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Articles / Applying to College / Will Lower English Scores Hurt Strong International Student?

Feb. 12, 2012

Will Lower English Scores Hurt Strong International Student?

Question: My son is doing IB diploma and is an international student looking to get admission in MIT, Stanford or other Ivy league colleges for Engineering. He is an outstanding student and a keen basketball player representing his school in under 19 team and plays drums. We are confident he will score full marks - seven, in his IB diploma in his three higher level subjects - Physics, Chemistry and Maths, and will also score a seven in Economics at standard level. He has taken Mandarin as a second language and we think he will get a six in that. He doesn't do too well in English (relatively) - may be five. He hasn't done a SAT yet. So if you exclude English he will have an outstanding score and his overall score may only come down because of English. Similarly his overall SAT may come down only because of English? Do you think MIT/Stanford/Ivy league colleges will accept his relatively modest score in English as compared to outstanding score in all other subjects including Mandarin and his overall strong application?

If English is not your son's first language, U.S. admission officials will give him some "wiggle room" on his English grades and test results, assuming that his TOEFL score indicates that he is proficient enough to handle the work load at a highly competitive institution.

However, keep in mind that at Stanford, MIT, and the Ivy League schools, top grades and test scores will take applicants only to the outer gates. The vast majority of candidates are very strong students who have also performed well on standardized tests. Thus, as they make their difficult admission decisions, college officials must ask, "What else is special?"

Success in Mandarin is common at these colleges and will not provide any admissions ‘hook.” You have mentioned your son’s skill at basketball, which might help his admission chances if he is truly outstanding. However, there is typically a huge leap—so to speak—between being a good high school player and being qualified to play at college, even at the Division 3 level. (MIT is a Division 3 school but doesn’t weight athletic prowess highly in the admissions process. The other colleges you named are all Division 1 and have their pick of the best athletes from around the world, so only the most highly skilled players will catch a coach’s eye.)

As your son completes his applications, he shouldn’t worry too much about his English scores and should, instead, put his effort into highlighting the strengths that will help him to stand out in a crowd.

Good luck to you and to your son as you navigate the maze ahead. Luck, indeed, is a part of this process.

(posted 2/12/2012)

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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