If the thought of applying to a university causes you stress, rest assured that you are not alone. 

It all seems to rest on this one moment—the big decision. Get into the “right” university and your future is secure; fail to get in and life is over. Right? Well, not exactly; but it sure can feel that way.

First, take a deep breath. Please hear me when I tell you that your journey won’t be over with admissions, and your success won’t be defined by that small moment. Whether you succeed or fail to get into the university of your dreams, your progress will be defined by effort and growth.  You still have to get through your studies—think about graduate school, think about your profession, think about your career progression. 

The tests you face and the growth required of you will never stop. See this journey as a marathon rather than a sprint.

Second, let me tell you that getting into a university is probably both easier and harder than you think. 

University admissions teams want to accept you. Their job, quite literally, is to find strong applicants and convince them to come to their university. You simply need to give them strong reasons to say, “Yes!” Of course, if you have your heart set on a top-ranked university, chances are that you will be competing with thousands of other students who share your ambition, and there will be too many students looking at too few seats. In that situation, the admissions team typically will be quite strict when it comes to test scores and grades. Why? Their first goal will be to reduce the pile of applications, and test scores are an easy tool. If you fall below a certain level, then the door may not be open for you—unless there is some extraordinary factor like that novel you published or the advanced robot you sold to NASA.

It helps to think of test scores in this way. They either open a door, or they don’t. Typically, test scores are NOT what will get you through that door.

(Editor’s note: This blog post came out of a long discussion I had with some friends from EdAgree about thinking beyond the TOEFL when it comes to getting into a university. International students have a lot more to think about than just their standardized test scores, and I hope this post highlights some of those things for you.)


So what do you need to do to GET IN? How can you maximize your chances for admissions?  How can you stand out from the crowd of applicants who are standing outside that open door?

Here are five straightforward strategies that I have advised students to pursue over the past couple of decades working with aspiring undergraduates.

1 – Show that you are really interested in a university that you target

This may be the most convincing and least understood of the factors that lead to university admissions success.  If you can show that the university actually matters to you—that there is a convincing reason for you to favor the university—then the admissions team will quickly pick you over other qualified candidates who don’t have such a connection.

What can you do to provide this evidence? Well, first, it should be true. Most students apply to Harvard or Stanford simply because they are “top” universities. How many students know about the research into early Cambrian fossils in South China out of Harvard? How many students who aspire to high-energy particle studies know about the Stanford Linear Accelerator? Further, how many students have reached out to professors in those programs?

You need to do everything that you can to provide evidence that a particular university and a particular program really matter to you. Why is the program special to you?

Remember the point above—admissions teams want to identify prospective qualified students who will attend their programs.  If you are qualified and you have a valid reason to choose a given university above others, then you move to the top of the pile of applications.

2 – Show that you are engaged in activities that enrich you and your community

This is about YOU! Show how you are engaged in your local community and show how you care about the world. Again…don’t make it up, do it. If you are in the 9th or 10th grades, now is the time to think about what you care about and what you want to show. Feel like volunteering in a hospital? Do it. No program through your school? That doesn’t mean you can’t reach out and volunteer. You will find that it is very easy to get engaged in your community if you are brave enough to reach out and make a difference. Universities WANT undergraduates who can show that kind of passion.

It’s best if you can show engagement over time. Start early and keep up your activities over several years, grow in those activities, and make a difference! Let the university know why you care. Find something that you really care about, so you really will learn and make a difference. 

If you are already applying to universities, and you haven’t had a chance to engage in your community, don’t worry; you still can call out what you care about and bring in your life experiences. If you don’t care about anything; well, that’s a problem that goes beyond your college application.

3 – Show that you are really interested in the field you want to study

This easily ties into the point above about connecting to the universities, but get more specific.

What will an admissions team think if you say you want to study computer science, but you’ve never learned a programming language? Here is what they will think: Your ambition is an empty and uninformed dream. They’ll think you simply picked a major that sounds cool, or maybe a major that the university is well known for. They will think you are fake, and they will move you to the bottom of the stack. Sorry.

Start now building up the evidence that you are an emerging expert in your chosen field. If you can, join a relevant club. If there are no relevant clubs, then make one. It’s easy; just do it! 

