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The US has some of the best universities in the world. If you were to look up any ranking, you would probably see more American colleges on the list of top 20 or 30 than of any other country. The private nature and funding resources of some of colleges there means that the investment they can pour into one student is immense.

Beyond academics, US colleges allow for a more personalized approach to education. When you apply to the UK, Singapore or even Canada, you have to apply to a specific major course. In the US, you can choose whether you will do Math, Literature, Economics or Political Science much later in your undergraduate career.

US universities are also known to prioritize student culture over some others. Alumni of US colleges maintain and feel a strong bond with the university and their classmates, even if they were not from the same major. This contrasts with stories about some UK universities, where students lead less integrated and more independent lives.

The strong campus culture also means you will learn a lot not just from the classroom, but from a great range of campus clubs, extra-curricular activities, internships. Universities encourage students to take their learning outside of class, and usually provide a immense amount of career guidance, research and job opportunities.

At Prep Zone, we hope to provide you with the basics of US College applications so that you are more prepared even if you are in Grade 10 or 11.

Part 1: The Application Process

Most students are understandably most concerned about the application process. Indeed, applications to the US can be confusing, time consuming, and require a great amount of preparation much before your final year of high school.

At Prep Zone, the average student joins our consulting service early in Year 11, but some begin even at Year 10 to maximise chances.

So, what does the application look like?

The US employs a unique way to assess applicants called holistic admissions.

Primarily, holistic admissions means that the student’s application is viewed in context.

US universities, unlike in the UK, do not have minimum requirements, cut offs for applicants. Are your grades slightly lower than the average applicant’s to Cornell? That may not be a disqualifying factor if your extra-curricular profile is excellent. Is your SAT not stellar? Well, if you have a perfect IB score, that can make up for it.

While holistic admissions is revolutionary to the admissions process by allowing students to make mistakes and focus not just on grades, it has its cons.

For the most part, it makes the process confusing: how can I truly know if I will get into a university?

The US admissions process has slightly less certainty than the UK, where they use minimum grades to decide. As such, we recommend students apply not just to reach, but also to target and safety universities.

But let’s cut to the chase. What do universities evaluate and like to see in students? There are three main areas that will make up your chances of admission: Academics, Profile, and the actual Application

3 Key Areas For US College Application

Area #1: Academics – Grades & Tests

Naturally, academic achievement is the bedrock of any university application. However, US Colleges are not purely grades focused. In the UK, almost 70% of your application can be determined by final grades. In Singapore, that percentage can rise to almost 100.

American universities, on the other hand, look at grades slightly differently.

First, they do not consider your final or predicted scores only. They will look at your transcripts from the last 4 years of your schooling to see the trend. Have you been improving? Are there inconsistencies in your performance, and have they occurred often? All these aspects will be taken into consideration.

What do universities consider good grades? We can look at top, mid and third tier universities:

  • US GPA: 3.8-4.0 (top tier) | 3.3-3.6 (mid-tier) | 2.9 – 3.5 (third tier)
  • IB: 40+ (top tier) | 35-39 (mid-tier) | 30-35 (third tier)
  • A Levels: AAAA (top tier) | AAB-ABB (mid-tier) | ABB-BBB (third tier)

Standardized testing is also a crucial component of your application. While there are some colleges that made SAT or ACT option (especially during COVID), it is always beneficial to submit a good score to improve your standing.

What are good test scores?

  • SAT: 1500-1550 (Ivy League and top tier) | 1350-1450 (mid-tier) | 1200-1350 (third tier)
  • ACT: 33-36 (top tier) | 30-33 (mid tier) | 27-29 (third tier)

Academics, typically, paint only a third of the picture. If you are an engineering or science student, universities might prioritize academic achievement over other things. For arts, humanities students, profile might be more important.

The most important thing to remember is: there are no minimum scores required. At the same time, even perfect scorers can get rejected from top universities if their application and profile are weak.

Area #2: Profile – Volunteering & CCA

A student’s great profile can make or break their application. We frequently see average test scorers get into top universities like UC Berkeley because of their outstanding national or international achievements in sports, art, or other activities.

Students can improve their profile by adding more co-curricular activities in and outside school, participating in sports, volunteering, and engaging in professional opportunities such as internships. Some academic opportunities can come under profile, such as summer schools, extra classwork, research and Olympiads.

You may think: are some activities better than others? The answer is a confident no. Universities do not want all students to be the same, and thus they do not hold some activities like debate to higher standard than others like band.

So how do universities determine that I have a good profile? They look at depth, breadth, and X factor.

