Monday, 5 May 2014

Interpreting Results

Originally Published in Hindustan Times Education Supplement

At times the admissions decisions of foreign universities can seem completely random. The process is so opaque that it practically suggests a silver lining to India’s cut off system – at least you know where you are getting in and why.

This year is no different; as decisions have come in from programs across the world, the criteria for getting in are all over the map. On top of this, applications numbers have skyrocketed, both overall and for Indians at top programs. Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this year applications from India to graduate schools in the US has grown by a dramatic 32%. Overall, there are so many qualified applicants to top programs (i.e. applicants who have the academic and extracurricular profile that top colleges seek) that institutions like Stanford and Duke University claim they could replicate their incoming freshman class at least two times over, and still have an equally competitive and talented class. In short, the applicants who are getting rejected are usually as good as the applicants who are getting accepted. The way that different institutions manage this application pool and make admissions decisions can result in seemingly erratic patterns.

How do the universities themselves respond to allegations of inconsistent results? Whether it is undergraduate or MBA programs, nobody will give a straight answer. The best you can find are ‘averages’. For example a top business school may publish the stats of their incoming class: average years of work experience is 5; average GMAT score 700; average age 27. But even if you match or beat these averages you may not get in. In addition, the ‘cultural’ fit of each institution, in relation to the applicants profile and goals, produces results that seem inconsistent – how can a person be admitted to Harvard Business School, but not even get an interview at Stanford, or vice versa? If these are the top two programs, a competitive applicant should have an equal shot at both. All of this leads to applicant speculation and anxiety about which ‘profiles’ a school wants. E.g. Wharton doesn’t want entrepreneurs and Stanford doesn’t want bankers. The reality seems to be that all top programs want a diverse class—a few bankers, a few entrepreneurs, a few students with NGO experience. Throw in an Olympic athlete and you have a class whose experiences and strengths complement one another.

For undergraduates this year the usual patterns have been upended. Students rejected at UCLA have been accepted at the higher-ranked UC Berkeley. And the typical safety colleges for engineering students, e.g. UIUC, Georgia Tech, have turned down many applicants who would have likely been accepted in past application cycles. The reason is not clear, but changes in application processes, such as Georgia Tech’s switch to the Common App this year, has made the process of applying easier, thus increasing applications. And other programs that have previously been off the radar, such as UMass Amherst, are extending generous financial aid offers to engineering students in order to enhance its programs and attract qualified international students.

This scenario, as unsettling as it can be for applicants, serves as a reminder to prepare for the application process by doing things that matter to you and are consistent with your priorities. You should strive to excel, of course, but if you are setting up your life – academic, extracurricular, etc. – to try and please admissions committees, you are playing a losing game. I often hear alumni of prestigious institutions say, “oh the admissions standards are so tough now, I would never get in.” But if we look a little deeper, successful applicants, whether now or in the past, have one consistent quality – they’re driven by their own passion and focus, not by the whimsical desires of admissions committees. They were rewarded by being true to themselves and doing their best. Scattered results and changing criteria remind us that there is no point in trying to outsmart the admissions committee. Your best bet is to develop a track record that reflects your authentic hopes and aspirations. Who ever accepts you then, will be lucky to have you.


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