Expert Opinions on Studying in the U.S.A.
by Sally Rubenstone
“Share a one-minute video that says something about you. Upload it to YouTube or another easily accessible Web site, and give us the URL. What you do or say is totally up to you.”
~From Tufts University Application
If one picture is worth a thousand words, then a one-minute movie might be worth many times more. At least that’s what the admission folks at Tufts University seem to think. Applicants to this highly selective college located just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, are invited to submit short videos via YouTube–in addition to essays, test scores, and all the other usual materials–with the hope that these pictorial glimpses into their lives or achievements might reveal information that the rest of the application folder could not.
Several years ago, when this initiative was new, Tufts admission officials were delighted that 1,000 out of 15,000 Tufts hopefuls accepted this invitation. Based on the quality of those first submissions, Tufts has since continued to offer the video option. You can see some samples of their work on The New York Times’ admissions blog, “The Choice” at: http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/twist/
Note, however, that even though Tufts drew significant attention to the use of such “technology” in the admissions process, it’s nothing new. For decades, savvy applicants have been submitting photographs, tapes, CD’s, videos, etc. to top-choice colleges to enhance their admissions portfolio. Of course, easy access to YouTube facilitates taking this tack.
Personally, I’m a fan of what I’m sure is the spirit of this approach, but I’m wary of the reality. Certainly, inviting applicants to show off not only their strongest side but also their hidden corners is a great idea … in theory. But I’m fearful that, once the word is out that colleges are encouraging such additions to application files, we will inevitably lose the unselfconsciousness of these submissions. Some parents will start plotting their progeny’s “show and tell” ploys from pre-school.
Yet, with so many outstanding seniors competing for too few spots at Tufts and other hyper-selective colleges, admission officials have hairsplitting decisions to make, and the traditional application materials don’t always present a full enough picture of the candidate to make this process as effective–and fair–as it should be. According to The New York Times, “Lee Coffin, the dean of undergraduate admissions [at Tufts], said the idea came to him last spring as he watched a YouTube video someone had sent him. ‘I thought, ‘”If this kid applied to Tufts, I’d admit him in a minute, without anything else,” ‘Mr. Coffin said.”
Although Lee Coffin told the Times that the YouTube idea came to him “last spring,” I suspect that the seeds were planted long before. In fact, more than 15 years ago, when I first co-authored Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions, I interviewed Mr. Coffin, who was then at Connecticut College. He told me that a “No” decision had become a “Yes” when admission officers received an extraordinary animated video that an applicant had drawn and produced himself. As he explains in my book, “We all sat down and watched the tape together and agreed to admit this candidate after all, on the strength of his creative genius … ”
Tufts, however, is not the only college that encourages its candidates to submit videos. And, in fact, for many years–long before videos became a formal application option–I’ve urged high school seniors to include supplementary materials (including movies) when I feel that one picture may indeed be worth those proverbial thousand words. But I also caution students to use discretion when choosing what to send and to read application instructions carefully. A handful of institutions, such as Stanford, “strongly discourage” extras, except for art supplements that meet specific guidelines.
For international students in particular, a video can be an excellent way to showcase not only an interest, accomplishment or talent (which is what you’ll see on most of the Tufts submissions this year) but it can also provide admission officials with a look at daily life they might not otherwise even begin to imagine. If your home nation … or city, town, or village … is a place where U.S. admission officers are unlikely to travel, then 60 seconds with even the most rudimentary camcorder can say an awful lot about where you’re coming from …. literally. Your classrooms, your bedroom, the street where you live or the market where you shop may speak volumes about the “diversity” that you’ll bring to a U.S. college campus.
Posted in Study in the US
If you’ve already suffered through SAT, ACT, or TOEFL exams, don’t relax and assume that your standardized test days are over. No such luck! Not too long after you settle into your undergraduate college–when you’ve finally found your way around the library or figured out the best late-night pizza spot in town (with free delivery!)–it’s time to start planning your next steps, which includes deciding what testing still lies ahead.
