Leading American universities 'looking for all-round students'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2000, 12:00am

Grades and standardised test results are important, but they do not guarantee admission to top American universities, a group of visiting students from Harvard University have warned.

Top schools in the United States looked at a variety of factors, they said. In addition to grade point averages (GPAs) and applicants' performance in the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT), the colleges also scrutinised applications, essays, teacher recommendations and how the candidates fared at admission interviews.

'We all know of people with 4.0 GPAs and near-perfect SAT scores who didn't get admitted,' one of the students said.

'The best universities are looking for more than academic excellence. They want all-rounders who will contribute to life at the university.' Harvard consistently ranks as one of the best universities in the US. While coming in second overall in this year's US News & World Report 's college rankings, it topped the list in terms of selectivity.

Just 12 per cent of those applying for admission were accepted by the university, compared with 13 per cent for Princeton and Stanford, 14 per cent for Colum bia, 17 per cent for Brown and 18 per cent for Yale and the California Institute of Technology, this year's top-ranked school.

So what is the secret of gaining admission to Harvard's ivy-clad halls? 'Passion,' Perry Wilson, a third-year biochemistry major, said. 'Harvard likes to see people who are good at dedicating themselves. It wants people who are passionate.' Mr Wilson was one of 12 undergraduates to visit Hong Kong last week as part of a worldwide tour that is taking them to Asia, Europe and South America.

Members of the Harvard Krokodiloes - an all-male music group - they gave a song-and- dance performance last Saturday at the Young Men's Christian Association in Tsim Sha Tsui. They advised aspiring university students on how to maximise their chances of gaining a place at Harvard. Their visit was sponsored by the Kaplan Educational Centre, which specialises in preparing students for university.

Since top universities were looking for 'all-rounders', secondary school students were encouraged to participate in extra- curricular activities.

Those who spent long hours in the library poring over books were often thought to lack leadership skills.

But that did not mean students should simply sign up for as many clubs as possible.

'There are two schools of thought,' Mr Wilson said.

'You can focus attention on one thing - such as launching a school newspaper and then moulding it. Or you can get involved in as many different activities as possible to demonstrate that you are an all-rounder.' He advised students to do things that they were naturally attracted to.

'Get involved in whatever interests you. This way you will have a better chance of excelling in it,' Mr Wilson said.

But he cautioned against doing things only for 'prestige'.

'Don't run for class president if it doesn't really appeal to you,' he said. 'Extra-curricular activities were not invented just to help you get into college.' Bill Kang, who graduated from the Taipei American School in Taiwan, was the only international student in the group. He said that studying overseas could be a mixed blessing.

'You have an international perspective that the American students don't have,' Mr Kang said. 'On the other hand, you are competing with lots of other international students. You have to make yourself stand out among them because there are so many of them applying to the top schools.' According to Henry Rich, a sophomore majoring in aesthetics, many applicants forgot that they were dealing with people, not machines.

'Don't forget that people will be handling your applications,' Mr Rich advised.

'There is no set formula as to how to fill out an application or write an essay or answer questions during an interview. You have got to show that you are an individual.' All of the participants seemed to agree on one point: you cannot fake it. Admissions officers could see right through people claiming to be something they were not, they said.

'The most important thing I learned during the interview process was to be consistent,' Mr Kang said.

'There has got to be a subtle theme running throughout your application, your essay and your interview that sort of binds it all together. If you try to misrepresent yourself, it will backfire. It has to jive with what's on teachers' recommendation letters and transcripts.' A final warning: although extra-curricular activities are important, academic qualifications cannot be overlooked.

'If you find your grades are suffering, you should cut back on extra-curricular activities,' one of the students said.

'In the final analysis, grades and test scores won't get you admitted. But they will ensure that you are in the running.'