Some students with excellent scores on their SATs or in the ACT college admissions test have been rejected by Ivy League universities in the United States, while others with lower scores have been accepted. Is there something wrong with the US university admissions system? Or are US university admissions officers now simply looking for more than academic results?
Young Post asked Story2 founder and CEO Carol Barash, who has more than 20 years of experience in university admissions and education, for useful advice on how to make your application stand out.
1 No time like the present
The easiest way to get ahead is to start early. You will have lots of things to work on when the new term starts. The application process can be complicated because you have to prepare your essays and materials while studying and balancing extra-curricular activities.
2 Grades aren't everything
Achieving a top test score may mean you’re more likely to secure a place, but Barash emphasises that grades aren’t everything. She says: “Personal essays play a significant role in your application because they help distinguish you from other applicants with similar test scores.”
3 All about balance
In these essays it’s important to emphasise that you can balance different experiences and show what is important to you outside the classroom. Barash says US universities are shifting from one standard format for all students (tests, transcripts and a diploma) to a richer balance of learning, career-related courses and volunteer work.
4 Emphasise your life skills
“In your application, try to strike a balance between academic courses and extra-curricular activities. The activities should be something that demonstrates your character, commitment, interest and some form of community service. Show how you develop your life skills by giving concrete examples,” says Barash. For example, if you’re interested in English, have you ever used your language skills to teach others? If yes, show how you helped others and demonstrate you’re easy to work with. Also think about how this experience has shaped you into who you are personally and professionally.
5 Don't ignore the bigger picture
Barash also says that you shouldn’t be obsessed about getting into one university, and instead focus on acquiring useful, relevant life skills. So instead of thinking about your Chinese history grades in your spare time, do a coding course, or learn some digital marketing skills. These skills will be relevant no matter where you end up.
6 Take the lead
When talking about your leadership roles and extra-curricular activities, highlight two or three achievements that clearly and sincerely show what you have done.
It’s also a good idea to mention any jobs or internships you’ve had during the summer holidays, and demonstrate how these experiences have helped you learn to take the initiative and work with people at all levels in an organisation.
7 Open your mind to a different style of learning
When you go to university, learning becomes much more about critical, independent thinking. When you’re at secondary school in Hong Kong, there’s a lot of emphasis on rote learning, and it can often feel like there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. In your personal essay, you can focus on why this learning style appeals to you and what you want to do after university.
8 Hong Kong education for the win
Barash says most US universities look favourably on students with International Baccalaureate and HKDSE examination results. But when you apply for a programme, look at the specific admission requirements to see if you meet them.
9 Scrub up on your English
You also need to demonstrate a strong understanding of English. If you’re a local student, you will probably need to take Toefl (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to show you’re proficient in English.