A level

American Admissions: Assumptions and Gaffes

We field many questions from anxious students and parents regarding the American university admissions system and the SAT.  We noticed that many questions asked and decisions made were founded on assumptions that are not only wrong but also may severely worsen one’s chances of getting into a quality school.  Here are some examples, with many more to come:

I’m a shoo-in for the Ivy League:

Columbia last year admitted only 9% of all applicants, and only 6% of those applying from Singapore.  Almost all of these applicants are talented, have strong test scores and good grades and are active in their respective communities.  Given the hyper-competition for places in top schools, no one applicant is a shoo-in for any top school.

I’m applying to MIT, Cornell, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Michigan…

…and so is everyone else in Singapore.  Since nearly every selective school want to ensure diversity among their student body, they will admit only a certain number of students from Singapore or any other specific location regardless of the quality of the applicant pool.  You will have a better chance of admission if you apply to schools that are not on the traditional and popular Singaporean destination list.

No backup:

See above.  If you are determined to study in America, but apply only to the most competitive schools, there is a good chance you will not get in anywhere.  Do an honest assessment and, as a backup, apply to two or more schools that offer quality yet don’t get 150 applicants from Singapore.

I can’t apply until I get my A/O level results:

Most good American universities are aware of the Singaporean education system and know that students do not get their final exam results until well after the university admissions deadlines.  Therefore, they will accept prelims and will admit students provided their final results are not significantly worse.  Don’t slack off after applying though as schools have been known to rescind admissions offers to students who get sloppy!

Good SAT, bad A’ levels? No problem!

Actually, there could be a problem.  The SAT is not the equivalent of the A’ levels in America; it is one of several admissions criteria that universities consider.   There are many students that do well on the SAT and the A’ levels and, all things being equal, they will have a better chance of admission than those with good SATs and bad A’ levels.

I need a 2250 on the SAT in order to get into Stanford:

SAT scores posted on school websites serve only to indicate what the average admitted student scored on the test.  It does not serve as a minimum accepted score.  Admissions officers look at the SAT score in addition to all the other components required in the application.  That being said, since the SAT is not the only thing schools look at when deciding to admit a student, we have seen cases in which students with an SAT score below the median or average - but with excellent qualities in other areas - get into top schools, while some students with perfect SAT scores and straight A’s get rejected because they were not active in other activities and interviewed poorly.

I wrote 800 words for my 500-word university application essay:

Word limits exist for a reason: to help the extremely busy admissions officer assess applicants in a timely manner.  Most essays are at most 500 words so that it can fit on one page and be read easily.  If the admissions officer comes across and essay that significantly exceeds the asked-for length, your application will be viewed negatively.  In fact, they may discard your application and move on to the next applicant.

Answer the freakin’ question!

If you are writing an essay in response to a question asked, be it in the SAT Writing section or in a university application, make sure you follow the prompts, understand the details completely and respond directly to any questions asked.  You may have in the past written a kick-butt essay about your championship win in a televised science competition, and want to use it as one of your essays, but don’t make the mistake of making only a few superficial changes and attempting to use it as your admissions essay response to a question about the importance of diversity in a university environment.  If the essay question asks you whether or not tragedy can serve as a motivator, make sure you do not refer to the time your maid went on vacation and you had to cook and clean on your own (we’ve seen this!).

If you are guilty of any of these, you are in need of guidance.  Be sure to contact the United States Education Information Center (USEIC) who will put you on track to achieving admissions success.

Frequent Questions Answered

With help from the United Stated Education Information Center, we have come up with a list of the most frequent questions about American tertiary education and here we aim to address them to help foster understanding of the wealth of educational opportunities that exists in the United States.

Q: Is this University “recognized” in Singapore?

A: The Singapore government does not formally recognize or not recognize any schools outside of Singapore.  The broad guidance is that so long as the school is regionally accredited by one of the six regional accreditation bodies in the United States then it is a bone fide institution.  For those looking to go into engineering, medicine, dentistry, architecture, or law then you will need to check with the professional bodies in Singapore that keep lists of approved schools.

Q: Is this university “good”?