Reach out to experts in the field—all the better if they are at the target university. Compete in contests related to your field. Take advanced classes that will lead to success in your field (and let the admissions team that you chose those classes because of your future plans). 

This takes time, so plan. If you are really interested in your chosen field, then you should have fun exploring it. Start as early as you can and keep growing. Earn certificates, meet people, participate in events. If you want to be a mathematician, don’t just take your math classes. Be a mathematician. If you want to be a dancer, make sure you are dancing. You won’t get into a dance program because you say you like ballet!

4 – Show that you are passionate and unique

This is about YOUR voice. Bring excitement to your application. This will come from your essays and your interviews and how you describe your engagement with the world. Be positive about what you are doing and be ambitious about the impact that you expect to have on the world.

Let the admissions team know that you are on a one-way path to making a difference and that you have identified their university as the right next step,

Don’t be too humble. Let them know that you are excited to get out there and have a big impact.  Let them know that you are aware of organizations on the campus that you want to be part of. Go ahead and connect with students in those organizations if you can! Don’t be shy. Get out there and say who you are.

“But I’m just a student”, so many students say. Well, the admissions team is only an admissions team. They ONLY see what you put on paper. They ONLY hear the responses you give. You need to step back and think about why you are special, and you must let the admissions team know that you are special.

If you have really chosen a university that is appropriate for you, then you should be able to show why you are a GREAT choice for the admissions team. You are not right for Harvard simply because Harvard is a top university. That is nonsense to an admissions team. You may, however, be PERFECT for UNLV’s top-rated hospitality program because you dream of running a hotel in the future!

5 – Write an amazing essay AND GET HELP with it

Let me repeat. Get help!

That does not mean having someone else write your essays. That is a fast-track to failure, as admissions teams read essays all day long and can spot a fake after reading the first sentence.  Really—I have easily read 5,000 personal essays, and admissions team members often read 50 per day. Fakes are easy to spot.

Getting help means having friends, teachers, and coaches read what you have written and getting honest feedback about what they understood. Getting corrections on grammar and wording. Getting suggestions about activities you forgot to mention.

Remember that your essays are often the only window an admissions team has to look at you.  Make sure they see what you want them to see, and make sure that what they see is really you.

A Basic Truth

Let me tell you something that is true. You will believe me, but you will then ignore the truth. I’ve seen this again and again.

If you get into Harvard or Stanford or Princeton, you should ask if that is really the right university for you. In many cases, it is NOT the right university for you. In many (most) cases, a lower-ranked university will be the right choice. University ranking does NOT mean the best choice; it is informed by factors that have nothing to do with you and what you need.

Choosing a university should be all about your long-term plan. You should think about your finances, the programs available at the university, how well you are likely to perform relative to your peers…these are all factors that lead to long-term success.

Here is an easy example. If you are a very strong student—great test scores, high GPA, demonstrated mastery of your subject—you probably have a good chance of getting into a top university. However, you probably also have a strong chance of getting into an Honors College at a lower-ranked university. Honors College students typically have direct access to professors, research facilities, and they routinely have smaller classes. They are typically favored by top-ranked graduate programs. At the end of the day, you could spend all of your money at Harvard, be an average student and then struggle with the next steps…or you could have a highly focused undergraduate experience, full of guidance and achievement, for a fraction of the cost, at a lower-ranked State university.

Based on my experience with students, I don’t expect to change your mind here, but please consider your alternatives, and PLEASE LOOK FOR THE OPEN DOORS!

EdAgree, launched by ETS, creator of the TOEFL® tests, can help you open doors! EdAgree provides free support on each step of your journey to study in the United States. You’ll be able to receive guidance from expert advisors who will ensure your application materials are top-notch, practice your English skills, and access additional tools and resources like the free English Speaking Practice tool and English Diagnostic Assessment.

Marlowe Johnson, CEO of EdAgree, previous instructor (Stanford, Columbia and U. of Idaho), college advisor, and technology innovator launched EdAgree out of the Educational Testing Service with the sole mission of improving outcomes and access for aspiring international students. Marlowe lived, taught, and built schools in Cameroon, Tanzania, Korea and China. He believes deeply in the transformational power of education and cultural change, and he is proud to work with a team that shares that passion.

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