International applicants to U.S. colleges and universities face unique challenges. Standardized tests are not offered as frequently, test prep is not widely available outside the U.S., and the entire process is more complex than it is in most other countries. Elizabeth and Josh have teamed off to offer these ten tips on testing, essays, and school choice for students thinking about applying to the US from abroad.
1. Don't Overestimate the SAT/ACT
In many countries, a single exam -- lasting three days in some countries -- determines students' college placement. Grades, extracurricular activities, application essays, and teacher recommendations count for little. The SAT and ACT are modest tests by comparison. The tests last only four hours, and, unlike most other entrance exams, students can take them multiple times. They aren't even the most important part of the US application. They're rarely as difficult as they seem, and they evaluate students on just a handful of skills. The best reason not to dedicate too much time and energy to testing is that colleges value many things other than the SAT, and they're looking for students who approach academics gracefully, not mechanically.
2. Don't Underestimate the SAT/ACT
A low score -- one well below a university's average -- often leads to rejection. A high score helps, of course, but it never guarantees admission. So, students should take the SAT seriously. But they shouldn't over-do it, and they shouldn't stress out unduly. Students should check their target universities' average SAT/ACT scores and try to be in the same range.
3. Plan Early
In America, almost everyone takes the SAT at the same time, and there's a lot of mutual support. An international applicant might be on her own. As well, application deadlines for US colleges often come far earlier than deadlines elsewhere do. Students need to anticipate deadlines well in advance and plan accordingly. Usually that means working backwards six to twelve months from the November 1 early decision/early action deadline or the January 1 regular application deadline.
Students should take note of the SAT's and ACT's international test dates and make sure that they can take it two or three times. They should register as soon as possible. Testing centers often fill up, especially overseas.
4. Study Smart
The SAT and ACT often strike international students as mysterious. Students might not have learned the material in school, and they might not even be familiar with multiple-choice testing. In some countries, students often resort to furious, time-consuming memorization of test questions. In other countries, they resign themselves to low scores and disappointing admissions results.
It doesn't have to be this way. Scores aren't arbitrary: every student has a unique score profile. A diagnostic exam can help students discern exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are. When they know their weaknesses, they can address them through smart, efficient studying.
5. Know the Tests
The SAT is the most well known of the US college entrance exams, but the ACT is a fully equivalent substitute. They have significant differences; some students will have greater success on one than the other. The ACT not as widely available in some countries, but it's worth looking into. Students should also decide whether to take Subject Tests, which are required by a few highly selective universities. Finally, check each school's TOEFL policy.
6. Stay positive!
Many students view standardized testing as an ordeal and a barrier. They shouldn't. Students who set reasonable goals will find that the SAT offers a tremendous opportunity. Many other elements of a student's application -- such as their grades -- are immutable, but students have control over their test scores. They therefore should view exams as a chance to strengthen their applications.
7. Application Essays
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Common Application essay -- the single 250-650-word essay required by the Common Application, used by more than 500 schools. Please note: Several state universities do not use the Common App -- and require other essays -- including the Universities of California, Wisconsin, and Texas; conservatories and other art schools often do not use it either. Beyond the Common App essay, many colleges require additional essays and statements, from 500 words to 25 words. There are no right answers; the schools are trying to get to know you.
How much do the essays matter? They are one piece of the puzzle that reveals who you are and whether you will thrive at a school. An impressive application to a top school can be marred by mediocre essays. Terrific essays can help a student on the fence. But, like great test scores, even great essays cannot salvage a student who just doesn't make the academic cut.
8. Getting Ready to Write
College application essays are reflective and often personal in nature. You probably have little to no practice in this during high school. Learning how to write these essays in the short period of time when submitting applications can be daunting. You can prepare in advance -- years in advance, if you like -- by reading and writing beyond your assigned texts.
Speaking of texts: Text messaging, or doing much of anything else on your phone, will not prepare you for writing meaningful college application essays. Reading literature and good journalism -- whether it's fiction, history, or memoir -- will help. Keeping a diary and reflecting on your experiences will too. And so will reading a good book or two about writing. Some of our favorites: Sin and Syntax; On Writing Well; Shrunk and White; and the Best American Essays of the 20th Century. (See Josh's HuffPost piece on Essential Reading.)
9. Choosing Colleges
Students in the U.S. can fairly easily visit many schools, but international students have fewer opportunities. We are especially fond of two guidebooks, one written by students for students, available on Kindle, and put out every year by the Yale Daily News, The Insider's Guide to the Colleges. It examines 330 schools with lively, informed and sometimes irreverent descriptions.It's a terrific place to start looking. Though not available on Kindle, The Best 378 Colleges, by Princeton Review, is packed with essential information.
10. The Right Attitude
Applying to college from the U.S. and abroad requires time, patience, diligence, and a great deal of concentrated work over a long period. There is little instant gratification. The reward comes long after you've done the work. Don't wait until the night before -- or the month before -- to create a game plan. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
Elizabeth Benedict's Don't Sweat the Essay provides essay guidance to students around the world. She is a bestselling novelist, former Ivy League writing professor, and editor of the New York Times bestselling anthology, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.
