How to apply to US universities?
- Written by Anne Murphy Cohen
ITS Education Asia gives tips for prospective students and their parents.
Applying for university in the US can be a grueling process. On top of school grades, students are expected to study and sit the SAT or ACT, request recommendations from their teachers, spend their afternoons participating in extracurricular activities, and write several short essays for each university application.
Here is some advice on how to begin tackling the daunting task of finding the right university.
Preparing for the SAT/ACT
Only one of these tests is required by most US universities. In the eyes of virtually all US universities, the SAT and ACT are equivalent. The main difference is that the ACT includes a Scientific Reasoning section. The ACT is widely considered a better test of intelligence, but the SAT is easier to study for.
Students should begin preparing for the SAT/ACT in Year 12/Grade 11. We suggest that students take a mock test at the beginning of this school year, and find professional support to help them with the sections in which they are weakest. Because the SAT and ACT are thoroughly standardized, students can drastically improve their score by understanding the strategies that the test is designed around. There are aspects of the tests (particularly vocab) that cannot be learned overnight, so students should take their first SAT/ACT prep course 6 months before their first official test date.
We recommend that students take their first official test at the end of Year 12/Grade 11 (in April/May/June). If students feel they want a second chance at the test, they should take it at the beginning of Year 13/Grade 12 (In September/October/November/December). Never take either test more than twice (almost all Hong Kong students take the test three times or more).
One additional consideration, the SAT is unveiling a new version of the test in 2016. The new test is supposed to test less obscure vocabulary, more university-level mathematics, and reduce or eliminate the Writing section. However, the official changes to the SAT are being closely guarded, and we will only know exactly how the test has changed once the first round of exams has been administered. While we expect that the fundamental skills necessary for the SAT will not change dramatically, graduates in 2017 should consider taking the SAT this year to take advantage of the wealth of past exams that have been written in the same format.
Choosing a University
There are over 2000 four-year colleges and universities in the US, so the landscape of institutions for higher learning is rich with opportunities for students of all abilities and interests. Once a student has a rough idea of their SAT/ACT score, they can begin to search for universities at which their applications will be competitive.
Students should strongly consider what knowledge and skills they hope to attain from a university education, and look for schools that are strongest in those departments. A school that has a higher "ranking" does not mean that it is the best possible school for the student. Often times these rankings are manipulated by universities. So while a ranking may be a general guide of a university’s merits, students should evaluate universities on how it aligns with their passions.
Students who want to attend a top US university will not be admitted on the strength of their grades and scores alone. Universities are looking for individuals that are passionate and compassionate – students who imagine their life beyond academics.
Students should not logcommunity service or internships hours for the sake of improving their résumé. Students should find extracurricular activitiesthat help them discover what skills and experiences they hope to harvest from their university education. Thinking about this now helps students define their future ambitions, and present a most-polished vision to universities for consideration.
Start Writing Early
At the very latest, students need to begin choosing universities in the summer before their final year of secondary. Usually, the Common Application essay prompts are known by early summer and most universities release their own writing prompts by Aug 1st.
Once school resumes, many students do not give application essays their full attention because they are buried with schoolwork. This is a shame because the essays are the best opportunity for students to showcase their abilities and passions beyond grades and test scores. A student who starts writing early will have essays that are cleaner, clearer, and more thoughtful. Students should always have their essays reviewed by their peers, family, and someone familiar with the US application process.