American Admissions: The Admissions Interview

The admissions interview is an extremely important part of the application process to American universities.  Besides the application essay, the interview is probably the only way to get the university admission office to get a sense of your character, personality, passions and concerns.  Most elite universities make an enormous effort to interview every undergraduate applicant to their school regardless of where the applicant lives.  In Singapore, as in almost every country, applicant interviews to American universities are facilitated through school visits, education fairs and alumni volunteers.  Since competition for top university places is, in general, more fierce in Singapore than in the U.S., applicants located outside the U.S. must place a high importance on making the best impression possible in order to separate themselves positively from their peers.  Here, we highlight a few of many suggestions to make that winning impression and get the most out of your interview.

Know the school:

A university interviewer is aware that applicants apply to many other schools.  However, he or she wants to see that the applicant is particularly interested in attending the university, and for the “right” reasons.  Stating that a school is prestigious is NOT a good enough reason.  Explain why: research the website and hardcopy brochures.  Know the types of majors and courses offered and what departments (faculties) and professors are famous for their research and teaching.  Find out what qualities of the school sets it apart from others.  Even more important, through questions and comments, you should make it clear that you have done the research.

Know thyself:

Hopefully you did a written self-assessment before you even started the application process.  With your self-assessment, researching schools becomes more tailored and less exhaustive.  Do you know which teaching style, academic and extracurricular activities interest you.  Have you thrived in small sized classes?  Enjoyed doing volunteer work? If so, what kind of work?  Do you thrive in situations when surrounded by students with similar or differing backgrounds and perspectives?  See whether the school website and brochures (or third-party analysis of the school) answers these questions.  If not, be sure to raise them during the interview.

Set an agenda:

You should have a list of questions that you want answered, but are not easily found on the school website. All interviewers are closely involved with the school, either as an employee of the school, or as an alumnus or alumna, or both.  They serve as a rich resource of information about the school and can often answer the not-frequently-asked questions you compiled while doing your research.  Most importantly, market yourself as best as you can.  Have a list of core aspects about you that you want the interviewer to know before the interview ends.  Prove to the university that you and your interests are a fit for the school and it’s environment while showing your academic and non-academic uniqueness.  These attributes contribute to the diversity that is sought for and cherished by American universities.  Diversity, a somewhat misunderstood concept, does not refer solely to racial and ethnic identity, but to what you, as a student, can uniquely contribute to the school community.

Be professional:

The interview is casual, but the interaction with the interviewer before and after the interview should not be.  Play it safe and treat the admissions interview process similar to that of a job interview. Emails written in all lowercase lettering with SMS-style language leave a poor impression.  Any emails to the interviewer should be written with the principles of standard written English.  Check for grammar and spelling mistakes (especially the interviewer’s name!) before sending your message.  Defer to the interviewer as to the place and time of the interview, unless you have a compelling reason. Sending a follow-up message thanking the interviewer after the meeting sets you apart from others.

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.

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.