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  • Writer's pictureSyed Imran Ali

How to stand out in your University Applications!

I will be discussing how to stand out and nail your university admission applications. The Do's, Don'ts and where I went wrong so you can avoid the same problems.

Firstly, its important to realise that universities within Canada, US, UK and Australia will focus a lot on your personal essays and extracurricular activities. This is contrary to Asian and Middle Eastern Universities which focus on your grades and entry test scores to decide your merit.

So the key is to find the right balance between extracurricular activities and your academic studies.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning to apply as early as possible and be aware of your deadlines!

Extracurricular Activities:

The extracurricular activities need to be somehow related to your desired courses/programs in university. Some example of Extracurricular Activities:

  • Taking an Online Course

  • Volunteering for an NGO

  • Interning at an organization

  • Student Council/Community

  • School Clubs

  • School, City, National and International competitions

  • Your own project/start up like website or YouTube channel

While, it is preferable to excel and achieve in a few specific activities rather than having numerous activities with little achievements. For instance, its better to have your own YouTube channel with 1M subscribers than having 10 YouTube Channels with 1K subscribers each.


That's not always the case.

Suppose you have little or no achievements to show from your extracurricular activities; then play the 'failure is the key to success' card to emphasise your determination and diligence in that specific field of interest.

Personal and 'Why?' Essays:

The essays written for the university application are the heart of the entire application. They can be the game changer and act as a guidebook for admission committee to decide whether you deserve an admission or not. So how do you write perfect personal and 'Why' Essays?

The key is to be natural with your tone, while using strong vocabulary and sense of emotions. Much like how an author narrates a story in his/her book. Here are the guidelines I suggest to craft a perfect story in your personal essay:

  • Do Talk through the Journey of your life/academics and how it has shaped you to pursue such a career.

  • Do Use Sensory language. What did you see? hear? smell? feel?

  • Don't talk about a very minute trouble/problem you faced and how you fought it in a dramatic way: Ex: "I was stung by a beetle upon which I was agonized. For the next few hours I fought my battle by applying lotion, medication after washing the sting. I finally defeated it and then decided to go to Harvard and study Computer Science". No, just don't do this.

  • Don't talk Cliché that has no relation with your course, university or any academic/life goals. Ex: "I fought over with my siblings to eat the leftover pasta from yesterday night" How is this linked in any way to your life, professional and academic goals. You need to show that you're matured up and not a primary/high school kid anymore.

Jokes aside,

Here are a few tips on writing you 'Why?' essays:

(Why essays are essays you write about why going to that specific university and course over any other university in the world).

  • Don't talk about a specific professor, course or classroom.

  • Do talk about the community, research and facility fosters.

Here are the best guidelines provided by NYU AD on how to craft their Why NYU AD essay:


Academics are certainly the foundation of your university application, This means you would need to nail your IGCSE/IALS or IB and even SATs. Additionally, I highly recommend you to take IELTS ACADEMIC and start practicing as soon as 1st year of high school. Furthermore, start respecting your teachers because they are going to write the recommendation letter to your universities,

My experience:

My profile academically was very strong with 8 level 9s/ 8A*s in IGCSE. 3As in AS Level and 3A*s in predicted grade for A levels. My Extracurricular profile at the time of application included volunteering at UN Affiliated NGO, numerous online courses on Engineering, Designing and Sustainability, International competitions on Sustainable Designing. (LinkedIn)

My recommendation letters were perfect since I have always kept a respectful bond with my teachers, mentors and school staff.

However, some of my personal essays were exceptional, while others were messed up. And Essays distinguish if I get accepted or rejected. Here is a slight peak of my failures and success:



Accepted into University of Toronto with 100,000 CAD Scholarship

Rejected in NYU AD - V. Poor "Why?" essay

Accepted in University of Windsor with 15,000 CAD Scholarship

Rejected in Northwestern, Tuft, John Hopkins.

Accepted in NUST, NED, GIKI (Pakistan)

Rejected in Lester B. Pearson Award

Accepted in University of Texas Dallas and Eastern Michigan University

Rejected Chancellor Scholar Award - American University of Sharjah

Accepted in American University of Sharjah with 120,000 AED Scholarship

Accepted in University of Prince Edward Island

Accepted in Memorial University, University of Manitoba, Cape Breton with total 10,000 CAD Scholarship

Since I lost the IVY Leagues and Scholarship at University of Toronto, and American University of Sharjah were still insignificant against the huge sums of tuition. Finally, I have decided to pursue my education at [CENSORED].


In Summary, you need to have exceptionally relevant extracurricular activities, story-telling personal essays along with your perfect academic record and recommendation letters to get into a good university. You also need to apply early and make sure you have researched well about the deadlines.

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