Focus on learning rather than grades …

17 maj, 2016



Nanna Olsson (VRGD alum 2014) attends Columbia University in NYC

” … focus on learning rather than grades, to take advantage of all the help VRG can give you and not be frightened of being yourself and pursuing your true interests.”

Dear students,

I wanted to follow up with some advice that I think you should consider if you are applying to an American university. First of all, you need to ask yourself, ”why do I want to study in the US?”. It is very rare for a Swedish student to get their Bachelor’s degree in the US for the simple reason. Swedish universities are so good, and free, that in many cases, it might not be worth the hassle to go through the application process. I actually don’t know any other Swedish students at my school (I’ve heard there is one more student somewhere, but I’ve never met her!). If you can’t come up with a compelling reason why should study in the US, I’d say it’s probably better that you don’t even apply and focus on getting into a good school in Sweden. I’m not trying to be discouraging, but I remember when I applied, I had many friends who had come a long way on their applications, and decided last minute that they did not want to study in the US. They didn’t even send in their complete applications. They had all made a serious effort, but that time could have been spent on their schoolwork or social life. Remember, there are other ways you can study in the US, for grad school or internships.  I’ve heard a lot of Swedish graduate students hanging out on the Columbia campus!

If you can find a good reason why you need a Bachelor’s degree from the US, I think the best time to start your application is your second year in high school. Put in a lot of time finding a great school that fits YOU. Not everyone should go to Harvard, Yale or Columbia, because they offer very different educations that are not a good fit for everyone. When researching a school, study their curriculum, their geographical location, resources for undergraduates and what kinds of professors that teach there. All schools have a very specific culture, which you need to figure out. Note that undergraduate is different from graduate school! There is no business school at Harvard for undergraduate students, and there is no journalism school at Columbia for undergraduate students. University of Pennsylvania has probably one of the best business schools in the US for undergraduates and Northwestern University has a top-notch journalism school for undergrads as well. None of those schools are Ivy League.

American universities requires you to take either the SAT or ACT, the TOEFL-test, and probably two SAT subject tests. The SAT has been changed from when I took it, I think it is supposed to be more analytical and more reading heavy now. It is important that you start taking these tests early, so you have time to improve your scores. If you are more of a science person and good at math, I’ve heard that the ACT is easier, while the SAT might be easier if you are better at English and reading. For the subject tests, you should just take the subjects that you are good at. The TOEFL-test should not be difficult for you, it basically only tests if you are able to take a class in English, which most you already are at VRG, but do not take it last minute, just get it out of the way. I hate to say this, but you do need good SAT-scores in order to get into a competitive school. For the Ivy-league, it’s common for people to have a total score over 2000 and to get over 700 on the reading section. The good news is that you can “super score” which means that admissions officers will only consider the highest scores you’ve had on each section of the test. The SAT only tests how good you are at taking the test, which means that you can study for it. How? By taking the tests. There are many practice tests out there. Just simulate test conditions and do it over and over again. That’s the only way to study for it.

I want to address grades. You do need high grades to be admitted to a competitive school. I know how obsessed VRG-students can be about their grades, but you all need to stop that behavior. Trust me, at Columbia, people are just as obsessed about grades but at a much higher degree. I have found a general study technique that works for me, both at VRG and at Columbia, which has relieved me from a lot of stress. Don’t let your ambition guide you, but your curiosity. Forget about the grades, and make a genuine effort to understand the material in a profound way. Questions that you should ask your instructor after class are not, “How can I get an A in this class?” or “Can I still get an A in this class?” but rather specific questions about the material that you do not understand. I promise you, if you forget about grades and really try to understand the material, the grades will come automatically. School will also become less stressful and more enjoyable if you focus on what you learn, instead of what you are not able to learn. Keep in mind that it is much more difficult to get an A in Sweden than it is in the US. In many places, a B in Sweden would be worth and A in the US.

Extra-curricular activities are extremely important for the application. Not necessarily for the prestige, but they give clues to the admissions officer on who you are as a person.

Therefore, you must focus on things that YOU find important. Admissions officers want to see some evidence that you will make use of all the resources that they offer to their students. If you are a scattered person who are interested in many things (like I was) they at least must see some form of narrative on how you became the person you are today. I think there is a reason why “This American Life” with radio host Ira Glass is such a popular radio show in the US, because Americans love a good storyteller. So, don’t get involved in things because you think it might stand out on your resume, do it because you think it is meaningful or fun. Do not hold empty titles. The title “head of student council” or “editor of the student newspaper” does not mean anything unless you’ve been an active leader who improved your organization.

I also mentioned in my talk that I got help from Kent Fernandez. Although he helped me a lot, I don’t want you to think that you need to hire outside help in order to get admitted to an American university. The reason for why I hired him, was because I wanted a second opinion on my application, and I also felt a little bit lost in the process (and short of time) after having decided to not apply to my dream school, Stanford. My father had been a professor there, I had taken classes there and networked with researchers and grad students so I thought that it was a school for me. I realized however, that despite the important connections I had made, I was not the student they were looking for.

It’s all about finding the right school, which I have already mentioned. When I learned more about Columbia, I felt destined to go there, it literally took me one day to do the application because all of my answers to the Columbia-supplement came so naturally. That’s when you know you’ve find a good school for you. As long as you are a mature person and realistic about your prospects of getting into a school, you are fine to apply by yourself. That said, there are many free resources that you should take advantage of if you are serious about studying in the US. Start at VRG. Talk to your school counselors. I know that Sue and Keren offer mock interviews that I highly recommend you do before your interview with a college representative. Contact the Fulbright office in Stockholm. They offer free college consultations, and you can also borrow college literature for free, such as books on how to prepare for the SAT, personal statements and books about colleges which is a good way to learn about different universities. They are closed over the summer, so it would be a good idea to schedule an appointment before they close so you could get books over the summer to read. They are very good at answering any kinds of financial aid questions. Occasionally, Fulbright hosts events where representatives from different colleges come to talk about their schools. This is a great way to learn about different universities, and these schools might also be more likely to accept Swedish students since they are making an effort to speak to you. Bombard theses reps with questions, they might be the ones reading your application.

To hit the homerun, I will address the questions I often get on why I got into Columbia. There is not one thing that made me stand out, but it was the whole picture. Everything on my application made sense of why I should study at Columbia, and that’s the key to having a successful application. Everything you do, should be consistent with who you are as a person and what you want to achieve. Forget about prestige. Be genuine and curious. In other words, embrace your inner nerd.

Good luck with your plans after graduation, whatever they might be!

Nanna Olsson

Political Science

Class of 2018

Columbia University


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