Preparing for College

Will Lower English Scores Hurt Strong International Student?

Question: My son is doing IB diploma and is an international student looking to get admission in MIT, Stanford or other Ivy league colleges for Engineering. He is an outstanding student and a keen basketball player representing his school in under 19 team and plays drums. We are confident he will score full marks - seven, in his IB diploma in his three higher level subjects - Physics, Chemistry and Maths, and will also score a seven in Economics at standard level. He has taken Mandarin as a second language and we think he will get a six in that. He doesn't do too well in English (relatively) - may be five. He hasn't done a SAT yet. So if you exclude English he will have an outstanding score and his overall score may only come down because of English. Similarly his overall SAT may come down only because of English? Do you think MIT/Stanford/Ivy league colleges will accept his relatively modest score in English as compared to outstanding score in all other subjects including Mandarin and his overall strong application?

If English is not your son's first language, U.S. admission officials will give him some "wiggle room" on his English grades and test results, assuming that his TOEFL score indicates that he is proficient enough to handle the work load at a highly competitive institution.


However, keep in mind that at Stanford, MIT, and the Ivy League schools, top grades and test scores will take applicants only to the outer gates. The vast majority of candidates are very strong students who have also performed well on standardized tests. Thus, as they make their difficult admission decisions, college officials must ask, "What else is special?"

Success in Mandarin is common at these colleges and will not provide any admissions ‘hook.” You have mentioned your son’s skill at basketball, which might help his admission chances if he is truly outstanding. However, there is typically a huge leap—so to speak—between being a good high school player and being qualified to play at college, even at the Division 3 level. (MIT is a Division 3 school but doesn’t weight athletic prowess highly in the admissions process. The other colleges you named are all Division 1 and have their pick of the best athletes from around the world, so only the most highly skilled players will catch a coach’s eye.)

As your son completes his applications, he shouldn’t worry too much about his English scores and should, instead, put his effort into highlighting the strengths that will help him to stand out in a crowd.

Good luck to you and to your son as you navigate the maze ahead. Luck, indeed, is a part of this process.

(posted 2/12/2012)