that I co-founded with my College Confidential colleague Dave Berry in 2008. However, I am no longer involved with the Stats Evaluations. Yours, instead, will be done by Ann Playe — former associate director of admission and financial aid at Smith College in Massachusetts. Ann has decades of experience and will be able to let you know if your Ivy/Chicago goals are reasonable before you direct more time and money toward them. She will also be able to recommend colleges that are likely to accept you.

Although I don't often end my “Ask the Dean" advice with a sales pitch, I do feel that it's appropriate in your case. I worry about capable, focused students in challenging classes who don't receive appropriate counseling and who miss the opportunity to apply to good-fit schools while chasing false hopes. So a Stats Eval can help to point you down the right road.

Best wishes to you, whatever you decide.


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