Jamie Beaton knows a thing or two about admissions. Originally from New Zealand, he got into Harvard University (where he graduated with honors, in 2016, two years ahead of schedule). Then it was on to Stanford University, where he earned an MBA and an MS in education. Then he proceeded to the University of Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar. Now he’s the CEO and founder of Crimson Education, a company that helps students get into the Ivy League, Oxbridge universities and a few others. Now, he’s sharing his story and his advice in Accepted! Secrets to Gaining Admission to the World’s Top Universities (Jossey-Bass). Beaton responded via email to questions about his book.
Q: There are tons of guides to getting into top colleges, but few that cover the world. Is it really the same with American colleges and universities and those of other countries?
A: The admissions process to the top US and UK universities varies substantially. The UK admissions process to institutions like [the Universities of] Oxford and Cambridge [is] narrowly focused on academics. Students apply to specific degrees. For example, I applied and was admitted into Cambridge for economics. The entire degree is focused on economics, with very few electives. The admissions process mirrors this focus. Students need to focus on academic enrichment projects within economics; relevant academic subjects to economics like mathematics, physics and economics; competitions like macroeconomic policy competitions; and essay competitions like John Locke for economics. The UK puts almost no value on community service, general sports or general extracurriculars.
The US process varies enormously from this. The standards to get into the best US universities like Stanford and Harvard [Universities] for academics are similar in level to the UK You need a high academic standard for both countries, and demonstration of intellectual vitality (or academic interest beyond the scope of your curriculum). The US varies in the focus on broader academic interests, extracurriculars, leaderships and personal characteristics. US admissions requires far more focus on broader activities, and you get credit for them, even if they have nothing to do with your core academic interests. Interestingly, you are admitted to a university but not a course such as economics and can normally totally change your major once you gain admission in a US university, but not a UK university. Accepted! Focuses heavily on the most elite US universities because they generally dominate global rankings, but there are plenty of insights for other countries as well.
Q: Are there key factors at Harvard and Oxford that you would cite?
A: For Harvard in particular, there are a number of specific dynamics. Firstly, Harvard loves to admit valedictorians … Harvard historically doesn’t want to admit kids who weren’t the most academically exceptional in their school. They generally have a 4.0 GPA and an SAT score above 1530. While test-optional admissions have become the norm, a significant number of Harvard admits continue to take the SAT. Harvard also expects strong performance in academic competitions and loves success in areas like debating, Model United Nations or competitive olympiads. It also puts strong weight on competitive summer programs … Harvard also admits students who have followed one of the strategies I described in Accepted!—“Class Spam.” This involves taking a large number of standardized tests. One of my students recently admitted from China to Harvard took 15-plus AP tests. Similarly, I took 10 A levels in high school. Harvard generally looks favorably on students who pushed themselves hard academically.
Oxford generally values exceptional performance in A levels or AP subjects in the relevant field to what you are applying for. If you are applying for a specific degree like economics or mathematics, you are expected to take the highest level of mathematics possible. One such example is AP BC Calculus or A level Further Mathematics. Oxford doesn’t value extracurriculars unless they relate directly to what you are applying for in general. Some specific programs like Duke of Edinburgh Program, a community service and holistic skill development program, are well recognized by both Oxford and Harvard.
Q: What about test-optional admissions at US colleges? Should applicants not worry about the SAT or ACT?
A: Applicants should continue to take the SAT and ACT. In our data based on thousands of college applicants, we can see that strong performance in the SAT or ACT continues to pay dividends in admissions probabilities. Many universities are used to admitting based on the SAT and ACT, and it will be a long time before they have figured out how to properly assess candidates from varied high schools without these benchmarking tools. Most competitive applicants from high schools that have multiple kids applying to top universities should keep taking the SAT or ACT. “Optional” means compulsory in general in competitive college applications.
Q: What do you think of the preferences that many top US colleges grant to athletes?
A: I personally find athletic admissions a little peculiar. It is slightly strange that academic institutions vary their admissions standards for athletes but don’t do the same for high-performing actors, top Olympiad medalists or amazing musicians. Athletic admissions creates a strong sporting culture at many universities, which tends to build a lot of culture, atmosphere and school spirit, as well as alumni loyalty, which have various benefits. However, in general, I think that the primary role of an academic institution is academics, and it is probably not ideal to vary the academic standard based on athletic prowess explicitly. A holistic admissions process can still award value to athletes who perform well in sports, but the admissions standards are too wide as they stand for some sports, and I think tightening the standards is probably, on net, better for the overall student experience.
Q: You were an international student. Do international students have an advantage in applying to top US colleges?
A: International students actually have a much harder time getting admitted into top US colleges. There is a funny bias where everyone thinks applying from where they are from is the hardest pool to apply from. In reality, it is easier to get into top US colleges as a domestic American applicant. Disclosed admissions rates from universities including University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University show explicitly that international students have two to three times lower admissions rates per capita than domestic students. I also see this in the discrepancies in standards from country to country. I see international applicants with SAT scores of 1600 and predicted IB scores of 45 getting declined from all Ivy League schools and the University of California, Berkeley, yet normally an American student with the same profile will see a lot more success. I also see American citizens living abroad in international high schools who are not ranked the highest beating international students with higher ranks but without an American passport. There is nothing inherently wrong with these. These are after all, American universities, but the facts are clear: it is harder to get in as an international student to top US colleges.