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College admissions: What to expect and what not to!

Since the inception of modern education in Pakistan, there have been a number of changes, advancements and transmutations in education system. From Matriculation to Advanced levels to American high school system to International baccalaureate (IB), education has witnessed a complete revolution. A large number of students in Pakistan now opt for Alevels, a qualification offered by Cambridge University and accredited worldwide. However, students are not prepared to take the rough with the smooth. Whilst the smooth part is definitely the acquaintance with modern world through acquiring valuable knowledge, the rough portion is brutal. If you are an A-level student, you would have probably guessed what I am referring to.

The College application season. The season of apprehension, lassitude, exasperation, trepidation. The season of intense competition. The season of remonstrance and resilience. The season during which high school seniors work as hard as they could. The season that defines future. The season that defines success. Starting from November till March every year, college application process is multifaceted. Whether it is submission of grades, extracurricular activities, standardized tests scores, commonapp essays, teacher recommendations or resolving ambivalence to narrow down the options, everything is stressful.

Adults involved in the college admissions process report that as applying to highly selective universities becomes increasingly competitive, students have become more and more stressed. This pressure has not only detracted from students’ high school experiences but has also impacted the broader educational environment even at young ages. As a result, students bite off more than they can chew and overburden themselves by taking a lot of subjects and overextending themselves in variety of mundane activities. Students don’t understand they don’t have to be everything to everybody. You only have to be good at what you like!

These may sound like stereotypical exaggerated emotionally animated statements, but this is, the unwavering reality of today’s world.

Moving on, it is also true that many high schools in Pakistan build uncharacteristically high expectations in students so much that many consider it to be their “right” to get into American Colleges even though very few actually do end up getting in. Terms like “Harvard Material” and “NYU scene on” are common. The dreams of UET, NUST and GIKI have been replaced by Harvard, Yale and Princeton for high achieving students. Ironically, getting 12As in Olevels and 5As in Alevels is a compulsion rather than an achievement. Although this is erroneous and USA universities dissent from this due to their holistic admission process, yet most students believe this is the only way to go. Representatives of different universities are invited to elucidate students on the application process, further intensifying the competition. Top ranked high schools, however, still thankfully, enlighten students from all the career opportunities local and internationally. It is then onto the students to decide which path to follow.

Another very important aspect of college applications is Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) which is the hardest of all the aspects and carries a significant weightage in supposedly holistic process. SAT1 is an ordeal for students, a nightmare for which even 8 months or 3 attempts is not adequate.  It is quite possibly the biggest hurdle for many Urdu-speaking Pakistanis who are just unable to cope with the English questions on the SAT even though they ace the Math portion. Generally SAT 2 scores are MUCH higher than the SAT 1 scores which shows a great disparity in what Pakistani and American kids actually know. While we may be better than the Americans in knowledge related subjects, we fall short when it comes to critical reasoning. It should be taken into account that while an American student can be accepted to all ivies with a SAT1 score of 2250 (Kwasi Enin- Class of 2018), Pakistani students with better scores sometimes find it hard to get into even one.

Despite all of this, Pakistani students have defied all odds to achieve placements in the top most universities of the world. From universities that take as little as 175 students from the whole world (Yale-NUS College) to universities with lowest acceptance rates (Harvard University- 5.9% for class of 2018), Pakistani students have been lethal. Even from the three consistently top ranked universities of the world, MIT, Stanford and Cambridge, Lahore and Islamabad alone had 7 acceptances for the class of 2018- a staggering number.

In the past, many Pakistanis have attended prestigious institutions after graduating from Pakistan, like nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy (MIT); anchor Javed Chaudhry (Columbia University), politician Ahsan Iqbal (Wharton School – University of Pennsylvania), former vice chancellor of LUMS Adil Najam (MIT), not to mention countless students who graduated from Pakistan and went on to study at Oxford and Cambridge. Popular anchor and ex-chairman of PCB Najam Sethi and barrister Aitzaz Ahsan both attended Cambridge University after graduating from GC University, Lahore. (Imran khan didn’t graduate from Pakistan to attend Oxford, hence his name isn’t included)

The point here is, there is no point in stressing over the college applications so much. Surely, attending a prestigious institution has its benefits, but you shouldn’t go to an Ivy League just because it’s an Ivy League. It doesn’t matter where you go, but what you do while you’re there does. Preeminence can only be achieved through excellence, and excellence has no bounds.

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