“Admissions Without Borders” readers include not only prospective international undergraduate students who hope to study in America, but also those who have already completed an undergraduate degree–or are about to do so–and are looking ahead to grad school in the U.S. And many of these aspiring graduate students seem to be aiming specifically at business programs. A foundering economy, both in the U.S. and abroad, has spurred more collegians to consider graduate school in lieu of an unwelcoming job market. Increasingly, these students are pursuing business programs in particular with the belief that an MBA is more likely to lead to lucrative employment than a Master’s in another field such as Romantic Poetry or Art History.
So, for those of you with a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA) in your future, check out this information about testing options: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903885604576486130608474162.html
You’ll see that, although the GMAT(Graduate Management Admission Test) has always been the test of choice for the majority of MBA programs, a growing number are also now accepting the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which, until recently, was usually the test to take for non-business grad programs (psychology, English, etc.) For a list of MBA programs worldwide that accept the GRE, see: http://www.ets.org/gre/institutions/about/mba/programs/index.html
Both exams are designed to test verbal and quantitative reasoning along with critical thinking and writing. Each includes oldies-but-goodies like reading comprehension and sentence-completion questions, as well as an essay section. I have managed to live nearly six decades without taking either, but it is my understanding that there isn’t a huge difference between the two exams. Despite what the grapevine will tell you, the GMAT doesn’t assess business acumen or skills in finance and accounting beyond the standard math stuff. Probably the biggest difference between the two is that, in addition to the “General Test,” the GRE offers Subject Tests (in several sciences, including computer science, and in English Lit, math, and psychology). But, if English isn’t your first language, you may find some other difference, too. For more information these, be sure to follow the link, above, to the related article on the USA Education Guides site.
Educational Testing Service or ETS (the SAT company) produces the GRE but lost the rights to the GMAT several years ago. The GMAT now belongs to the ACT folks. So, in some respects, the GRE and the GMAT are the Coke and Pepsi of grad-school examinations. However, this analogy crumbles in one critical respect: The typical grad school aspirant is not choosing between the GMAT and the GRE the way a high school senior might decide between the ACT and SAT (or between Coke and Pepsi). Instead, grad school candidates must take the exam that is mandated by their target colleges. A growing number of business programs do accept both tests, but be careful to check which tests your target colleges require as you prepare to apply.
Posted in Study in the US
If you’re heading to a U.S. college for the first time next fall, what–if anything–do you know about your new school’s “car culture”? Chances are, if your campus-to-be is located in a big city, most of your fellow students will depend on public transportation … or a good pair of walking shoes … to get around. Keeping a car in the middle of metropolis is often pricey and impractical … as well as unnecessary.
But if you’re heading to a more rural area, a college town, or even a big city’s suburb, then you may discover that many students rely on their vehicles to transport them elsewhere for cultural life, social activities, and shopping. Even when a car isn’t necessary on a regular basis, it can be helpful to have at least occasional access to one. But, if your home is thousands of miles away, you can’t count on Mom or Dad to show up at your middle-of-nowhere campus in the family minivan to help you lug your new futon frame or lava lamp back to the dorm.
To solve this dilemma–not just for international students but for any student without easy access to wheels–a growing number of colleges are offering on-campus rental options that allow their community members to hire a car for as little as an hour or two. Why pay for a full-day when all you need is to scoot to the supermarket to fill your fridge?
Companies such as Zipcar and Hertz on Demand are turning up at hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities. They allow students to hire cars right on campus for very reasonable hourly rates that include insurance and fuel.
Most international students over age 18 can take advantage of these handy vehicles, but you’ll have to have a drivers’ license from your home country, and you may also need to provide documentation from your nation’s motor vehicle department (in English) to show that you have a clean driving record.
It will certainly be a lot easier to obtain this documentation while you’re still at home, rather than trying to track it down from the U.S. For more information on how to get your driving record, go to http://members.zipcar.com/apply/foreign-drivers
Having occasional access to a car can make your U.S. college experience more convenient and even exciting. But, remember, driving a car is a huge responsibility. So make sure your time on the road isn’t too exciting.
