Enjoy our faster App experience

How UAE students can get into Ivy League

In terms of grades and profile, students from the UAE are excellent candidates, but starting the process early and being good at extra-curricular activities are equally important to get into top league universities like Oxford and Harvard.
In terms of grades and profile, students from the UAE are excellent candidates, but starting the process early and being good at extra-curricular activities are equally important to get into top league universities like Oxford and Harvard.

The problem here is the lack of mentorship. School career advisors, although very good, are not specialised in admissions in top universities like Cambridge or Princeton, which are far more demanding and a bit different than the rest.



By Silvia Radan

Published: Fri 16 Sep 2016, 8:41 PM

Last updated: Sat 17 Sep 2016, 9:39 AM

UAE pupils applying for top UK and US universities like Oxford or Harvard barely reach two digit numbers and, most of them don't ever get admitted.
According to Carfax Educational Consultants, which has an office in the UAE, those numbers are beginning to change. Carfax has been mentoring students here applying to leading universities in the UK or US for several years, but this year for the first time, schools asked them for help.

"In terms of grades and profile, students here seem to be excellent candidates, but teachers told us that they send in the applications and they get rejected. And the schools want to know the reason. In terms of their grades, students not only meet the criteria, they exceed it, but they don't understand what is going wrong," said Eleonora Suhoviy, a Carfax consultant for UK universities.
She and her colleague, Dr Daniele Labriola, representing Carfax in the US, recently noticed an increased interest of UAE students in top universities such as Oxford, Cambridge or the Ivy League group.
"Recently I started to notice a real change in the kind of education required by students here. In the past it was any UK university, because the idea was that they were all somehow similar and they are all equally good, but now things are changing," said Suhoviy.
Yet, even a student with top marks for all subjects, who applied to four different leading universities, got rejected by all four.
The problem here is the lack of mentorship. School career advisors, although very good, are not specialised in admissions in top universities like Cambridge or Princeton, which are far more demanding and a bit different than the rest.
"These top institutions are incredibly competitive. You need somebody who's been to those places and knows exactly what it entails," pointed out Suhoviy.
Some of the requirements these top universities have introduced are just for themselves, other universities do not have them, so students are often left in the dark, just blindly searching for answers.
For this reason, UK schools employ special advisors for Cambridge and Oxford. There are even special groups that take on the students with the strongest academic profile and mentor them, organising special classes and seminars to help them with the admissions.
"Teachers here cannot have special advisors for Oxford, special advisors for Cambridge and special advisors for Ivy League, so they've asked us to help," said Suhoviy.
Last week the two Carfax consultants held their first talks at Yasmina school here, with special presentations for teachers, students and parents.
"They all had many questions, and frankly I can see from their questions that they are at the very initial stages of understanding of what it means to apply for these universities," she observed.
"What we also found here very often is that very promising students, with proper coaching, would have stood a shot at entering Oxford, Cambridge or Ivy League, but simply were too late," added Labriola.
"One thing we did at Yasmina was really stress on the idea of starting early. Very often we would get families who come to us with their child, who started the last year in school saying "do you have time in the next week or two to prepare my child for the application?" and the simple answer unfortunately is no".
According to him, applications for a top university have to start when the student is 13 or 14 years old. A child at that age often doesn't know what career path he wants to follow, but it is the teachers' and the parents' responsibility to spot kids with the potential and mentor them.

Working holidays, no beaches, no shopping

The admission into a top UK and US university differs somewhat. For Oxford or Cambridge it is primarily about academic achievements, but also important are extra-curricular achievements. The main focus, though, is on the chosen subject of study.
"Let's say you want to study architecture; the most important thing is to start building your understanding of the subject outside text books. One of the things you need to do is work on your art and portfolio. There are certain higher education institutions that provide special summer courses working on portfolios. There are certain institutions in Italy, for example, that provide classes on architecture. This has nothing to do with the school programme, but you need to spend two weeks in the summer working on your portfolio," stressed Suhoviy.
Practical experience is equally important. Those who want to study law, for example, need to spend time with a barrister or a solicitor, to get familiar and understand how the court works.
Or, those who want to study medicine need to volunteer in an old people's home or an orphanage. A hospital would be even better, not necessarily to do medical work, but again, to understand the environment.
"You can bring patients in and out in a wheel chair, you can make coffee for the doctor, that doesn't matter. What matters is the understanding of the area, because the last thing universities want is for you to start medicine and then faint at the sight of needles or blood," pointed out Suhoviy.
"For this you need to spend your summer, your Christmas holidays, every break you have building your practical experience."
Reading too has to be added to the applications; books, magazines, articles, anything that specialises in the field the student wants to study.
For US universities on the other hand, what matters is the full package - academic achievements, personality and extra curriculum activities are equally important.
"I often say to students jokingly "imagine a very cheesy Hollywood film, where Mr Popular is not only the most attractive, but he is the captain of the football team, he is the president of the student council, he has wrapped the most hours in a charity, and he's head of the bats club by the way, and also has the perfect score on the SAT." We joke, but that is the sort of ideal, universities want the full package," said Labriola.
Institutions such as Stanford or New York University (NYU) want to know as much and as detailed as possible about the candidate, who should have done an extensive amount of charity work, sports or performing arts.
"It's quite impressive nowadays the calibre of students entering these institutions because they are equally bright academically as they are in almost every other respect," he said.
"That's why we go back to what we said before regarding time. You might have very bright individuals at the age of 14 or 15, who will finish high school with "A" across the boards and perfect scores on the SATs, but that alone won't get you in."

Emirati students stand a chance

Emirati students are sought after by universities, provided their applications withstand tough requirements.
"From this year Emirati students are eligible for the Rhodes Foundation scholarships, which is fantastic because Oxford benefits from Rhodes scholars, so this is a big step," mentioned Suhoviy.
"Also here in the UAE, the Oxford and Cambridge alumni club is extremely active, so they always hold events, they've invited the vice chancellor of Oxford University recently, who came and gave a lecture. This generates an interest from students and universities are reaching out, they are interested in UAE students."
For top American universities, Emirati, and generally Arab students are the missing link, demographically. Generally, about 10 per cent of these universities' students come from abroad, but most international students are from China or Russia.
"Emirati students are quite underrepresented and I wonder if it's because they don't see all the different universities out there that might be suited for them," said Labriola.
"Maybe if they were better informed what not just NYU Abu Dhabi has in store, but what actually NYU has in store in New York City, or what Stanford might have in store, they would go for these universities."
"I guarantee you the numbers will rise because these universities are looking for that unique story that an Emirati would be able to tell," he concluded.
silvia@khaleejtimes.com


More news from UAE