I am a Kenyan alum of MIT. I look back at the four years I spent there from 2005-2009 very fondly for many reasons, including the fact that I had a full scholarship for my undergraduate study and was surrounded by a brilliant and extremely supportive student community counting many Africans and other international students among my close friends.
In the recent past, MIT and several other academic institutions took out SAT requirements for undergraduate applicants in a bid to increase diversity, a move that was hastened by the pandemic as it became harder for students to safely take the tests. Proponents of taking out testing requirements argue that standardized tests exclude economically-disadvantaged ethnic minorities, especially Blacks and Latinos in favor or more affluent whites, who have more resources to better prepare them for the tests. Any efforts to increase diversity in academic institutions and other places of influence are laudable. When I was there, it felt like a meritocracy for those who got in.
MIT is one of the top-tier schools that is need blind (reviews applications without considering what financial support you will need, thus not penalizing students who can’t afford to go there), does not accept legacy students who don’t qualify (you will not get in simply because your parents went there or are huge donors to the school), and gives extremely generous financial packages to international students. This is important because most international students do not quality for state or national academic grants and loans that many Americans can apply for. At least 20% of current MIT undergraduates are the first generation in their families to attend college.
So taking out the SAT requirement was a way of leveling the playing field to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds could pass through the funnel that allows them to get into an academic institution, where their ability to excel is what will propel them to the next level in their academic or professional path. A week ago though, MIT reinstated the SAT requirement, stating that ”not having SATs/ACT scores to consider tends to raise socioeconomic barriers to demonstrating readiness for our education.”
For African students in particular, I see this as a positive move. As imperfect and expensive as the SATs are, without them the application process gives people coming from a public school background on the continent fewer opportunities to shine when compared to applications from the US and many other parts of the world, for several reasons.
Subjects and curricula that don’t translate well
In most public high schools in Kenya, there are different mandatory subjects than in the US. Before MIT, I had almost no experience with calculus and only realized how limiting this was when I found peers in my freshman year who had studied calculus for years in high school.
An admissions counselor reviewing African university applications might not realize what a big deal it is to have an A in Christian Religious Education—which was a mandatory subject in my high school—and not understand what rigorous thinking is required to know the relevance of different biblical parables, or to remember that of the minor prophets, Isaiah was the one who had a fixation on the apocalypse, Jonah was the one who was swallowed by a whale to show the hubris of man and God’s forgiving nature, and Hosea’s command to marry a prostitute who treated him terribly throughout his whole life is actually a metaphor for God’s undying love for us blighted humans.
Likewise, someone in the US might not understand that a student who got less than stellar grades in Agriculture might have simply been a victim of an almost biblical minor plague that saw all the aphid-infested, boll-weevil ridden gardens in a particular school given a B by the invigilators. None of this will make sense to someone outside a certain cultural context.
Cultural differences that put African students at a disadvantage
The personal essay is a critical part of any US application. Having gone through the system and having a good understanding of US culture, I see many ways that an African student will be at a disadvantage. In my culture, we tend to hide and minimize what is going wrong in our lives. Sharing our difficulties and baring our hearts is something we mostly do within close circles.
Bluntly, a great personal essay should be a bit of a sob story, but this is something many Africans will struggle to do well. For African applicants, many of whom are aspirational, the thought of talking about one’s challenges, one’s most difficult life moments, with a complete stranger—that does not come easily to us. This means that without proper coaching from alumni on the need to go to those dark places, to show what challenges one has overcome and highlight resilience, an applicant might write a very generic, abstract personal essay, even when they have a really deep story to tell. We just don’t tell our life stories to strangers.
Another cultural element that puts African students at a disadvantage is what I will call “African humility.” Growing up, even when someone was amazing at something, they would say, “Yes, I understand this,” or “I think I can do this.” Anything stronger than this in my own Kenyan cultural context would be seen as bragging or arrogance. In the social media age, we might now be catching on to this phenomenon with #blessed #abundance, but it wasn’t always this way.
Two students, one applying from an African country and another who is well-versed in the US cultural context, will represent themselves very differently. From my own understanding of American culture, the African who comes in with “African humility” will many times be dismissed or misunderstood to be ineffective, lacking confidence, and therefore not a strong candidate. America favors the bold.
Extracurricular activities and community service are other elements of a US undergraduate application that are considered important. I come from a cultural context where academics were the most important thing. A student might have been the president of the drama club, the head of the choir, a top debater, a star athlete, or the choreographer of the annual dance, but they will rarely know how much they should emphasize these details in their application.
One of my good friends and member of my same cohort at MIT was the first Rwandan to go to MIT. While he grew up in Kenya, I can imagine that if he had done his application while in Rwanda, he would have exactly no one who had been to MIT to guide him on how to how to do a strong application.
This is how an excellent student from an African country could already be at a disadvantage when applying to a university in the US, compared to less-qualified candidates from elsewhere with access to support and experience.
When it comes to community service, this is another area that my people struggle in. A very good Kenyan friend in Dakar once told me, “Africans are great philanthropists. Anyone who has made it is likely supporting several family members, paying school fees for many kids that are not theirs, and tithing in church.”
In the US, when people give money or donate to charities, they announce it. When billionaires give away a portion of their wealth for various causes, they announce it. When Africans give to causes, help others, give zakat during Ramadhan, or tithe in church to support the less fortunate, we don’t tend to think of this as community service. Even when someone does all this, they might not realize that it’s something to talk up in university applications.
Teacher recommendations are an important part of the US university application. This puts many African students at a disadvantage. In Kenya, most Ivy League students have historically come from six very academically strong public high schools—Alliance (boys and girls), Mang’u, Starehe, Precious Blood, and Kenya High. Those schools have had a huge number of alumni go on to Ivys , so teachers there will understand the effusiveness required in their recommendations.
Barring those schools, you will likely have very busy teachers who have had to deal with large class sizes for years. Even if they believe in your candidacy, given our culture of being moderate with praise, they will rarely rank you, “Exceptional! This is one of the top 5% of students I met in my life.” Mrs. Karanja has likely never said this about anyone in her life, including the students she loved the most.
SATs are imperfect, but standard
Standardized tests are in no way a perfect measure of a student’s ability, but at the bare minimum they reveal something about a candidate’s academic ability and can be easily compared across candidates. I memorized a lot of words that no one will ever use as part of my SAT prep, but in the grand context of my academic history, this was not the most superfluous of tasks that I have done.
In my schooling in Kenya, I had to learn to draw the parts of a cockroach, knit pin cushions, and do math calculations using log tables—all very useful skills that of course play a very important role in my day-to-day life in the 21st century.
For African students, if a high score in a test that might not be the most useful in life is what gets their application noticed by academic counselors, then it does more good than harm in that student’s life.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to MIT as an Ivy League school.