Applying to universities is lot of hard work, stress and shooting in the dark if you don’t know what you’re doing. Friday’s educational expert Sanjeev Verma explains how prospective college applicants can crack the code of being accepted into good universities – and if it really matters where you go.

Final exam results don’t seal your fate

  • Most US universities work on predicted grades and herein lies the importance of the school counsellor. Unless the actual grades are radically different, US universities are quite content to base their admission on predicted grades, SAT scores, essays and references.

Your subjects are key to acceptances

  • More than the curriculum, it is the selection of subjects and their level which matters. Whether the student does standard or advanced level could be an important factor in the admission process and also be instrumental in getting credits in the first year.
  • The International Baccalaureate curriculum, being application- and research-based, prepares the student well for college studies and I have known many students who did not struggle with the methodology of education in their first year. Having said that certain countries like Ireland tend not to give equal weightage to the CBSE curriculum.

It’s never too early to start college and career planning

  • To align your interest with your skill sets it is best students start to think about their careers in their last year of middle school, so by the time they enter high school they have selected their subjects and are reasonably certain of what major to pursue in college.
  • Psychometric tests are extremely helpful in helping decide what career path to choose.

Applying to the US? Book learning won’t get you far

  • Interests and achievements outside academia are important for top US universities and along with academic grades will form the basis of admission. For other countries, the emphasis is more on academic grades.
  • Selection of a university in America and working towards it tends to start earlier than other countries, primarily because in top American universities your academic grades form only a portion of the application.
  • Equally important, if not more, is what you have done outside the classroom. While it may not be possible to change a person, it is definitely possible to improve his/her resume and this takes time. Summers must be used for internships, community service, project work reflecting leadership and team work and it is always prudent to start as early as possible.

Don’t forget the weather

  • Myriad factors decide on the selection of a university which is most suited for a student. Financial considerations along with post-graduation career prospects play a lead role. Private universities in the US tend to be on top of the pyramid with British, Canadian and Australian education costing less.
  • Other important factors would be the reputation of the faculty in the university for your subject, whether the university assists with internship and work placement during the program, and the nature of jobs being offered to their graduates.
  • Other factors like the location, weather, family, distance from home and alumni all play a role in the final decision-making.

Be a jack of all trades

  • Top universities are looking for future leaders and, along with outstanding grades and SAT scores, the application must demonstrate an outstanding all-rounded student – with leadership skills, vision, outstanding achievements outside the classroom, community service and excellent references. Universities are looking for diversity and students that will add to their academic rigor.

Scholarships are sporadic

  • Obtaining a scholarship can be extremely competitive. Students need to identify the nature of scholarship offered – need or merit based – and work accordingly. Scholarships are also offered by organizations based on parameters varying from nationality, subject and country of study. Scholarships from Ivy League universities and Oxbridge for international students are also very few and far between.

There is a college for every student

  • Exam stress in not unusual and definitely has adverse effect on the mental health of students. School counsellors and parents can go a long way in assuaging these concerns. Students must be made aware that, while important, the exam results are just another milestone in their lives.
  • There is a college for every student, notwithstanding the grades, and with correct advice and counselling every student will find the correct path.

Help is always around the corner

  • Should your school not have counsellors, students can always seek assistance from private counsellors. Having said that, the selection of a private counsellor is extremely important and parents must zero in on counsellors who are guided solely by the interest of the student and have the knowledge to offer meaningful advice.

You, not your university, are the author of your success

  • University education provides the skills required to be successful in your career. Obviously students from prestigious universities tend to have a head start on account of campus placements with reputed companies and networking. Eventually, however, it is your performance at work that will determine your success.

Don’t be blinded by science

  • While STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) continues to be the milestone for parents, liberal arts is of late becoming a subject of choice for quite a few toppers.
  • Personally, I am very much in favour of this program as it teaches students to think analytically and holistically and you will be surprised the number of CEOs who have read liberal arts at university.
  • We do not provide humanities the credit it deserves. History is not only about dates and facts; it is about using the lessons of the past to make a better today and improve our tomorrow.

Gap years aren’t holidays

  • The concept of a gap year is fairly popular in the USA and provided a student uses his/her time constructively, it is looked upon positively by universities. A student should have a well-defined agenda for the year with clear set of goals – it’s not just about travelling and having a holiday.
  • Lots of students feel that this year of being independent helps them mature considerably. It is also possible to ask for deferment after getting admission; provided you show that your time has been used constructively, universities will respond positively.

Sanjeev Verma is the CEO of Intelligent Partners, a Dubai-based educational consultancy, and is one of Friday’s Ask The Experts panel (you can email him your queries on He graduated in Economics from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and has over 25 years of experience in Middle East and international education.