  • Breadth: Universities like to see whether you are interested in many different things, rather than you focusing on just one activity. People with multiple interests or talents are preferred. Do you do sport, MUN, and art? That will make you stand out. Are you a science student? Dance or journalism could add a lot to your profile.
  • Depth: Universities want students who are active participants, not passive members. If you are part of a club or CCA, make sure you pitch ideas, organize events, and even run for leadership positions. Achievements can be important here.
  • X factor: What is the X factor? No one knows! It is not one thing for any specific students. Universities are looking for students who stand out and have something that is unique and memorable about them. Perhaps you were a student activist? Or maybe you have an interesting family background? Those could make you more memorable to the admissions committee.

Compared to other regions, US universities value profile almost as much as they do academics. This means that while you are in high school, you cannot simply lock yourself in a room and study. Grades 10-12 are there to accumulate interesting experiences and build your profile.

Area #3: The Application – Recommendations, Essays & Interviews

Things like profile and academics are activities students do naturally in high school. While it takes time to plan it, they are lot less deliberate than this last aspect of your admissions chances – the application itself.

The US is notorious for their challenging and time-consuming application. While in UK, Canada or Singapore students write around 1 essay and outline their activities in a few sentences, the US wants you to do more.

The main application deadlines vary by university, but most have the final deadlines for submission in the first half of January. Students who want to apply to a college early can do so by November 1st, and they will receive decisions in December.

Firstly, remember that you will need recommendations. At a minimum, we advise students to think of getting 3: 1 school college counsellor recommendation, and 2 academic teacher recommendations. Ideally, these teachers taught you an advanced class in a subject you indicated interest in (if you have at all).

As such, remember to tell your school early!

The most important part of your application, however, will be the essays. If you are applying to 10 universities, the number of essays you’d have to produce can be quite a lot. Here are some examples:

  • The Common App Essay: This essay is part of the Common App application, used by more than 80% of American colleges. The essay is 650 words minimum, and it can be on almost any topic – from a challenge you’ve overcome to an idea you debated. This essay will be seen by ALL your universities on the Common App system.
  • The Supplement: The College Supplement is specific to any university. When you decide which college you want to apply to and put in your list, they will ask you to fill in an application specific to that university only. Some universities like Stanford ask you to write more than 3 long essays, while others, like New York University (NYU), only have one.Topics can range from very creative (What can actually be divided by zero? – University of Chicago) to specific and argumentative (Why do you want to study your major at X university).
  • Independent Applications: Some universities have their own applications that are not linked to the Common App. They will likely require more essays. These universities include University of California or MIT.

So, if you apply to at least 5 universities, you might end up having to write 12-18 essays at the very least. A lot of the essay material students use come from their life experiences and profile, but it is also important to showcase creativity, uniqueness, and a strong ability to write well. Most Prep Zone students start crafting their essays at least in June or July before their last year in high school, so they can be ready by the January deadlines.

Finally, there are a few more things that can be a part of your application that depend on universities. Some universities conduct interviews. Do not worry! There, you tell the interviewer – usually an alumnus of a college – about your personality, hopes, aspirations. It is semi-formal, and usually not very scary.

Some universities with a more professional outlook may allow you to submit a CV or resume. Others, especially if you apply to design, architecture or art programmes, will ask you to submit a portfolio of your past works.

Remember: if you are an engineering, art, or business applicant, you may have to write even more essays. While students can choose their major in Year 2, these specific specialties often require a pre-application to be eligible to choose them later on.

Part 2: Choosing A Major

There is a staggering 5,300 universities in the US. Naturally, students can get overwhelmed with choice.

With so many in one place, rankings alone won’t be the best metric of choice for students. At Prep Zone, we employ a multifaceted approach to school shortlisting for our students with a few key components.

The first thing to know about US Colleges is that you do not need to know your degree/major before you apply.

While it can help narrow down the list – some universities like Georgia Tech are great at Engineering but not arts, while Yale can be the opposite – you can even apply undecided.

That is because in the US, universities encourage students to explore their academic interests. College students usually declare majors officially only in their 2nd year of university.

Going to any Top 100 US university can be an incredible and transformative experience. These universities generally offer flexibility and training in how to think in new ways and incorporate different academic approaches and methodologies. They offer an interdisciplinary aspect to their education, as universities want their students to be well-rounded; even if you’re in the room with a professor or a student from a very different academic background, you shouldn’t feel completely adrift. So, at the undergraduate level, students get exposure to subjects outside of their major.

How do you know which universities to apply to? And given the many subjects you could major in – most of which you probably have not taken classes in before – how do you know what major to choose?

First, keep in mind you do not need to select a major before you apply. After all, one of the benefits of the US system is that you can try different things. It’s great for someone who is undecided.

However, knowing what subjects you might want to explore further can help you figure out what schools might be the best for you to apply to.

