And it has nothing to do with your report card.

Peter is a first generation college graduate, born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, with a double major, from Johns Hopkins University and spent his junior year abroad completing the General Course in International Relations at the London School of Economics. Peter holds Master’s Degrees from Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) and Harvard University (Graduate School of Design). As the founder of the Hale Education Group based in Dubai, Peter is widely considered to be the authority on US university admissions in the GCC.

I have been lucky enough to have mentored and assisted hundreds of students from the region over the past five years in their endeavor to prepare for and successfully apply to leading US universities.

Not surprisingly, I have regularly encountered many of the same questions in regards to what parents should do to give their children a competitive advantage in the admissions process.

I regularly field queries regarding which curriculum is most rigorous (Is the IB Diploma more respected than A-Levels?), how many times a student should take the SAT and what is considered a ‘good’ score.

And whether summer courses offered for credit on university campuses are more ‘impressive’ than volunteer service trips abroad to impoverished countries.

However, many of the most often overlooked—and largely intangible—factors in the admissions process are often the most important ones.

While demonstrated academic achievement, as evidenced by an excellent high school transcript and strong standardized test scores, are a sine qua non for a competitive profile and application, it is these intangibles that often make the difference between acceptance and rejection at selective American universities.

Not only will the strength of a student’s interpersonal skills, passions, emotional intelligence, and character play a role in admissions decisions, they are the same attributes that will help young people realize their fullest potential as human beings throughout their lives.

These are skills that must be instilled, inculcated, and reinforced by parents and mentors as part of a value system that must be actively cultivated from an early age and are the personal responsibility of parents and mentors—not just teachers.

Parents truly invested in their children’s personal and educational success should view this process as a multi-year marathon that begins at a very early age—and not a sprint that commences a few months before application deadlines.

Although these intangible characteristics cannot be quantified through grade point averages or board examination scores, they must be taken just as seriously if a student truly hopes to be successful as both a university applicant but, more importantly, as well as a happy, active contributing member to our global society.

Here are some of the most important ones.

Intellectual Curiosity

Does your child’s learning end when the school bell rings or does the content covered in class serve as a springboard for further intellectual exploration? Does your daughter truly love to learn or does she simply finish work that is assigned to her by teachers? Do you show interest in what she is studying and engage her in conversation about it?


Is reading for pleasure as part of your son’s routine as checking Instagram and Facebook feeds? Or is reading something that is viewed as a burden and a chore?

Empathy / Volunteerism

Does your son about the plight of the less fortunate and, if so, what active steps does he take to make a difference? Does he regularly dedicate time to a cause he cares about every week or does he ‘discover’ volunteering in his last year of high school because ‘it will look good on college applications’?


Does your child always get what she wants or is she taught that rejection, disappointment, and adversity are part of life and present opportunities from which to learn from and grow?

Grit/Ability to Overcome Adversity

As Billy Ocean so aptly stated, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Does your daughter welcome a challenge, or does she pick up their toys and leave when the game doesn’t go her way?


What is your son truly passionate about? When he is asked this question, is it followed by an energetic answer…or a long pause?


Does a title demonstrate leadership in an organization or through concrete achievements and a measurable impact made? These are questions that many parents and students never ask, but should. The most successful applicants must not only be incredible students—they must be incredible people.