Posted in Study in the US
You’ve submitted all your applications to U.S. colleges. Now you’re waiting to hear. Or maybe you did hear, and you’re waiting to go. You’ve combed through college Web sites to learn about programs and majors and whether the school you hope to attend has a badminton club or a debate society. But, if the closest you’ve ever come to life on an American college campus is watching Animal House on DVD, then here is some required reading for before you begin your U.S. adventure.
The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College by Harlan Cohen (Sourcebooks, Inc.) will give you a glimpse of what to expect …and how to behave … on an American college campus. Some of the tips may seem obvious (“Too much partying and no studying can be your downfall …” or “Avoid judging your roommate based on first impressions”) but it can’t hurt to be reminded. Also, each nugget of advice is followed by an anecdote or two which will provide additional insight into typical college dilemmas and how those who have gone before you have dealt with them.
Sometimes, too, new students–especially international students–simply need some encouragement, as in:
“Get involved sooner than later. You’ll have more time to explore opportunities and you’ll gain a sense of belonging.”
“Don’t be afraid to go on an adventure with a club or activity if you won’t know anyone in the van.”
For many international students, the blunt messages in the book about social life and sex may come as a wake-up call. Pregnancy, drug use, and casual “hook-ups” are all addressed here and can be less “foreign” to American collegians than to the international students in their dorms. If you come from a culture that doesn’t even allow you to be alone in a room with someone of the opposite gender, it may be disconcerting to learn that “Free condoms are all over the place, Never pay for a condom again.”
And, as for that “Naked Roommate” … just be sure to arrive at college with the understanding that, according to Harlan Cohen, ” … all people have different comfort levels with themselves and their bodies.”
In fact, if you approach your entire U.S. experience with the expectation that you will meet very diverse people and may see … .and have … a broad range of unfamiliar experiences, you will greatly increase the odds of a happy and successful American college “career.”
Posted in Study in the US
In Too Few Extracurricular Activities? Take a Closer Look!, I explained that U.S. admission officials are aware that international applicants often pursue fewer outside-of-school activities than their American counterparts. But I also pointed out that international students don’t always realize that their after-school, weekend, or summer pursuits are worth sharing with admission committees, even if they’re not organized or official activities such as sports clubs or debate societies. I reminded readers, too, that writing poetry, fiction or blogs, caring for a sick relative or younger sibling, cooking, dancing, hiking, swimming, etc. are all interests that admission officials will want to know about.
Through the College Confidential “Ask the Dean” column, I heard from a young woman in Africa who is involved in several church and volunteer projects and is also working on a novel. She wanted to know how to convey this information to admission committees when she applies to U.S. colleges in a few years. I realized when I read her message that, although my earlier blog had instructed international students to report their extracurricular interests and endeavors to colleges, I never fully explained how this can be done. There are, in fact, several approaches. You can read about them here, in my “Ask the Dean” response: http://www.collegeconfidential.com/dean/archives/how-can-international-student-convey-accomplishments-to-admission-committees.htm
Keep in mind that most college applications don’t provide adequate space to explain your activities, only to list them very briefly. While this is often a problem for American students, it can be an even bigger one for international applicants, whose undertakings may be very different than those of the typical American applicant. So do take advantage of the “Additional Information” section of most applications and/or use your essays to tell admission folks about your activities.
Most colleges also allow you to send a resume (curriculum vita). However, if you follow the standard formats, you really won’t have any place to explain your activities any more thoroughly than you did on the application itself. So you might want to consider an “annotated resume.” This is when you not only list your activities but also briefly explain the ones that aren’t completely clear. It’s also a good opportunity to let your sense of humor shine through. And it’s fine to brag a little bit, just don’t go overboard.
Standard resume entry:
Volunteer, Saint Agnes Hospital, May 2011-present
Annotated Activities List:
Volunteer, Saint Agnes Hospital, May 2011-present
I’m not the world’s youngest doctor, as some of my “patients” initially believe. I’m just a teenage volunteer, whose duties include chatting with children with cancer to help them to relax as they await chemotherapy. I have found that I not only enjoy this work but I’m even good at it. One (real) doctor told me that he can even tell when I have been with one of his patients because the patient enters the examination room calm and smiling.
