US College Admissions

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4 Jul 2013 — / Education
Harvard campus in Boston

Everything You Need to Know About US College Admissions

Going to college in the United States is an intensely enriching, exciting four-year educational experience.  Your child will learn to think critically and creatively, be introduced to networks and professional opportunities to which they would not have access otherwise, and develop leadership skills, teamwork skills, and a truly open-minded perspective.  Getting admitted, however, requires navigating a complex, multifaceted process that differs from university admissions in most other countries.  Here, we’ll break it down into the essential components for your child, by first discussing the qualities admissions committees are looking for in applicants, and then outlining the specific requirements of the application process itself. While knowing the process and supporting your child throughout their applications is crucial, do remember that it is up to him/her to take ownership of the process – this is critical to standing out as a strong, genuine candidate before admissions committees.

What Are Admissions Committees Looking for in Applicants?

The best way to approach the US college admissions process is to think about the kind of student your child would become on campus – and the kind of student that colleges would want to join their school community.

Intellectual Curiosity

Let’s start with the classroom experience.  In the US, college students are encouraged to think independently and challenge their own perspectives as well as the ideas of others.  This typically involves a lot of classroom participation.  Rather than passively listening to lectures while taking notes, in classrooms at US colleges students ask and answer many questions, and debate concepts with each other as well as with the professor.  This dialogue often continues outside of the classroom as well, whether in a professor’s office during office hours, or over dinner in the cafeteria. So when college admissions committees review applications, they look to accept students who would contribute to this rigorous intellectual environment.

There is a multitude of ways secondary school students can engage actively in academics.  While high grades and scores on standardized tests are important to college admissions committees, applicants compete against many other academic high-achievers for spots at highly-ranked US colleges.  Thus, beyond just scoring well in tests, students need to demonstrate a genuine passion for different subjects.  This can be cultivated by students reading books that interest them outside of required class assignments, attending lectures and cultural events on topics they find fascinating, and choosing summer experiences that allow them to delve more deeply into academic subjects they like most.  Not only can this intellectual engagement be discussed in college application essays, teachers can also write about the depth of a student’s intellectual curiosity in recommendation letters.

While choosing a major is usually not required until your second year of college, admissions committees are interested in students who are passionate enough about learning, that they use their free time to explore a field (or few!) beyond what is available in secondary school.  Of course, in the spirit of academic exploration at US colleges, students can easily change their predicted fields of study once they are on campus.

Leadership and Initiative

At US colleges, the environment is just as lively outside the classroom as it is inside.  There is tremendous diversity of student organizations spanning academics, the arts, athletics, global cultures, politics, media, and community service.  Because these clubs are student-run, college admissions committees are looking for an indication on applications that your child will be the type of student who will make an impact on campus, rather than the type of student who will spend all day and night studying in the library.  Involvement in club activities is also a fantastic way to gain leadership and teamwork skills that will help your child get hired for a great job when they graduate college.

How can your child show their dream colleges that they’ll be their next great student leader?  Taking initiative both in and outside of secondary school is the best way to do this.  Rather than just joining clubs and attending meetings, organize an event or come up with a new, better way to do something at his/her school.  If the school doesn’t offer a club that interests them, they may consider starting one.  While some secondary schools in Hong Kong don’t offer as many clubs as others, there are ways to get actively involved outside of school, for example through community service, sports, and music.

Community Involvement

Finally, US colleges admit students who look beyond themselves, and devote their time and talents to make a difference in their surrounding community.  Many clubs and even class projects at US colleges are dedicated to helping people in need in the college’s own neighborhood, such as by tutoring at a local school, or raising funds or providing business planning support for local charities.  US colleges and the students that attend them care deeply about giving back to the city or town in which the campus is located.  Whether your child is advocating for children, the elderly, the environment, education, or health awareness, committing themselves to a cause about which they feel genuinely passionate here in Hong Kong or elsewhere indicates their desire to improve the world around them.

The Importance of Choosing the Right College for You

Each student’s experience will vary greatly between US colleges because they are all so different from each other, so do think carefully and discuss with your child about the kind of environment in which they want to spend an important four years of their life.  At a big university they’ll be on campus with tens of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students, and they’ll need to be proactive in developing relationships with professors due to large class sizes.  There will be an abundance of courses, clubs, libraries, research projects, eating options, and campus events from which they can choose.  At a smaller liberal arts college devoted to undergraduate teaching, they may be invited to a professor’s house for dinner, and develop close relationships with faculty and fellow students, which can enhance the learning experience.

Meanwhile, the social environments can similarly differ: at some colleges, students may spend a lot of free time off campus exploring museums, restaurants, and shops with their new friends.  At other colleges, the social scene may focus more on sporting events and parties on campus.  Colleges also have different “personalities,” depending on whether students tend to be, for example, liberal, moderate, conservative, religious, socially activist, or athletic.  Your child is most likely to succeed academically and maximize his/her college experience if they feel happy in their surroundings, so it’s wise to start researching colleges several months before they start their applications.

Components of the College Application

Specific requirements vary among colleges, but the majority ask for the following: secondary school transcript; standardized test scores from the SAT Reasoning Test or ACT; TOEFL; one teacher recommendations and one college counselor recommendation; a list of extracurricular, summer and work experiences; and anywhere from one up to several essays per college.  Certain colleges also interview prospective students and require SAT Subject Tests.

Most colleges in the US now accept the Common Application, which is an online application form through which your child can submit information such as personal and family data, a list of extracurricular, summer and work experiences, and an approximately 650 word Personal Statement (essay) to all of the colleges to which they apply.  Each college also requires an Addendum that contains additional essay topics specific to that college.  These Addendums can be accessed through the online Common Application portal, simplifying the submission process.  However, this does mean that the application process involves a lot of essay writing.  Meanwhile, your child’s secondary school will be responsible for submitting transcripts and teacher recommendations.

Most college applications are due in January, and admissions decisions are sent out by April 1.  While this is a long cycle that requires much planning, research, writing, and revising, the excitement students will feel when acceptance letters arrive via email more than compensates for the effort and dedication.  And as college admissions consultants here at Apply Ivy, we’re here to advise you and your child along every step of the process!

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