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Preparing for STEM Success to Land at an Ivy League College


Ijaaz Jackaria graduated from The University of Chicago where he majored in Philosophy and minored in Physics and Middle Eastern Studies. Currently, he is an Education Consultant at Hale Education Group

Do you dream of working at NASA and sending robots to Mars in search of extraterrestrial life? Or do you see yourself contributing to the latest development in oncology? What if the future Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is waiting for you, and you become the next John Nash, the next Beautiful Mind?

Opportunities like those abound in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) field, and many students aspire to enter it. It is no secret that the United States is at the forefront of discovery and the first step on this fascinating journey of exploration and experimentation is to secure an undergraduate degree at a top US university.

Whereas applying to American colleges is a more or less standard process, there are certain things that can demarcate those students targeting the STEM field. We have compiled a list of things to consider as one prepares for the STEM success needed to land at an Ivy League university:

Choice of High School Courses
Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics—this is the classic combination for success in the STEM field. Mathematics and the sciences tend to be the most difficult subjects in high school and admissions counselors look for course rigor in a student’s application when reviewing the latter. Having a strong background in STEM at the high school level—demonstrated through consistently achieving high grades—is an asset when applying for top US colleges.

For example, students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum would want to opt for Higher Level (HL) Mathematics Analysis & Approaches, HL Physics, and HL Chemistry. In the British curriculum, enrolling in A-Level Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics would give them the best preparation for college courses. Finally, students in the American curriculum would want to take AP Calculus BC to have a solid foundation in Mathematics. Generally, taking around 8 Advanced Placement exams across different subjects shows a rigorous course load.

Now, it is good to note that this is not a requirement set by colleges. Someone taking a different combination of courses can still apply for STEM majors. The above is simply a classic combo, that is, the most popular and the most versatile for different majors. If someone is inclined toward Biomedical Engineering or Medicine, then taking Biology in high school would prove advantageous. Similarly, someone opting for Computer Science or Software Engineering can take a Computer Science course in high school. 

In brief, having a rigorous course load, a strong mathematics background, and achieving top grades maximize the chances of acceptance at a top US university.

Standardized Testing
When it comes to standardized testing, there are a lot of options out there: SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP exams. Which tests should one take and what is a “good” enough score with which to enter the STEM field in a top US college? It depends!

First, students should choose to either take the SAT or ACT—there is no need to take both. For the SAT, scoring above 1500 overall, with a subscore of around 780 in the Math section is desirable. For the ACT, one should aim for a composite score of at least 34, with a strong score of around 35 in the Math section

What about the SAT Subject Tests? Earlier this year, College Board announced that they are abolishing the SAT Subject Tests; the last subject tests available for international students will be in May and June 2021. After that, subject tests will no longer be offered anywhere.

Even though subject tests are optional, we still recommend all STEM students aiming for an Ivy League and top universities to take the following subject tests: Mathematics Level 2 and Physics generally. If one can afford to take more, we recommend Chemistry, Biology, and a Language. Students should aim for a score of at least 750 per subject, although it is not hard to get the perfect score of 800.

For AP exams, we recommend around 8 APs across different subjects only for students in an American curriculum. For someone, say, in the IB curriculum, we only recommend taking AP exams in a subject that they are not studying at the IB level, such that it shows additional academic interests in a different subject.

Extracurricular Activities
Another determining factor in college admissions is the activity profile of applicants. Students need to showcase their passion for STEM through their extracurricular activities—whether by participating in national robotics competitions, founding an astronomy club at school, or taking a pre-college summer program… Each of these helps shape the applicant’s profile and prepare them for college.

Other activities that students may want to consider include: conducting academic research in the STEM field with a faculty member at a university, interning in a tech company related to their field of interest, or designing and marketing a mobile application.

Finally, students need to explore STEM subjects beyond their academic curriculum. It is advisable that they keep in touch with the latest developments in the field by perusing academic journals, watching documentaries, or reading books authored by luminaries in their respective fields. 

The advantage of studying STEM in the US
One thing that attracts students to a STEM degree is the possibility of working longer in the US after they graduate college. Generally, international students with any major, holding an F1 visa can apply for the Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to work in the US for 1 year. However, students majoring in STEM fields have the option of extending their OPT for an additional 2 years, that is, 3 years of work experience in all.

Finally, when it comes to Economics, many universities categorize the subject as a STEM subject since the course usually has a solid quantitative mathematical foundation, thus allowing Economics majors to work for a total of 3 years through the OPT of the F1 visa.

Now you have all the ingredients to embark on a STEM voyage to the US—with all the opportunities in Silicon Valley, NASA, and Wall Street just at your doorstep!

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