You don’t need an “annotation” for every item on your activities list, but do make sure your admission readers will understand what you do and never abbreviate unless the abbreviations are recognized world wide
Posted in Study in the US, US Admissions
Did you apply to a U.S. college in the Early Decision or Early Action round and get the disappointing news that you were deferred, not admitted? If so, take heart … all is not lost … and take steps, too. That is, don’t sit around and do nothing besides hoping for better news in the spring. Instead, follow the guidelines below to maximize your acceptance odds.
–First of all, make sure that you were deferred (for consideration in the Regular Decision pool) and not denied outright. Students who were denied admission in the Early Decision or Early Action round are NOT eligible to apply in the Regular Decision pool.
–Make sure that all your application materials reached their destination. Some students–especially international students–are deferred because their application folder was not “complete” by the Early round. If you have not received confirmation that all materials were received, check with admission offices right away to see if anything is missing. (If it is, don’t panic; just replace it promptly. For colleges other than your ED/EA school, it may take a couple weeks after submission for databases to be updated.)
–Send an Update Letter. Granted, it’s not likely that you cured cancer or published a novel since you submitted your Early application just a couple months ago. But if you can come up with anything that’s new and different in your life since November (or whenever you applied) you should compose a letter similar to the one you’ll see in this College Confidential “Ask the Dean” column: http://www.collegeconfidential.com/dean/archives/how-do-i-send-resume-updates-to-colleges.htm
–Read this advice for Waitlisted students in a previous “Admissions Without Borders” column: In particular, note that your Update letter can include a paragraph or so that describes why this college is a great match for you. Only include information that’s really personalized and meaningful. Generic comments such as, “I like your school the best” or “Your college will give me an excellent education” mean nothing and may actually hurt you. Instead, cite more specific reasons why this school is the right fit. Ideally, this list will include a special academic program–but NOT those that you can find almost everywhere (“You have a psychology department.”) Even proximity to relatives or family friends can be a valid reason for a student from far away to choose a particular U.S. school. Don’t forget to check out the section on “Gimmicks,” too. They definitely aren’t for everyone … but if you have a good sense of humor … or a great idea … a gimmick can help you stand out in the crowd.
–Consider retaking the TOEFL. If English is not your native language, and you think that your TOEFL score may have hurt your admissions outcome at your ED/EA school, consider retaking it. Of course, you only want to do this if you have been studying or practicing English since you last took the test. Typically, you can register for the TOEFL up to 7 days before the test date. And even though many Regular Decision deadlines have passed, it’s not too late to submit an improved score. See http://www.ets.org/portal/site/ets/menuitem.fab2360b1645a1de9b3a0779f1751509/?vgnextoid=69c0197a484f4010VgnVCM10000022f95190RCRD
–Update financial information. If you need a lot of financial aid, this should hurt your admission odds at many U.S. colleges. So, if you can dig up a source of financial support that you did not previously disclose on the financial statement you submitted with your application (e.g., a relative or family friend), then this may help a lot. However, be prepared to provide validation of this source of support.
–Make sure you have other Realistic and Safe options. Many deadlines have already past, but it’s typically the less selective colleges that are still accepting applications. So make sure that you aren’t counting on an affirmative answer from a college that has already deferred you.
Although the steps to reverse a deferral are similar to those recommended to students who hope to be admitted from a waitlist, your odds of reversing a deferral are considerably better. Some colleges ultimately admit few … or no … waitlisted applicants, but many take 10 to more than 50 percent of those who were deferred.
Your nationality will probably play a role in whether or not you will be admitted after a deferral. In the Regular Decision round, admission officials will determine how many applicants are from your country and how you compare. If you come from a nation that rarely sends candidates to your top-choice college, this can work in your favor, especially if no other students from your country were admitted in the Early round. Feel free to ask admission officials if there were students from your homeland accepted via ED or EA. The response, if you get one (don’t count on it), may help you gauge your admission verdict, but don’t put too much stock in this information or let it get your hopes up … or down. And don’t bug admission officials either. It’s fine to send an Update letter and ask about other admitted students from your country. But don’t expect the admission folks to be your pen pals. This will only work against you when the final decisions are made.
