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Not successful getting into the Ivies? What went wrong with my leadership and academic achievement?

By: Mandee Heller Adler

Leadership! Academic accomplishment! The top 20 ranking universities value these qualities; however, admission committees often say things like, “Leadership does not require building a new organization. Being successful in school does not necessarily mean winning contests or prizes. Just be yourself.”

Of course, the meaning of “just be yourself” doesn’t mean you will be fine by leaving your activity list blank.

Every year, I work with dozens of applicants applying to top US universities, and many of them are from China. Over the last five years, my company’s clients have received over 160 acceptances into the eight Ivy League universities as well as other top-ranked institutions like Stanford and Duke University. To any applicant, being able to best utilize his/her time means everything. From achieving a top SAT or ACT score and passing the TOEFL, to earning a high GPA, each step is an imperative part of the college admissions process. At the same time, as college admissions is a holistic approach, students need to participate in other activities like volunteering, fine arts, competitive teams, research, etc. to balance out their applications. When all is said and done, students only have one chance to nail their college applications.

As more and more students are receiving perfect or near perfect scores on standardized tests and more colleges are relying on a holistic approach, test scores are no longer the deciding factor in college admissions; rather, a crucial differentiation resides in students’ extracurricular activities, which reveal their endeavors, abilities, and capability for high standards of extra-curricular achievement. This is why so many companies in China have dedicated themselves to creating resume building programs such as “Three Years of Activity Planning Package,” “Africa Public Benefit Society,” and “Israel Technology Inspection Mission” in the past few years. Even the major banks of China have started issuing internship certificates to account owners’ children if they deposit millions of RMB.

Unfortunately, in China, the educational marketplace’s transparency is lower than that of most other industries; for many families, the ability to distinguish between the excellent and the counterfeit is all the more difficult.  So the question becomes, how much merit do activities provided by many Chinese companies have in college admissions? Today, I will discuss two significant components in applying to top tier universities: academic accomplishment and leadership.

For most universities, the greatest consideration for admission is a student’s grades and curriculum rigor. Students should take the hardest classes available to them and do well in them.  Standardized testing is another important factor in admission to selective universities. Universities also consider students’ activities including math competitions, college-level courses, and summer programs. In selecting activities, students should make sure that at least one academic activity is highly regarded. If the activity is a selective program and the activity history is long enough, the activity is more likely to be recognizable to admission officers.  Students should keep in mind that if they choose the wrong activity provider, especially in the academic arena, they may end up causing harm to the application instead of enriching it.

One activity that looks good on college applications is academic research. In the past decade or so, high school students performing research has been on the rise in the US. Within just the past two years, the number of Chinese companies starting to offer research activities in mainland China has proliferated. Some promise to provide Ivy League professors, some guarantee publication of a thesis, some dramatize providing professor recommendation letters. The problem with these type of Chinese companies is that the recommendations from a professor are most likely to be deemed commercial and not genuine and the organization is not well-respected or reputable in the U.S.

Here is a list of reliable and high-quality programs you should check out for the summer:

Program Deadlines Available to Website
Pioneer Research Online Spring: US & international http://www.pioneeracademics.com/
AMP Global Scholar Summer US & international https://ampglobalyouth.org/global-scholar-about/
TASS & TASP, Cornell & Michigan Summer US & international https://www.tellurideassociation.org/our-programs/high-school-students/
SIMR, Stanford Summer US only https://simr.stanford.edu/
RABS, Cornell Summer US & international https://www.sce.cornell.edu/sc/tuition/index.php
SSP Summer US & international https://summerscience.org/admissions/fee-and-financial-aid/
Duke TIP Summer  US & international https://tip.duke.edu/programs?f%5B0%5D=related_grade%3A8 
YESS, Caltech Summer US only http://www.caltech.edu/news/caltechs-yess-program-helps-increase-diversity-among-young-science-students-1305
NIH Research Summer US only https://www.nih.gov/research-training
MITES, MIT Summer US only https://oeop.mit.edu/programs/mites/who-should-apply

Based on my own experience, I appreciate Pioneer Research for high schoolers the most. For the research resource for high school students, Pioneer is the most empowering in the mentoring quality and the recognizable academic rigor. Mentors with high level of expertise are always hard to come by. It is even more rare to have real expert mentors for teenagers, and let alone the mentorship under an academic framework colleges recognize. The old-line magazine Scientific American featured three leading distance mentorship programs in the US. The 3M program and Pioneer Research are geared toward young age students.