Raise your awareness: Check majors on school websites

Even if you’re not at all familiar with US universities, you’ve probably heard about at least a few of them. Take a look at their websites and see what majors they have. Even if you don’t plan to apply to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, there’s no harm in looking through the majors offered there – a lot of universities take their cue from these schools and try to offer similar things.

Looking through Harvard’s majors, for example, or what they call “fields of concentration”, you’ll come across subjects you probably didn’t have in your high school or junior college. Examples include: Anthropology, Astrophysics, History of Art and Architecture, Near Eastern Languages, Neuroscience, Comparative Study of Religion, East Asian Studies, Environmental Science and Public Policy, Philosophy, Folklore and Mythology, Chemical and Physical Biology, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Classics, Linguistics, Human Evolutionary Biology, and Women, Gender and Sexuality studies.

Of course, there are also the usual suspects most students are somewhat familiar with: Computer Science, Economics, Psychology, Chemistry, Physics, Biomedical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and so on. But in the US, you can take things in combination – either as a Major and Minor, Double Major, or simply as the hodgepodge of courses that you take primarily in a couple of areas or in several different areas. The US university education system values flexibility and well-roundedness, so students typically take subjects outside of their main major, and they often switch majors.

Even if you already know you’re interested in exploring further a subject that you’ve taken in high school (or IB or JC), you might see if there are additional interests you can explore.

Once you identify a couple of subjects of interest, you can look for the best universities in each of those two areas. This is an approach I often take when helping students identify schools. For example, if an applicant I am working with has interests in business management, hospitality, and environmental science, the school list I recommend will have universities that are strong in all or most of these areas.

Explore unfamiliar majors before narrowing in

There’s no need to make a snap decision about a major based on your (lack of) familiarity with the subject. Perhaps you see the major ‘Anthropology’ or ‘Neuroscience’, but you’re not completely sure what that field involves exactly. There are plenty of ways to learn more. University websites will be a good resource. Again, even if you don’t intend to apply to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford – or for that matter, MIT or Caltech on the more technical side – these schools’ websites for a particular major can give you a good description of what the course is about, what research areas are explored, what traits students should have, and what skills they will develop. They will also provide some information about what students go on to do after graduating with a degree in that area. All of this can go a long way in showing you whether it may be an area you’d want to explore.

Aside from school websites, you can try taking an online course in the subject just to get a sense of what it’s like, or find a summary of information through resources like Wikipedia or YouTube – in that case, just make sure the actual source is credible.

In addition, you might be able to connect with a current student in the major you’re interested in learning more about. Hearing about a student’s individual experience can be quite informative, but be sure to take it with a grain of salt. Many things could be coloring someone’s perception of the major, so it’s helpful to get more than one opinion.

Taking twenty minutes a week every so often to explore an area you think you might be interested can go a long way in helping you shape your college journey.

How important is the major for your career prospects?

Many students are interested in majors that do not seem like they would translate to a specific job, and as a result, they don’t consider exploring those subjects. In Singapore, many students and parents I speak with assume that something in the sciences, business, or economics will be a sure way to get a job, leading to career results.

In the US, it is not usually the case that a certain major is needed for a particular job, unless your target job requires specific technical skills. If you want to be an engineer or computer scientist, for example, you would major in relevant subjects.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in pursuing a PhD and becoming a professor, any major can be fine for that career.

Many students look to work for MNCs after graduating – perhaps at a large financial institution or consulting firm. In that case, companies will train you in what you need to know, but general communication, teamwork, and research skills would always be helpful to have before you apply to most companies. Whether you major in Comparative Literature or Applied Mathematics, you should build up your transferable skills anyway, and companies won’t care too much about what you majored in as long as you have those skills.

So, does someone who majored in business stand a better chance at getting a job with JP Morgan, Deloitte, McKinsey, or Bain, compared to someone who majored in Social Sciences or English Literature? Not necessarily. Aside from transferable skills, most employers are also usually looking for certain personality traits and interesting experiences – not subject matter knowledge (the exception again being for jobs like ‘engineer’, etc). Building your resume while you are a university student (working in libraries or as a research assistant, for example, or doing internships during your summer breaks) can also be more helpful than selecting any particular major.

Part 3: Building A School List

Universities in the USA are among the most popular college destinations for high-school students all around the world. Institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT have become household names recognizable to everyone, but as a country with one of the highest concentrations of universities, any type of student would be spoiled for choice when applying.

Unclear of what you want to study? You can pick a college like Columbia that has the Common Curriculum that gives you a diverse range of courses.

Excited about entrepreneurship and tech? Stanford might the best fit for you. Or perhaps you would like to go to a college whose motto is Where fun goes to die? University of Chicago would be your best bet. (Just kidding! University of Chicago is amazing).

