MANY STUDENTS SET their sights on an Ivy League education. It is the stuff of dreams, the subject of Hollywood movies like Legally Blonde, Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind, with top US campuses used as a backdrop for high drama.
But it is a dream that only a handful of students are ever likely to realise because of the highly competitive nature of the application process.
The league, eight private institutions located in America's northeastern region, includes Brown (in Rhode Island), Columbia (New York City), Cornell (upstate New York), Dartmouth College (New Hampshire), Harvard (Massachusetts), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Princeton (New Jersey) and Yale (Connecticut).
Big in terms of both their reputation for academic excellence and historical standing (all are more than 250 years old) as well as the size of their endowments - none of the Ivy League institutions has assets of less than US$2 billion (HK$15.5 billion), with many boasting several times that amount - these universities are resolutely small in the numbers of undergraduate students they select.
Applying to them is daunting. Students have to compose essays on bizarre topics, ask teachers to write letters of recommendation, gather evidence of their academic and extra-curricular achievements and, more often than not, pay nearly $1,000 for each application. The cruel fact is that the majority of qualified applicants are denied admission every year because of the limited number of places.
Effective application essays, strong teacher recommendations and good school networking, can often set applicants apart from others with equal academic abilities, says Doris Davis, associate provost of admissions and enrolment at Cornell University. But this can be made possible only with the combined efforts of schools, parents and students.
'We read everything they send us. It is our obligation to make sure each application is thoroughly reviewed,' said Davis, an admissions expert who specialises in Asia recruitment.
She said applications at Cornell were processed by 45 full-time staff, which, she added, was a major reason for its high application fee.
For more than two decades, Davis has worked in admissions at institutions that include Yale, the University of Cincinnati, Mills College and Barnard College, and is also a member of the National Association of College Admission Counsellors in the US.
Davis this week told more than 500 teachers, parents and students at two talks organised by the Education Department and Hong Kong Education City Limited titled 'Admission to the Top US Universities', that Hong Kong was often one of the major sources of top US university intakes.
At Wah Yan College, Kowloon, she said Cornell University admitted 21 out of the 150 applications it received from Hong Kong last year. This was second only to Singapore, which saw 40-odd out of its 400 applicants succeeding in securing a place at the top university.
Thorough research on US tertiary institutes was the first crucial step in an application, Davis said. Students should find out from the university prospectus, Web sites, and alumni whether a university was a good match for their interests.
'Often, students apply only because they hear it is a good university and that it guarantees a good job. It's amazing the number of applicants who don't know where the school is located,' she said.
A weakness shared by many Asian students was that they were not used to talking about personal issues and being reflective in application essays and interviews. She said they should mention everything they did, and not confine their applications to their studies.
'We like to know everything a student does outside the classroom setting. And we don't place a value on some activities and consider them to be more important than others,' she said. For example, an applicant who was the eldest child in the family and often had to babysit their four brothers or sisters should tell the university that was the reason they rarely participated in extra-curricular activities. Davis warned applicants against a 'laundry list' of activities that didn't mean much.
'Colleges and universities in the US are looking for a well-rounded class. But some people misinterpret that and think we are looking for well-rounded students. That is not necessarily the case,' she said, adding that teachers and parents should get that message across to students.
Davis said top US universities favoured students who stuck with their activities over a long period of time because it demonstrated their consistency and commitment to their work.
Sometimes, even eloquent students failed to write an effective essay because they could not grasp the meaning of the question they were answering, she said. Essay questions set by Ivy League universities, for example, were often original but bizarre with subjects like, 'pick a fruit and tell us how it reflects your personality' and 'write page 499 of your 500-page autobiography'.
Students commonly came unstuck when writing about their role model and how he or she influenced them.
'It's typical for an applicant to start by writing, 'My grandfather worked himself up from being the janitor to the owner of the first big bank of whatever and he was compassionate'. We fall in love with the grandpa in an essay like this, but the student has failed to tell us how the grandpa has influenced him or her,' Davis said. She also warned students to be careful when sending applications to a number of universities. She said she had seen many a case where the applicant or teacher making a recommendation had ended by making reference to another university, having forgotten to change the original.
'The effect is as if you received a love letter from someone which ended with the person professing their love for someone else,' she said.
Davis advised teachers to hold essay writing classes and mock interviews to help students increase their chances of gaining admission. She said this was to make sure they had already reflected on their passions and strength by the time they applied. She also recommended schools invite their alumni to give career talks so students could learn more about the opportunities available to them.
She said teachers' letters of recommendation went a long way towards helping an application: 'We will not rank students or compare them from one school against those from another. Every single student is looked at in the context of his or her school.'
An effective recommendation, she said, was one that was specific and avoided subjective words like 'nice, pleasant, reasonable, satisfactory and competent'. References to race, sex, religion, appearance and politics were equally inappropriate. For example, a teacher would not help their student very much by writing something sexist like, 'For a girl, she would make a good engineer'.
If students avoided all the pitfalls and adopted the right approach, they stood an even chance of joining the select few who made it to hallowed halls of the top universities - and even the Ivy League dream.