For my own students, if they are strong and are interested in academic challenges, I recommend that they start applying to Pioneer before the end of the year for the next year’s terms. If they don’t get in Pioneer, they will still have plenty of time to apply to other programs. There are two main reasons why they should apply to Pioneer first. Pioneer is one of the few high school research programs that carries the academic recognition among the universities and colleges. Many of the admissions officers of top schools fully recognize the results that Pioneer certifies. Even among the above list of the high quality programs, Pioneer is the only one that gives the high school students one-on-one professor mentorship and gives strong credibility. Another reason that students should try Pioneer first is that Pioneer’s admission cycle is long. My students’ experiences are between one month and a half to two months to receive results. If not admitted by Pioneer, students will still be able to catch other programs’ deadlines, which usually are in February or March of the next year. For those who get in to Pioneer, it is key to leave plenty of bandwidth to concentrate on their work for the program. Writing a high-level paper that meets the Pioneer research program criteria requires a lot of time. I did have some students who juggled too many programs and were not able to complete their Pioneer research. As a result, they lost the unique opportunity of showcasing their distinctive strengths and insight in their work.

Working through irreputable programs that promise some kind of guaranteed result but that are not really offering original challenging researchwill typically not add much merit to a student’s application when applying to top tier universities. On the contrary, if a student is doing “research” purchased commercially through a provider without academic accreditation, the student risks having a research result that lacks real originality or plagiarizes ideas. Furthermore, if admissions representatives have reason to believe a student’s research is not an example of their own, high level work, their application will likely be rejected.

Why? It’s because research in the United States is extremely rigorous and subject to the supervision and review of academic experts. Key factors include under what circumstances an instructor gives a legitimate “prompt” to their student, what is truly the student’s own opinion, whether the student’s work contains plagiarism, how the operation of the investigation or experiment is defined, and so on.

In most cases, selective universities and colleges will not be able to be confident of the authenticity of the research students conduct through non-credited commercial entities or college application agencies. If the paper is promising, the colleges most likely do not have a way to be certain how much of it is students’ own work. If the paper is found with critical problems like plagiarism, it will most likely lead to rejection of the application.

Nevertheless, it’s not easy for students and parents who have not had sufficient experience to judge the legitimacy of the research.

Even those that promise publication in academic journals are typically not providing recognition from the college admissions offices as there are only a select number of academic journals that are recognized as reputable, and many that the college admissions offices know are simply publications that anyone can pay to have their “research” published in. Quality scientific journals can be found in the Scientific Journal Rankings https://www.scimagojr.com/journalrank.php

Academic integrity is the untouchable bottom line to American higher education. The Wall Street Journal quoted a result of a survey conducted by Wholeren in 2015 that 8,000 Chinese students were expelled from colleges. Eighty percent of them were expelled because of poor academic performance and academic dishonesty. According to the latest survey done by the same organization  who specified the statistics on academic dishonesty in 2018, 36% of the students dismissed from American universities were due to academic dishonesty specifically in 2017 – 2018. Typical academic dishonesty cases, other than malicious cheating, include: inappropriate citation data, less-rigorous data citations, lack of understanding of the integrity rules in the US academic system, or sloppy treatment of relevant academic integrity rules. This latest data indicates how seriously academic integrity is considered in the US, and it also proves that many Chinese students are truly lacking knowledge of general academic integrity.

If any of the described problems are identified in your application, the consequences may be disastrous. In the Harvard University’s Student Honor Code, it clearly states that if any integrity and plagiarism are discovered in a prospective student’s application materials, the student will be subject to penalty. Here is the original text from the Harvard Student Handbook “Occasionally candidates for admission make inaccurate or incomplete statements or submit false materials in connection with their applications. In most cases, these misrepresentations or omissions are discovered during the admission process and the application is rejected. If a misrepresentation or omission is discovered after a student has registered, or registered and completed courses, the offer of admission ordinarily will be rescinded, the course credit and grades will be revoked, and the student will be required to leave the College. If discovery occurs after a degree has been awarded, the offer of admission ordinarily will be rescinded, and the course credit, grades, and degree will be revoked. Such cases may be referred to the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid rather than to the Administrative Board of Harvard College.” (https://handbook.fas.harvard.edu/book/admission-materials) in fact, this exists in many American universities. Never be opportunistic when dealing with academic problems, especially in the process of applying to elite universities.

