Making the most out of an academic experience is one step in the journey to a successful career. Choosing a top-ranked school like an Ivy League university might create opportunities for you that are associated with the elite reputation of these institutions.
But for prospective international students, facing that application process may be challenging. International students will have to be tested and undergo interviews, often in a different language, before moving to a new country, where they will have to adapt to a new culture.
The student aiming for top-ranked schools should understand that these institutions in particular are interested in additional factors that might differentiate a good candidate from the future leaders and professional stars in their fields.
Schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale provide a great education, but also bring together a rich group of interesting people. The connections you’ll make are often as important as what you learn. International students will find that what makes these schools different is the level of excellence created by this pool of people, which can bring out the best in you.
The “straight A” candidate might have a great chance of getting accepted to many schools, but when it comes to Ivy League schools, that may barely get you through the first round.
Top schools want students with a broader view of the world, and the ability see how that view correlates to other fields in an effective and interdisciplinary approach. These schools want to know what you have done outside the classroom and how this correlates with your potential and future goals.
It does not matter if you are a great swimmer, a cello player or lead your school’s newspaper – these schools look at your level of excellence and the effort and discipline you put forth to attain it.
When I applied for my dental residency program at Harvard University School of Dental Medicine, the faculty and directors interviewing me were far more interested in knowing more about my achievements in music than in dentistry itself. They wanted to know why I chose the violin, the venues and countries in which I had I played and how my music journey related to my dental career.
As a student coming from another country, understand that you might bring a cultural diversity these schools are looking to create. Students with different backgrounds are important to create diversity of thought in the classroom, where students can discuss and interact.
When I was pursuing a certificate in music performance at the Yale School of Music, I was asked multiple times by teachers what music was like in my home country of Brazil, what I thought about Brazilian classical composers and, of course, my classmates asked me about the samba and bossa nova, Brazilian music styles.
While at Harvard, I always felt that my experiences outside the U.S. enriched the classroom discussions about public health, health policy and different dental treatment practices in my home country compared with the U.S.
So what are these Ivy League schools looking for, if great grades are important but not enough? Activities such as sports and arts can be excellent predictors of future success. They can show admissions officers how well you deal with stress and competition and how much of a team player – and how well-disciplined – you are.
The application is your opportunity to show how focused and determined you have been with your future. Many of the students who want to study in the U.S. already have an idea of what they want to do with their lives, and this should be reflected in the kind of extracurricular activities in which you have participated.
For example, students wishing to pursue a career in the medical field may have done volunteer work at nursing homes or volunteered for medical-related charitable groups, or have traveled to other countries as part of social projects. As a dentist, I volunteered in South America to help indigenous people before getting into Harvard – where I had a classmate who was an engineer from MIT and another that was a Thai chef, besides being dentists.
Try to also illustrate how you will add to the cultural diversity of the school. How well you speak English can predict your adaptability and flexibility toward a new culture, and some even think of it as a mark of intelligence.
How well you adapt to diverse environments will predict your level of interaction with faculty and classmates at these institutions, which draw people from all over the world.
Because you will not only be evaluated by your grades, the application process will cover multiple aspects of your life. Schools will evaluate you from many different qualitative aspects of your life to find out what makes you unique among a near-perfect selection of candidates.
When I first moved to the U.S. to study at Yale, I had the chance to meet people from all around the world, including South Africa, Japan, Russia and Argentina. I got to learn a little about many others’ languages, cultures and cuisines — the first time I ate Pakistani food with a friend from Pakistan, I burned my mouth.
These schools are often also interested in how students want to change the world around them. Big dreams come with great challenges and responsibilities. Do not be shy about sharing your ambitious career goals, because you wouldn’t be applying for an Ivy League school if you didn’t have at least one. Remember, you are applying to the same schools where world leaders such as presidents and Nobel Prize laureates once pursued their education.