What Top American Universities Look for in Admissions


This is a challenging topic to cover in a short article but I will give it a try. But before I start, I want to answer a question I get all the time about US admissions – why is it so complicated!

Basically, the holistic application process was a reaction to other systems in Europe. It was felt that when admissions decisions were only based on a test score or a number, that it could not be fair to many people. Wealthy people could afford to send their children to the best schools where their graduates earned top scores and admission to the best universities. The rest of society had little hope to join the elites. The holistic (and complicated) admission process tried to give every applicant a fair opportunity. That is why someone like President Obama, a middle-class minority student, could be accepted into Columbia University and then Harvard Law School. The admission’s system is definitely not perfect and wealthy families still have many advantages but US universities prefer the holistic approach because of the perceived fairness.

So Indonesians who want to join top US universities need to know exactly what their targeted university is looking for. They DON”T all have the same criteria. Think of each one like a separate island with its own rules (that often change from year to year). Each island wants to be balanced (as they define it) and they are looking for new arrivals each year that will bring them prestige and the balance they crave. So when the admissions professionals are considering your application with your transcripts, essay, SAT or ACT scores, recommendations, etc. they are trying to figure out if you might fit what they are looking for. That’s why a perfect SAT score doesn’t guarantee admission and why someone like Kwasi Enin from New York could get accepted by all the Ivy League schools (Kwasi scored a 2250 on the SAT, ranked 11th in his public school, plays 3 instruments well, sings, is a school athlete, actor and politician as well as being humble, modest and a minority).

So while each university has its own criteria, they also have minimum requirements that can eliminate many students from further consideration.

Here are some quick general guidelines for what top universities are looking for:

1. The most competitive: Acceptance rate is about 15% or less

  • For the SAT, you should score above 700 in each section (Critical Reading, Math and Writing).
  • For your GPA, in the Indonesian system it should be a “9” or higher average. They will check to see if you took your school’s most challenging courses so if IB or Advanced Placement courses are offered, take them.
  • You should have won major competitions in your region of Indonesia, nationally or internationally or have shown yourself to be an outstanding leader.
  • Your teachers’ recommendations need to make it very clear that you are one of the brightest students the teacher has known in and out of class.
  • Your essays need to be excellent pieces of writing that clearly lets the admissions officer know who you are and why you would be a good fit for their university.

2. Very competitive universities: Acceptance rate is about 30% or less

  • For the SAT, you should score well above 600 in each section
  • For your GPA, in the Indonesian system it should be a “9” or very close to that.
  • You should be be involved with significant extracurricular activities. In addition, you should have some school or local recognition for your abilities or participated significantly with OSIS or other organizations as a leader.
  • Your teachers’ recommendations should make it clear that you will make a real contribution to the university in varied ways as you did in class.
  • Your essays need to be well-written and interesting to the admissions officer.

These lists are just general guidelines and there are always a few exceptions to the rules.  But in general, they are pretty accurate. And of course, there are thousands of four-year colleges and universities with higher acceptance rates that would be a great fit for Indonesian students.

For students who want to aim for one of the top universities, my advice is START EARLY! Getting those types of scores on the SAT and on your transcript takes a lot of work. And, getting that type of recognition from your teachers, school or others takes advance planning for most students. But I honestly believe that thousands more Indonesians could compete at that level. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country but is under-represented in most of the top-ranked US universities.


Photo by Queen’s College


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here