"You have got to see what else you can bring to the table," says Jon Mills, a manager with Harvard University Asia Centre, who has worked in Southeast Asia for the past 20 years.
Acting as a think-tank to the university, the centre conducts research and programmes focusing on international relations in Asia and comparative studies of Asian countries and regions. Last month, Mills was in town to give his advice to students and parents at a forum organised by Arch Academy.
He says while Harvard only admits students who are within the top 5 to 10 per cent in terms of academic achievement, the university is also interested to see if they can offer more than grades.
"Harvard is looking for students who have the potential to be future leaders," he says. "The ones who can draw people together to work towards a common goal, and who are contributors to society."
And Mills says it is not so much about comparing what you already have but "how you take what you have and add value to it.
"Are you bringing anything extra to your school team? How do you benefit your class? Are you able to engage others? Can you make a difference to your environment?"
However, that does not mean quiet students will be excluded.
"Don't try to be someone you're not," he advises. "Not every student has to be controversial or argumentative in discussion. Find your strength and play to it. Everyone can contribute in a different way."
Mills notes a cultural difference between American and many Asian students. While Asians concentrate mostly on their studies, American students are also interested in having a life outside the campus.
"We also want to know how you spend your free time," he says. "What are your hobbies? Do you have any interests outside your studies? In America, we also value unstructured or unproductive time."
But the moment of truth comes in the interview. Mills recommends students just be themselves. "The interview is when the panel finds out what you are like as a person," he says. "They want to see if you are the same person as you present yourself to be on paper. And they want to know what you would be like as a classmate or a citizen in the university.
"So, you need to be real. Tell them your passion and what motivates you."
Mills understands most parents want their children to enter the best university, as education is seen as the way to climb the social ladder in Asia. But, the most important thing is finding the right match, he says.
"Different universities are looking for different kinds of skills. For example, [unlike Harvard], Princeton is looking for scholars. It is about matching who you are to what the university is looking for."
He says students and parents should research universities. They can also get advice by talking to school counsellors or e-mailing the university directly.
"And you should value your individuality," he adds. "In today's world, where there is an amalgamation of cultures and values, there is room for you to be yourself."