Science sophomore Gokul Madhavan of the UAE at Harvard University speaks to Rema Menon about being part of the Ivy League

Around two years ago, on a visit to Baltimore, USA, I was intrigued to see huge hoardings and banners on government buildings which simply said ‘believe'.

It's a small word, packed with a world of meaning. My interview with Gokul Madhavan, doing an undergarduate programme in physics at Harvard University, Class of 2008, recipient of the 2001 Hamdan Bin Rashid Bin Al Maktoum Award for Distinguished Academic Performance, taught me that belief in one's self is his ‘mantra' for success.

Harvard is a dream for many students. How did you achieve it?

Colleges, especially the most competitive ones, base their admission decisions on many factors, which vary from candidate to candidate as every college wants to have a well-balanced set of students.

I think I got accepted thanks to my strong academic performance right through high school, high scores on the SAT I and SAT IIs, consistent participation in extracurricular activities, and good application essays.

Colleges are more interested in consistent academic performance, so an occasional failure does not hurt the student, provided that the rest of the performance has been high. And then of course, there is always the luck factor!

I got into Harvard, but got rejected at other colleges where I'd used the same application, so I'm sure luck has a lot to do with it.

Did you feel like a small fish in a big ocean?

Small fish in a big ocean - that about summarises my feelings during the first two weeks at college!

It was only some time later, when I talked to some of my friends about orientation, that I realised that all of us felt the same way. After that, things have been different.

Is Harvard what you expected it to be?

Every college is different and has its own atmosphere; how much a student likes a college has less to do with what the college is like objectively and more to do with how closely the college approximates the student's needs.

Some colleges are very work-intensive, with problem sets and essays due all the time; others are a lot more free-flowing, but then require a lot more initiative on the student's part to get things done; some colleges have a friendly atmosphere where everybody knows everybody else; others are much larger and again it's up to the student to go out and make the effort to meet new people.

In many ways, Harvard has exceeded my expectations. The students are very intelligent, and almost every conversation I have had has taught me something new. Both academic and extracurricular activities are considered important, and the general attitude is "work hard, play hard".

Do you think more students from here can aspire to enrol at Ivy institutions?

Oh, absolutely! It's not impossible to get into an Ivy League school, and if you have strong SAT scores and a consistently high academic performance, I would definitely encourage you to at least apply.

If you don't apply, you're not going there for sure - if you do apply, you always have a chance.

Ivy admissions are definitely competitive, though, so you'll need to start preparing academically as soon as you can, preferably by the ninth grade.

Consistency, in both academics and extracurricular activities, is the real key.

You don't need to be the best at everything in school, but you definitely need to show commitment in everything that you have done.

College applications have one or more essays, while these are important in almost all admissions processes, these are crucial for Ivy admissions because they are the only truly personal part of your application that the colleges get to look at.

There will always be hundreds of other applicants with similar academic performance and SAT scores. The essays are what differentiate you from other students. Make full use of this opportunity to bring out your personality. Don't be afraid to be yourself.

Some colleges also provide the opportunity for an interview with somebody affiliated with the institution, typically an alumnus or alumna.

This is also a fantastic chance to show yourself, and also to get real information about the college from someone who has been there. By all means, go for the interview, and do your best there.

The more the college knows about you, the more likely you are to receive a favourable admissions decision. Students from this part of the world are as competitive as anybody else, all we need is confidence in ourselves.

The writer is the Director of Counselling Point Educational and Social Services