Follow Josh Stephens on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jrstephens310
Follow Elizabeth Benedict on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ElizBenedict
The cachet of a US college degree has never been greater. This, despite economic growth and new opportunity in emerging markets and Americans’ handwringing over the state of their education. Last year, almost 750,000 students arrived on US shores. Most pursued studies in business and engineering, and more than half arrived from just seven countries, all but two in Asia.
International students offer American campuses enormous social and financial benefits but they also present universities with great challenges. Professors have to adapt teaching styles and wrestle with different definitions of plagiarism. Campus administrators must contend with students arriving with different educational assumptions, social mores and inadequate language skills. International students, in turn, are often bewildered by a different classroom dynamic, perplexed by a system that requires classroom participation, and alienated by a cultural gap with their classmates.
Standing guard between these new campus realities and the army of eager prospective students are admissions officers who have to evaluate international applications. In some ways, it is business as usual—there are always new institutional goals to consider in evaluating applications, and internationalization is just the latest. But admissions officers, for whom holistic evaluation and individual fit are at the core of their work, know that almost 60% of Chinese students, for example, use agents to help them navigate the admission process. For a fee that can be less than $5,000 but also as high as $25,000 (often with an additional cost per application and a percentage of any scholarship money a student receives), the agents’ help ranges from preparing visa applications to the wholesale writing of essays and letters, and even taking TOEFL and SAT tests on students’ behalf.
In a study published in the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Journal of Admission, a Chinese student described how an agent “wrote the recommendation letters for me. I just need to provide three names of my high school teachers or college instructors, and he took care of the rest … I don’t know what’s in the letter.” Similarly, a much-discussed report prepared for American colleges by the consulting company Zinch China, found that 90% of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations; nearly three-quarters have other people write their personal essays; half forge high-school transcripts; nearly a third lie on financial-aid forms; and 10% list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive.
Many Chinese students “will have rarely, if ever, been given free reign to write a thoughtful essay,” notes Jilly Warner, the coordinator of international admissions at the University of Vermont. Instead, they are “used to having all important aspects of their lives handled for them by doting parents.”
Their prep work starts early. Joyce Slater Mitchell, an educational consultant in China and author of two books aimed at Asian applicants, received a note on her sina.com blog from the parents of a six-year-old saying, “We want him to go to Harvard and need to know what we should do so that his TOEFL and IELTS will be in the 100 percent category by the time he is 12 years old.” The TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language, and IELTS, International English Language Testing System, are international standard language tests that have become college admissions requirements for non-native speakers.
Chinese parents, writes Zinch China chairman Tom Melcher, “make American helicopter parents look laid back.”
A student from China:
“As a teenager living in this century with advancing technology and a fast changing pace, I agree that critical thinking is very important … I am trained to think more critically and intensively, make decisions that integrate my intelligence and character, and look into matters from more creative angles.”
The college essay is in many ways at the heart of an American college application, and the terrain on which cultural differences play out most visibly. Many students are applying from countries with university systems in which the personal insights of teenagers are simply not part of the admissions equation, and they, as much as their parents, have a hard time appreciating that admission officers are interested in those perspectives. This can result in essays that very often miss the point of the exercise, referencing—in the words of one UK admissions official—wonky concepts as “emergent properties of situations” and “individual-based, capitalistic behavior.” Most colleges require self-reflective statements on personal experiences from which they hope to gauge a student’s intellectual depth and social fit. Instead, they will often get international essays devoted to topics such as the Indian real estate market, China’s global superiority or the Greek euro crisis, all of which inevitably fail to capture their interest—or their applicants’ true selves.
Another applicant from China wrote:
“Like large firms, besides the goal of earning money for the company and shareholders, we too should also use the resources available and reputations developed, to save more lives and help more people in the world.”
Of course, admissions officers have always read international applications with a different game book. The understated phrasing of foreign recommendation letters contrast with the exuberant exaggeration of American teachers; the essay evokes a degree of self-absorption that many international students find uncomfortable; and European students are taught to write in a discursive style ill-suited to a 500-word statement (“I have many things to say about my life. Many things I did, many things I am very proud of but nothing that you haven’t heard of before,” wrote a student from France). But such “shortcomings,” unique to students schooled in different philosophical and educational environments, can help make applications distinctive. As more international applications are generated with the help of third parties, over-involved parents and an abundance of online advice, however, they can increasingly seem as homogenous as domestic applications. Brown University’s admissions dean James Miller says the applicant from Shanghai now offers the same extra-curricular activities as the student from Sacramento, and the senior from Delhi will as earnestly lay claim to creativity and compassion as the one from Dallas.
A student from Europe:
“My training has a rigorous schedule and occupies a big portion of my time. I must manage my time with schoolwork very carefully so that I do not fall behind. I intend to play during my time at the university.”
When they impart a unique voice and sense of place in their applications, international students can offer American colleges evidence of the rich diversity they will bring to campus. But as admissions officers find themselves spending more time fretting about widespread cheating and the role of third parties in preparing applications, they have less room to marvel at the extraordinary journey of a villager from Nepal or Zambia. Their skepticism and exasperation may seem unfair—but it is less so than a foreign student stranded at great cost to her family at an institution for which she is ill-suited and ill-prepared.
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