O 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.

Why Rankings Don’t Matter

Every year about 4,000 Singaporean students go to the United States to study, the majority of which are undergraduate students looking to earn a Bachelor degree.  Of the over 3,000 accredited tertiary institutions in America, Singaporean students are highly concentrated at a handful of schools with the most popular schools often having several hundred Singaporeans.  In fact, Singaporean students are the most concentrated of any nation that sends a similar or larger number of students to the United States.  Not surprisingly, there is a high degree of correlation between the schools popular with Singaporeans and “highly ranked” schools; the highest ranked schools get the most applicants and several of the larger top schools (Cornell, U. Michigan, etc.) have the most Singaporeans.

Why is this the case?

There are a host of competing university surveys and rankings compiled by a number of publications that seek to rank universities based on a number of quantifiable attributes (acceptance rate, student-faculty ratio, yield rate, endowment per student, etc.).  While there is some modicum of utility in these rankings in that they do give a broad indication of which schools are generally better than others, students in Singapore tend to put an undue emphasis in a schools’ ranking rather than more appropriate criteria such as the quality of specific programs, location, general educational philosophy, etc.  While the local schools in Singapore are moving towards a “banded” ranking system, the idea of school league tables is one that is very familiar to a student who worked hard to get into the best primary school, secondary school and junior college based on PSLE and O’ Level and results.  It is only natural for students and parents to target schools near the top of the page rather than at the bottom.

This tendency is compounded somewhat by the fact that many students study in America on a government or corporate scholarship.  These scholarships often have limited lists of schools that are considered  “reputable”, often based on outdated rankings.  In fact, there are often a similar number of UK and Australian schools on the approved list as American schools.  It is good to give students a choice, but with only 40 Australian universities and about 140 in the UK versus over 3,000 in the US, it definitely cuts down on options for those looking to go the States.

What are the implications?

The broad result of this phenomenon is that fewer Singaporeans study in the United States.  Top schools receive thousands of applicants from excellent students for a handful of places.  A school with 1,500 first year students simply cannot accept 150 students from Singapore, even if they do meet the most stringent of admissions criteria.  American universities work very hard to have a diverse student body and it is impossible for them to have a large percentage of students from one geographical location.  This also applies to students at the international schools as they are usually put in the same basket of applicants as kids from the local system schools.  Simply put, it is much easier to get into a top university if you are a Native American living in Kansas than if you are a Singaporean living in Bedok.

So, many Singaporeans apply to the top schools, a few are accepted and the rest may end up at other overseas destinations or at one of the three public universities here.  There are hundreds of American universities that are not necessarily on the US News Top 50 that offer excellent programs and an outstanding learning environment.  Furthermore, such schools are eager to get Singaporean applicants to help their diversity numbers (part of some rankings) and it may be easier for students from Singapore to gain admissions. We see several key benefits to looking off the well-beaten path and applying to schools that are not popular with Singaporeans:

  • As stated above, your chances of getting in are better.

  • Many of these schools have excellent honors programs; effectively a school within a school for the top students that are often better than more well-known undergraduate programs because of increased access to faculty.

  • Many top professors at prestigious schools are more keen on penning their next book or conducting cutting-edge research than teaching students. Faculty at other universities are often more accessible.

  • While need-based financial aid for international students is nearly impossible to obtain, many schools have a sizable amount of merit-based aid that is awarded to the best applications in an effort to entice them to attend. Tuition waivers are a powerful incentive for students who are accepted to several schools when deciding where they will enroll.

  • Due to demographic factors in the United States, there are more applicants than ten years ago and all schools have been able to become more selective. The overall quality of all schools is increasing; a rising tide lifts all the boats.

Such schools are numerous and some are better than others.  In general, the rankings should be used as a starting point and then the numerous college search engines available on the internet should be used to further investigate.  The “Ivy League” is an athletic conference of old schools, nothing more.  There is a large number of schools eager for Singaporeans that have top programs.  Just because the school isn’t a popular destination doesn’t mean it isn’t a quality institution.  For instance you may have not heard of Williams College in the United States but back in 1966 a young Singaporean went there for graduate school, his name: Mr. Goh Chok Tong, the current Senior Minister.