How to get into university: What is important when applying to a top ranking university?

Lena Heckmann & John Roman, U-Multirank

October 22, 2019 11:19 AM

How to get into a university

Are you thinking about going to university after you graduate high school? But maybe you have some questions on how to get into top ranking universities like MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Yale or Northwestern? Although admission into these universities can be very selective, it isn’t unattainable. Just like anything you apply for in life, remember one simple rule: you cannot be admitted, if you do not apply. 

Just apply

Simply put, 100% of all students who do not apply to college or university are not admitted. Every year, countless applicants self-select themselves out of a chance at gaining a place at their dream college by not applying in the first place. Many think, if I don’t apply I can’t be rejected, but the truth of the matter is, you also won’t be admitted. The first step to getting into any college or university – whether it be a top ranking university, or your local hometown college – is to simply apply.

Grades matter

When applying to a top ranked university there is one thing to remember – grades matter. Highly selective universities will have higher than average entrance requirements regarding grades, so they will closely look at your academic performance. This means top grades in school, examinations and any programme's entrance exams that may be required (e.g. medicine, or law). While in the UK it is common to apply with achieved grades up to date as well as the predicted grades for your school-leaving examinations (e.g. A levels), in the US, you will usually apply with your current grades. In both countries it is common to take additional exams depending on your study subject, such as in medicine or law. Good scores are necessary to be accepted at the university and into specific programmes.

Even if your grades are good, but not extraordinary it is still possible to gain entrance into highly selective universities, because selectors often make decisions on admissions bearing in mind the personal context in which grades are achieved. If this is the case for you, it is important to explain in the admission application why your grades are slightly lower than they could have been.

Universities are looking for well-rounded students

Even students with the best grades and examinations can still miss out on being admitted into a top ranked university. While grades matter, they are not everything. In the US, Ivy League universities are looking for students who are well-rounded and bring something unique to the university experience. This could be a talent/ skill (e.g. music, sports, student government), or even an exceptional volunteering record. When selecting between students with matching academic performance, the deciding factor on your admission can come down to your extracurricular activities. Therefore it’s important to showcase not only your strong academic performance, but your ability to be well-rounded.

In the UK, it is also possible to list extracurricular activities on your application form. Like in the US, both academic performance and electives play a deciding factor on ones admission into university. It’s important to remember that if you apply to a university, or study course that uses interviews as part of the admissions process, be prepared to talk about any activities you have described in your application.

Declaring a study major

When applying to top ranked universities, you may already need to declare a study major, and it helps to show a genuine interest in the study subject you wish to be admitted into. Because you choose the subject you want to study at university in the UK when applying, the personal statement, references, and even your interview responses should highlight your passion for the study subject.

Students do not need to declare a subject major when applying to a US institution. In the first semesters students can get a feel for their studies by completing their general education requirements and trying introductory classes in various study subjects. However, if you at least have a general idea of which direction you’d like your studies to take you, then it is always good advice to mention this in your application form.

Three tips when applying to a top ranked university

  1. Explain what attracts you to the university you’re applying to. Why do you want to go there and what do you think you would be able to contribute to the student community if admitted?
  2. For any application, or interview at a university there is one important rule: be yourself! Selectors often have a sense for applicants who are disingenuous.
  3. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Keep in mind that the most competitive universities refuse 90% of their applicants on average, so apply to several universities.

Also, for any application a little bit of luck can’t hurt; so good luck!


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