26 Apr 2012
Published in the Daily Princetonian on April 26, 2012.
For many years, students at my high school have been puzzled by their low rate of admission into top U.S. schools. On academic and extracurricular grounds the students are on par with other applicants, so the lack of success with American college applications does not add up. This winter I got the chance to work at my school’s counseling office. Seizing this opportunity, I went back to figure out an explanation. Of course I am no admission officer, and I am no college counselor. I looked at the situation only as a former student and as someone trying to understand the dynamics underlying international admissions to top U.S. schools.
The problem, however, is about more than school pride. For me, the experience was more about understanding the systematic problems of international applications to American colleges from the perspective of a former international applicant.
Two things had changed at my high school since I graduated. First, after years of disappointing results for applications to the U.S. schools, morale about admissions was low. The best were still encouraged to apply and were hoping to get in, but stories of rejections and wait lists had left the students wondering whether they had any chance at all. Second, my high school had worked hard to make college applications a central part of the last year or two on campus. A counseling office was set up, and teachers were consistently trying to write recommendations that better addressed the issues that admission offices were interested in. This was a change that I read as a conscious effort to inculcate a stronger association with the American college application culture.
I name the American college application process a “culture” because that is how I feel many international students need to approach it. It is not just about reading the prompts on an application, filling forms and answering questions. Applying to school in America is about understanding the spirit of the American liberal arts education — something that applicants show they have done through their essays. College essays are, to me, a small glimpse into how students think, how they view the world around them and how they situate themselves in it.
This is a challenge that is not simply procedural. Most Pakistani applicants apply after completing O and A Levels, administered by the University of Cambridge. In my observation of the system, it produces individuals with diverse skill sets that will make great members to any team. But the A Levels do not teach students to formulate perceptions of the world around them. Its exam-centric nature forces students to master subject matter for the big day, but it offers little guidance on how to create your own views and present unique ideas. This holds true most for science and engineering curriculums, on which many schools I came across tend to focus.
Pakistani students often find writing the personal statement on applications to the United Kingdom much easier to fathom than writing essays for the American application system. This could be just about prompts, but it also highlights the differing attitudes of American and British education systems.
For purposes of a rather simplistic portrayal, if we take the idea of American universities to be the production of university professors (as Sir Ken Robinson puts it in his famed TED talk), then the idea of British universities seems to be to produce highly skilled individuals that can be critical members of industrial, commercial or even academic teams. The British system seems to focus less on fostering individual thought as opposed to mastery of systems on which the world is run.
I am in no position to make a value judgment on either system, and I accept that this is an incomplete picture of both systems. These are merely possible conclusions that provide some sort of explanation to my school’s dilemma. Despite their effort to focus on the American application culture, students still find it hard to place themselves in the American essay mindset through no fault of their own; they are just not prepared to do so.
The questions I answered back home were mostly of this nature: “What SAT score do I need to get to Princeton? How many A Level subjects must I get A’s in?” These are indicative of a systemic failure to understand the holistic nature of the American application process. Students are trained to fulfill milestones, not to be bigger thinkers, and are therefore shortchanged when applying to U.S. universities.
Of course, exceptions exist, and some schools do better than others. The only explanation I could fathom was that successful students are more able to place themselves in the American essay mindset because they have had wider exposure than other students. Experiences with certain activities or people both allow and force successful candidates to form their own perceptions of the world. This exposure comes from social and economic background, some extracurricular activities or direct reach to American universities.
If this is in fact the case, then the American college application is biased in favor of students that for any reason have had a chance to get this exposure. This is a problem that schools must work to correct, but there is also the option to reach out to such students from American institutions. Even if they don’t make it here, it would still be valuable exposure that would add to the service these institutions provide to the world.