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It happens almost daily. I’ll be deep in thought after a long day at the office, walking down the seven flights of stairs in Eastgate, or in the dairy aisle at the supermarket or sitting with one of my daughters enjoying a coffee at a local cafe.
A bright eyed teen will approach: “You’re Mai Mano, right?”
“Yup, that’s me,” I answer with a smile, while counting to three and knowing what’s coming next.
“So I’m in U6 and I’m kind of a good student, play hockey, sing. I want to go to study in the US….. So do you think I can get a scholarship?”

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What makes applying to a U,S, college so exciting and yet so challenging and utterly unpredictable is the fact that I can’t answer that question with certainty for anyone. It doesn’t matter if they have 10 A* or a perfect SAT score. There is no formula, no guarantee, and no despair either. Over the past decade I’ve seen students I was sure would make it be denied and others whose grades and scores were as teens today say “meh” make it with the financial aid they need.

 

Highly selective U.S, colleges and universities use what they name a “holistic admissions” process to select their students. Rather than relying on national exam results or even on the U.S. highly feared and touted SAT exam, they use a combination of academic and non-academic factors to build a class of diverse individuals who are likely to succeed academically, take advantage of the opportunities offered and make a positive impact on campus and beyond. Sure, they are after top grades and test scores, but equally after genuine engagement in the community, commitment to co-curricular interests and compelling essays that show maturity and depth. Students often overlook personal qualities in deference to sheer talent as what makes someone “get in.”

So what’s the common denominator for success for international students in U.S. admissions? In addition to merit, it takes a combination of grit, determination, research, and self-awareness. The ability to put together a compelling holistic application that tells one’s story and shows how you, the student, are a great match for that university to which you are applying and how you will take full advantage of what they have to offer. An application that foretells impact and shows your open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity.

 

One admissions officer famously quipped “When I read an application, I close my eyes and think ‘Would I want to have dinner with this person?’ If I can’t imagine a fascinating dinner conversation with them, I don’t think I want them on my campus.”

While others might criticize the U.S. process as being too subjective at best or blatantly biased at worst,, I celebrate its humanity. Students have the opportunity to shine in many ways and to show the admissions officer what is important to them and their future. Students can show all of who they are, the influences that have been important in their lives, the adversities they may have overcome and their dreams.

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So when the next student approaches me on the stairs, in the store or with my beloved cup of java, and asks “I want to go to study in the U.S….. So do you think I can get a scholarship?” I think I’ll simply answer with a wide grin and some direct friendly eye contact “You won’t know unless you try, now will you?”

Rebecca Zeigler Mano is the Country Coordinator for EducationUSAZimbabwe.

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