So, remember, by putting some effort into a Deferral Reversal Campaign, you can definitely improve your chances of getting good news in the spring.
Posted in Study in the US
Undecided about studying in the USA? Undecided about a major field or career choice, too? Your answer to Question 2 may help you answer Question 1.
Many international students realize that American colleges and universities often don’t require a commitment to an academic concentration or “major” until after two years of study, which is commonly not true in their home countries. Moreover, once the major has been selected, there is often plenty of room in the schedule for “electives” that may have no obvious connection to the major at all.
This article from the University of Pennsylvania’s Daily Pennsylvanian highlights the academic flexibility in the US that is attractive to international applicants: http://www.dailypennsylvanian.com/article/going-global-pushed-pulled-study-us
Posted in Study in the US
I received a letter from Monique, a young woman in French high school who is applying to U.S. universities. Monique told me that her high school is very rigorous and only accepts top students, which means that there is a lot of competition to earn the highest grades. “Will admission officers know this about my school?” she asked me. “And, if not, can I tell them?”
When American students apply to college, each admission office receives not only a high school “transcript” (a record of all classes taken and grades received) but also, with it, a “School Profile.”
This is a document published by almost every high school that includes:
-Courses offered, including availability of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Honors, Accelerated, etc.
-The grading system + how Grade Point Averages are calculated
-The class ranking system–if any
-Post high-school plans: What percentage of students attend 4-year colleges? 2-year colleges? Which colleges specifically, do they attend?
The most helpful profiles also explain course selection policies or schedule restrictions that affect them (Example: “Students cannot take two Advanced Placement sciences in the same school year.”)
-Admissions policy (e.g., Do students take a test or enter a lottery to enroll? Is admissions selective or simply based on residence?)
-Racial and ethnic breakdown
-A description of the city, town, neighborhood where the school is located. What is the average household income? What is average the level of parent education?
Here are a couple samples of real school profiles:
Some school profiles are more comprehensive than others and are thus more useful to admission officers.
As an international applicant to U.S. colleges, your high school may not publish a school profile. So you can help college admission officials by providing this information for them .. or asking a school administrator to do so. The transcript that your school sends to colleges should include a “Key” or “Legend” that explains the course levels and grading system. But you would be wise to ask for a copy to be sure that the explanations are clear to someone outside of your school … or your country.
You should also make sure that colleges are aware that your school is highly selective or rigorous–if, in fact, it is. Conversely, if your school is a very poor one where few students pursue higher education and many leave school before graduation, colleges will want to know this, too. (And it will not work against you … in fact, it can work in your favor once admission officials see that you have overcome obstacles to pursue a college education.)
When U.S. admission officials evaluate their applicants, they do so in the context of their background, and the high school each applicant attends is a critical part of this background. So don’t hesitate to provide as much helpful information as possible. You can even send a photograph along, if you think that “one picture is worth a thousand words.”
Posted in Study in the US
I get a lot of queries from international students about U.S. colleges that offer “need-blind” admission to non-citizens. “Need-blind” means that admission decisions are made without any consideration of a student’s ability to pay … or not pay. Then, once these decisions are made, those who are admitted and require financial assistance will receive as much aid as necessary. More »
Posted in Study in the US
College Web sites can be confusing. That’s one of my pet peeves. Especially confusing are the different application timetable options (often called “decision-plans”) because deadlines, rules, and even names are not consistent.
Most typically, however, you will find “Early Decision” (ED) and “Early Action” (EA) options. (A few colleges–just to confuse you even more–have both).
Generally, when you apply to a college via an EARLY DECISION program, you sign a statement of commitment that says you WILL ATTEND THAT COLLEGE if admitted. (See “Financial Aid ED Exceptions” below.) This is called a “binding” decision.
An EARLY ACTION decision is not binding. That is, if a college admits you via Early Action, you can also apply to other colleges and decide where to attend by May 1. (A few colleges now have “Single Choice EA.” That means you can only send out ONE Early-option application, but you still don’t have to make your final choice until the spring, once you see where you’ve been accepted and how much financial aid you’ve received.)