A: With over 3,400 universities in the United States and numerous competing rankings publications this is a complex question.  The short answer is that some universities are better than others and all universities have specific strengths and weaknesses.  When choosing which schools to apply to, the strengths of specific programs at the school must be taken into account as well as the general “name brand”.  For example, a student looking to study media and communications would be better going to a school like Syracuse that has an exceptional program even though it is isn’t in anyone’s general top 10 list.  Generally speaking, so long as it is a regionally accredited four-year college then the education will be sound, otherwise it will loose its accreditation status!

Q: Do I need to take the TOEFL/SAT?

A: Yes.  The SAT Reasoning Test is required for nearly every university and the SAT Subject Tests are required for some of the elite schools.  Taking the TOEFL is always a good idea as many Americans do not realize that Singapore is indeed not a province of China and English is the medium of instruction.

Q: Can I get “exemptions” for my A’ Levels or Poly Diploma?

A: Generally speaking, yes.  However, the amount of credits or exemptions awarded will vary widely from school to school with the universities setting their own policies that change often.  The better the school is, the fewer exemptions will be awarded.  If you are in doubt regarding a specific school, then check with the admissions office on what  the present policy is.

Q: Can I start at one university and then transfer to a “better” school?

A: In theory, yes; in practice, no.  The best schools normally only accept as many transfer students as they loose to attrition and drop outs.  Thus, a school like Columbia University will only accept a handful of transfer students each year from hundreds of applications.  Large state-funded schools  have a mandate to accept transfer students from the community college system but local residents will be given preference over foreign students.

Q: Can I go to university with just my O’ Levels?

A: Yes.  Students with strong O’ Levels and good SAT scores can gain admission into many excellent schools.  However, the Ivy League schools and those in the University of California system require A’ Levels or a poly diploma for students in the local system.

Q: Are private universities better than public universities?

A: No.  Some public schools are among the best in the world and some private schools are horrible.

Do I need to take the SAT: Reasoning Test, SAT: Subject Test and TOEFL?

The SAT: Reasoning Test is required for admission into nearly every school in the United States as well as some of the universities in Singapore.  If a school says that they do not require the SAT: Reasoning Test then you should investigate further – does the school not require the test because of valid reservations about its efficacy or because they will accept just anyone?

The SAT: Reasoning Test should be taken a couple times at the least and the universities receive a report with all of your scores, with most taking the highest Math and highest Verbal scores, even if these were achieved on different test dates.  It is not irregular for American students to take the SAT: Reasoning Test three or four times.  Singaporean students should take the test at least twice by the time they sit their ‘A’ levels.  Obviously, it is best to avoid taking the SAT when you are burdened with a major load of other academic commitments.

The SAT: Subject Tests are one-hour long tests on individual subjects.  While the SAT: Reasoning Test is broad-based, the SAT: Subject Test are specialized.  Most of the top schools in the United States require students to have up to three SAT: Subject test results in addition to the SAT: Reasoning Test.  These tests can be taken on the same dates as the SAT: Reasoning Test and up to three subject tests can be taken on one sitting.  However, you cannot take both on the same test date so be sure to plan accordingly.

Top schools ask applicants to take the Math 1C or 2C and one to two of any of the other tests – which normally would include at least one of the sciences (Biology, Chemistry or Physics).  The science tests are easier than ‘O’ levels, so fear not.

Some students are tempted to take both the Math 1C and Math 2C tests.  The Math 2C test is harder than the Math 1C and you should just take one or the other depending on your strength in Math.

Others are tempted to take the Mandarin SAT Subject test as they have studied it as a mother tongue.  Don’t do this!  It will have the undesired effect of making you look lazy.

Testtakers Singapore runs preparation programs for the SAT: Reasoning Test and conducts individual tutoring for the English Literature and Math tests.

The TOEFL shouldn’t be required for Singaporean students as English is the medium of instruction.  However, it isn’t a bad idea to take it just to get it out of the way (some schools are ignorant of the Singaporean education system).  The TOEFL is intended for non-native English speakers and should be a simple test for most people.  The TOEFL can be taken year-around as it is a computer-based test.