Recent News from American Universities...

For those following American university admissions, there have been three noteworthy news stories recently.  Taken in isolation, each might indicate that “top” American universities are getting nearly impossible to get into.  However, when viewed together in context, they indicate that American universities are getting better across the board.  Here are the stories:

1)   The SAT is changing!

Test takers will face a new SAT from May 2016.  The changes were finally clarified with some details on question type and test format, and were hardly unexpected.  The SAT has been losing ground to the ACT for years and the new test is a bit more “ACT-like” at first glance.  The new version will have less arcane vocabulary, more questions on contextual usage and rhetorical style, data analysis, a more straightforward but conceptually more difficult math section, and a longer (optional) essay.  If you or your child is in the class of 2015 or 2016 there is nothing to worry about here as the new test will only come into play for the class of 2017.  If your child is in the class of 2017 then make sure your son or daughter works hard in school, tries to develop a reading habit (Hunger Games is better than nothing!), and do  nothing whatsoever SAT-specific until Junior year.  Worrying about the test before a full version is even released places undue pressure on students and takes away from all the time and energy which can spent doing more interesting and rewarding things.

 2)   Student gets into all 8 Ivy League schools!

A very bright and well-rounded student named Kwasi Enin from Long Island applied to all 8 Ivies and was surprisingly accepted by all of them.  Remember that the Ivy League is just an athletic conference of 8 old schools in the North East, but full credit to this young man.  He was clearly an exceptional student but he also was a varsity athlete, sang, played multiple instruments in the orchestra, acted in school plays, was in student government, and in general epitomizes the type of applicant that top schools strive to attract.  He was in the top 2 percent of the class (not valedictorian) and scored a very strong 2250 on his SAT (not the 2300-plus that parents often think is a prerequisite for any top school).

3)   Stanford admit rate hits 5%

Joined by many peer schools, Stanford was the first large undergraduate college to have a 5% admit rate (5.07% actually, but who is counting decimal places?).  Out of 42,000 applicants, 1 in 20 got in – these numbers are probably worse for students from Singapore as Stanford is perennially a top choice.  What isn’t immediately reported is that the number of applicants four years ago at Stanford was about 32,000.  Top schools haven’t gotten markedly better in the last 10 years, the number of applicants to them has grown tremendously.  It is easier (but still onerous) to apply to American universities and all students are applying to more schools.  Emerging Asia also has its eyes on top American universities; China sent 235,600 students to America in 2012-3, up 29%.  Add to this the American demographic phenomenon of the “baby boomer bounce” and top schools simply can be much more selective than they used to be.  Admit rates are a core component to the silly college rankings that come out each year so it is rare to hear a university telling a student not to apply.  Finally, a US$90 nonrefundable admissions fee paid by 42,000 applicants turns into real money, real quickly.

The good news!

With the SAT changing, news of a student accepted by all 8 Ivies, Stanford (and others) are getting even difficult to get into, what is the good news?  Quite simply, taken together these stories indicate that the American university system is in rude health.  A change to the SAT means that schools will look much harder at other factors during the transition period to the new test and these things you have more control over.  These other factors are clearly what helped Kwasi Enin and the lucky few who got into Stanford and peer schools.  To stand out from the crowd of top GPA and top SAT/ACT students, students need to embrace sports, music, drama, chess club, whatever, to set them apart.  Harvard states that 80% of applicants would do just fine at Harvard, and a good 74% of them aren’t accepted and go to another great school.  As a result of this nearly all American universities have been able to be more selective and the level of student and instruction keeps getting better every year.  Have a look outside silly top 50 rankings at schools that are a good fit and please, do something useful with your life over the summer holidays other than test prep.

The University 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 (that means you should groom yourself and dress business casual). 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 the others.

From Study in America: University Admissions Timeline – 2014 Edition

Note that this timeline serves as a general guide for Grade 11 students with June IB exams, Grade 12 students with November IB exams or for students beginning JC2. Circumstances vary, so always consult your university advisor first and foremost if questions and issues arise, especially about when you should take the SAT:

Admissions Timeline

Admissions Timeline

From Voice of America’s The Student Union Blog: 10 Links for International Students

TheStudentUnionlogoFeatured in the October-November Study in America Newsletter, take a look at the Voice of America's The Student Union Blog.  It offers a nice insider perspective on issues related to overseas study in the USA.  This particular blog entry offers very useful reference information links that provide great insight on what to expect every step of the way in the admissions process - up until stepping into the classroom on the first day.  See the blog post here.

Behind-the-Scenes University Research on the Interwebs

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When students decide to start looking for information about universities in the USA, most begin by visiting the schools’ websites, or by emailing requests for hard copy brochures and other marketing materials (many receive unsolicited information way beforehand once they take the PSAT/NMSQT).  Note the term “marketing materials”, for although they will provide some basic information about school culture, they are largely bland, indistinct, and serve to position the school in the most positive and unblemished light possible. As was mentioned in previous issues of Study In America, students and parent should view such brochures and particular elements of schools’ websites with a degree of skepticism, for universities are essentially businesses seeking to increase application numbers for financial security purposes, or to gain higher rankings from popular media publications like US News and World Report.

We often advise students to tap into as many networks as possible in order to find recent graduates from their current schools who are currently studying in the USA. These students generally do not have a particular agenda and are usually happy to speak to prospective students about their university and student life (the success of the SPH/Experiences Education fair each July proves testimony to this fact). However, for some, finding such students may be difficult, or some students may be too busy or shy to approach them.  For those who fit such descriptions (or for anyone, really), they may find social media as a valuable tool for getting their information needs.

Most people are aware of popular forms of social media like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.  There are, in fact resources available within these portals that provide useful information on universities.  U.S. schools are increasingly wise to this form of media, however, and have created YouTube video clips, Facebook Pages and Twitter feeds from faculty and administrators for marketing purposes, ultimately in order to access and win over prospective students.  Moreover, much like the content found within universities’ websites and brochures, such content is often deceptively rosy in nature, and may provide little insight as to what the school environment and culture are truly like.

For those who desire such behind‐the‐scene views, they should source sites created by independent contributors that feature views from students who are either currently going to or have graduated from schools of interest.

The following sites provide potentially valuable information (Note: Study In America maintains a neutral stance regarding these sites.  We leave such judgments to the viewer):

Visitor Beware!

Although much of the information provided is valuable and truthful, some information may be of questionable value: students may have transitory and oft‐shifting opinions and axes to grind/personal vendettas against their schools (or rival schools, especially those that rejected them for admission).

Also, a great many of the contributors are American, and they will offer views and opinions that may not reflect the international and cultural diversity that the universities possess, and which may appeal to your needs.