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Personalizing Your University Admissions Story

By Andi O’Hearn
Personalizing Your University Admissions Story

Competitive universities around the world look for students to share their stories during the admissions process. Students often struggle with this task, asking their college counselors, “How do I personalize my story to stand out in a competitive admissions pool?” For students in the International Baccalaureate Programs, the workload can be quite high and free time for extracurricular activities can be limited.
I have more than 30 years’ experience as a college counselor, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to ponder these questions, and have worked to help hundreds of high school graduates successfully get into the universities they want.
As the IB Diploma Program (DP) Coordinator and I begin to counsel students and families about their choice of study in the IB DP, it has become clearer that there is a need to start the university counseling process before Grade 10.
Besides the question of which courses a child should take, there are three major events during a child’s IB high school years that can play a big factor in personalizing a child’s university admissions story; the Personal Project in Grade 10, the Extended Essay (EE) in Grade 12 and the Community, Action, and Service (CAS) requirement for the IB DP (Grades 11 - 12).
In Grade 10, the last year of the Middle Years Program (MYP), students are required to do the Personal Project. “For most students, the Personal Project is their first large independent project outside of regular school activities,” according to Dr. Harrison, Head of the MYP at McLean School in Virginia. “Owning a project, working independently and accomplishing a worthwhile goal provide invaluable experience to students as they move on to college and careers” (IBO website).
For students, it is the first opportunity to begin to explore a personal passion in depth. It concerns me that more students do not think of this as an opportunity to begin to research an area of interest they might wish to pursue for a career or college major. Even if the end result is that they realize they really do not ever want to be a veterinarian, the Personal Project can play a huge role in understanding what they may, or may not, want to pursue for a career or area of passion.
Course selection for the DP is the next big hurdle. It is OK to be undecided about your future career, but you need to understand that uncertainty can cause some doors to close. To be competitive in university admissions in the U.K. or in Hong Kong for engineering, for example, may require you to take high-level courses in math and physics.
Without those, you might not be eligible to apply. Understanding your personal academic strengths and weaknesses plays an important role in helping to decide on which DP courses will be best for you to study. It is additionally important to be well prepared for the demands of higher education. Strong advisory programs at the secondary school level play a crucial role in guiding students academically.
The 4,000 word Extended Essay and the Community, Action, and Service program, both compulsory in DP, are two more areas where students make choices that can boost their personal story to demonstrate to universities why they want to follow a particular path and what they have done to prepare themselves for that choice.
A student interested in art could volunteer in an elementary school supporting teachers and students, or could offer to help design sets for a drama production. The whole point is that the canvas is blank, but both the Extended Essay and the CAS requirements can provide beautiful colors to bring their personal story to life for an admissions committee somewhere in the world.
The IB DP is a very rigorous course of study. It is highly demanding of a student’s time and energy. By strategically incorporating required elements of the IB Program, a student can personalize and individualize their story without additional time commitments or workload.
International Baccalaureate Organization, Retrieved from
Lewis, J (2012) "Routes to international higher education: University admissions officers’ research. International Schools Journal Vol XXXI No. 2, April 2012
Andi O’Hearn is Director of Communications and University Counseling at Beijing City International School.

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