It is extremely important to verify the research activities’ background, as well as the supervising research mentor’s correct title and background, credibility, and systems. Otherwise, you don’t know whether your application materials are identified as academic achievements or academic dishonesty. I have listed the high-end academic programs with credibility above that have been widely recognized by American universities.

For those who are interested in conducting research, you can consider the programs above.

In addition, there are several situations that require undivided attention. If your parents happen to be scientists in a laboratory, it is better for you to avoid doing research in your parents’ lab, since the admission officer will usually not look favorably on your research result. If you chose a non-accredited commercialprovider of research or academic enrichment, you should be very careful to have that work and the claims involved checked by a knowledgeable expert you can trust before submitting it.

Last but not least, please note that it is almost always a scam if a company guarantees that your research “will” be published. These “guarantees” are not an advantage for you to apply to the top universities; rather, this is a complete disadvantage.

Now let’s discuss the development and exercise of leadership. Leadership can be reflected in organizational capabilities, appeal, perseverance, responsibility, execution, and more. Being a leader does not necessarily mean that you have to create and develop a school club or organization. For example, one of my students started a lacrosse training equipment business. When other students attended summer school or traveled abroad for summer vacation, she devoted herself to creating and overseeing a product line, running the company, and selling her company’s products. She was admitted by numerous colleges including Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT. Although she did not lead a team or club, her initiative, persistence, enthusiasm, and focus are the essential qualities of leaders. The route to leadership certainly does not have a set path.

Regardless of participating in Model United Nations, competing in debate teams, or grouping up for China Thinks Big, you are proving that you use your spare time wisely. What you really want to make happen is achieving at least one original mark of your own. A quality consultant like one at my company, International College Counselors, can provide suggestions on how to create and achieve your original mark.

By identifying and harnessing your hobby or passion and by “being yourself,” you should be able to stand out to admission committees. We always advise that no matter how “high-end” the activity, research, or leadership is, if you don’t like it, there is no heart in the activity. This apathy can be detrimental to an application, an interview, or the impression of an admissions officer as they will see right through the ingenuity.

It is popular for parents to enroll their children into leadership training classes and leadership summer camps in order to increase their leadership experience. Participation in such events indicates that students are interested in leadership but does not demonstrate leadership. Leadership is a combination of qualities. If adolescent students are able to express their quality of leadership in their own achievements, that strength will be easily conveyed in the admissions process. Therefore, the embodiment of leadership should be intrinsic in the performance of an individual. If following the “formula” of other successful individuals, the application then reflects conformity instead of real leadership. In recent years, many applicants boasted being founders of a school club or association in their applications, but did not do any substantial work. Without demonstrating commitment and dedication to their founding organization, the title of the founder was seriously devalued.

On the other hand, if you truly feel very strongly about something, have a desire to gather fellow students, and bring about change, then initiating a society is a good move. Just do it! If your classmates have created an organization, think about how yours can be different. If creating a club in your school is not an easy task, that is a good thing. In either case, you have to be persistent and make notable achievements in the community. We worked with many students who started non-profit organizations like collecting unwanted books or medical supplies, holding fundraisers, and donating the money to a designated fund. Leadership here means to be persistent and to expand, not just have a fancy title.

Also, you must be careful not to overly exaggerate anything. The scandal of a private school in Louisiana dominated the national newspapers’ headlines. The school made up the drama for the students’ essays for their applications to again an edge getting into the Ivy colleges. Now the entire school is under investigation.

Extending your passion to an original and authentic project, developing it throughout high school until you don’t have to do it for any requirement, supporting it over a long period, making tangible achievements, and gradually rising to the highest: this is called leadership.

If you can show undisputed highlights in either academic achievement or leadership in your college application, you are more likely to win. There are so many students and parents who have been working hard for years as “Ivy Climbers.” In the last two or three years of sprinting, you must keep your eyes open and don’t fall victim to the blind spot. When you are considering a research program, it is important to choose the project with academic credibility and a good reputation to avoid hidden risks. If you want to have outstanding achievements in leadership, it’s beneficial to seek advice from an independent college advisor to help you identify opportunities to help you hone in on your strengths. I suggest that students start exploring three years in advance by finding your passion and advantages, generating your own ideas and making them happen, and to always remain persistent, persistent, and persistent! In this way, you will break through the application process with accumulated wisdom. And an Ivy League university should be impressed.

For the Chinese translation, visit: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/n6taLraNuHYkXMnBkR7CzQ