Other things to look into could be whether universities are private or public, and how large the student population is. The largest universities may have bigger classes or lectures where you get less individual attention. At the same time, big universities have high concentrations of opportunities for research, internships, and resources.

From top Ivy League or California universities like UC Berkeley, mid-range universities like Northeastern or UT Austin, to liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore, Amherst or Pomona, students can have more than a hundred potential colleges on their list.

How can you narrow it down? What are some things to look out for?

Let’s say you have narrowed in on subjects you want to explore, and you have a list of schools that are strong in these areas. There are some additional things to consider, besides just a school’s strength in specific academic areas. For some applicants, overall prestige may matter quite a lot. Others may prioritize location, culture/lifestyle, school/class size, sports, and/or specific extracurricular opportunities.

But there’s also the matter of getting admitted in the first place; if your profile is strong in every area, the sky is the limit in terms of selecting ‘reach schools’ (schools that will be very difficult to get into), but you’ll still want to include some ‘target schools’ (good fits) and safe schools (schools that you very likely to get into). Here are some things that can help you decide what is a reach, target, and safer school.

International versus domestic applicant

If you happen to be an international applicant, keep in mind that you would usually want to have scores above the average scores at whichever universities you’re considering. This is because a university might have only 15-20 percent of its seats available to international applicants, which makes the competition more intense for international applicants.

SAT or ACT score

A standardized test score is optional this year, but having a strong one can help you stand out, compensate for sub-par grades, and better position you to compete against students who do have this additional credential.

  • Do note that some schools, such as the UCs, will not even consider these scores. However, most universities will consider an SAT or ACT score, even though it is optional.
  • If you’re in Singapore, keep in mind that many applicants in Singapore have taken at least one of these tests. On the other hand, if you’re in a location where COVID has made it very difficult for students to take these tests, your most direct competition is less likely to have these scores, which makes it less expected that you would have them.
  • Relatedly, the number of applications to many competitive US schools shot up for 2021 intake, perhaps in part because an SAT/ACT test requirement did not keep anyone from applying, as it had done in previous years. As we expect a similar situation for 2022 intake, you may want to err more on the side of caution as you make your school list.

GPA / grades

Most Top 100 US schools have very high GPAs, but plenty of students get into good schools without the best grades.

  • If your grades are not great, it is important to compensate with other academic achievements. As you shortlist schools, you can check the average GPA at each school you’re considering. If you’re doing IB or A Levels, you will likely need to convert to GPA so that you can see if you’re roughly in range.
  • If there are other things in your profile that interest a university (for example, you started your own business, you had a management role in an internship, you did research with a university professor, you’re a published author, your artwork has won international recognition, etc.), they may overlook slightly lower grades.

Achievements

Awards at various levels – international, national, city, school, etc.

Generally speaking, a school award will not hold as much weight as an award that involved more competitors (national / international level). Relatedly, do keep track of your achievements! If you can’t name the specific awards or competitions, or if you’ve simply forgotten about them, your efforts will not have been maximized.

Sport or performing art

More competitive US schools would expect applicants to have at least one of these. Whether you competed with your school or outside of school, or if it has just been a long-term hobby for you, a sport or performing art can be very helpful and would indicate to the school that you might contribute to them in a similar way (through a student club, intramurals, etc).

Interesting life experiences

Through certain experiences, you might have gained some important learning lessons and a unique perspective. Such experiences can help universities understand you as well as how you might contribute to them.

Foreign languages

Students would be expected to know at least one language other than English, but if you happen to be a student who knows several languages, that can be something that helps you stand out. Try to get an accreditation of some kind if possible.

Leadership

This is one of the things that can greatly compensate for other profile gaps. If you’ve held positions of leadership and a great deal of responsibility (managing others, creating or launching projects, expanding a program to other countries, organizing large-scale events, teaching, etc), be sure to highlight that, and you can make your school list a bit more ambitious than you would if you just went by the average SAT and average GPA.

Volunteering and other activities

US universities are interested in students who want to help others and who will drive change, but this is especially important at the more competitive schools. For some, it’s very much a part of their fit assessment.

Coupling leadership and volunteering is helpful in that sense, but in any case, sustained volunteering over a period of time is usually expected. If you’re volunteering sporadically (a few days here, a few days there, at different organizations and for many different causes), try to find some aspect of your volunteering that you can focus on and really bring to the next level, as this can contribute to the strength of your overall profile.

If you don’t have much volunteering at all (or work experience that shows your passion for service), you may want to be more conservative as you select schools.

Overall, selecting a major and school list can be done in many ways, but you’ll set yourself up for the best outcomes by identifying your priorities, learning about different majors, researching schools, and analyzing the strength of your profile against the larger applicant pool as well as strengthening your profile for as long as you have time to do so.

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