ADVANTAGES of APPLYING EARLY DECISION
GREATLY IMPROVED CHANCE OF ADMISSION: An Early Decision application usually gives you a big advantage in the decision process, especially if it is a “Reach” school for you and you are a borderline applicant. Colleges will take some students early who might not get in under the regular-decision plan simply because they realize these applicants are “sure things” who will definitely enroll. For instance, last year Columbia’s regular-decision acceptance rate was under 10 percent while the ED acceptance rate was around 30 percent. At Brown, the regular admit rate was 12 percent and the ED rate was nearly twice that.
If you are an international student from a country where few students will enroll at your target college, you may find that if you wait to the “Regular Decision” round, someone else from your country will have been admitted early already, which could make you a less attractive candidate …especially if you need financial aid.
FEWER APPLICATIONS TO FILL OUT: If you’ve been admitted to a top-choice school in December. you don’t have to spend your vacation maniacally writing essays and completing applications, and you can focus on your senior classes and activities for the rest of the year, rather than stressing over college.
REDUCED APPLICATION FEES: At an average of fifty dollars each, application fees can add up. If you’ve only submitted one application, you can save a lot of money.
DISADVANTAGES of APPLYING EARLY DECISION
FINANCIAL AID: Some colleges do not make their best financial aid offers to early-decision applicants.(This is more true of merit-based aid than of need-based aid.) They realize that offering good aid is one way to “hook” top prospects, but if you are an ED applicant, you are already hooked, so they won’t try to lure you with better money. Even if a college makes a good aid offer, if it’s the only college you’re applying to, you won’t be able to compare it to what other schools may give you. If your ED college offers only need-based aid, and your family doesn’t qualify, you won’t have the opportunity to see if another college might have merit aid for you. (See also “Financial Aid ED Exceptions,” below.)
However, if you really love a college and you are a borderline applicant, you might want to go for the ED admission advantage, even if you run the risk of not getting the best aid package possible. That is, sit down with your parents and discuss frankly how much they are willing and able to pay for you to attend college each year. (Be sure to include travel, books, etc.) If you apply ED, get admitted, and receive enough aid so that your family contribution will not exceed this pre-determined figure, then you have probably made the right move. While it may not be the cheapest possible way to go to college, if you can get into a dream school and pay an amount that your family can afford, then ED may be the best route for you. (Remember, as an international student, colleges require a certified statement that attests to your family’s financial status and that proves that your family can pay the amount they claim to be able to pay.)
Also, some colleges do not offer Early Decision to international students who require financial aid. Be sure to check the policy at any college that interests you.
POSSIBILITY OF DENIAL, NOT DEFERRAL: If your grades in your junior year (or your local equivalent of the year before finish high school) were particularly bad and don’t reflect your normal standards, you should not apply Early. You could run the risk of being denied outright, rather than “deferred” to the “Regular Decision” applicant pool. The college will not reevaluate your application in the spring but will take you out of the running entirely before you have a chance to improve your grades and scores in your senior year.
FINANCIAL AID ED EXCEPTIONS
If you apply to a college via Early Decision and are also a candidate for financial aid, it’s possible that you will be admitted to the college of your choice but will not receive what you or your parents consider to be an adequate amount of aid to enable you to attend. If this is the case, you CAN turn down an ED acceptance for financial reasons. You will not be penalized. It is not unethical or in violation of your statement of commitment. However, at that point, you may no longer be considered an applicant to that college OR your application will go into the regular-decision pool, and you may not be admitted in the spring or you may be offered even less aid than you received via ED.
Like everything else about ED, the deadlines can be confusing and inconsistent. It is up to you to stay on top of the deadlines at your target colleges. A typical ED deadline is in early or mid-November, and you will be notified of your decision about a month later. However, a growing number of colleges now offer TWO rounds of ED. The first round usually has a November deadline with a mid-December notification. The second round will have a later deadline (usually January 1 or 15, sometimes even as late as February). Again, you will get your decision in about one month. Some students play the “ED game.” They apply to their first-choice college via the first round of ED and, if they are deferred, they then apply to their second-choice college via the later round of ED. If you have two colleges that you like a lot, it’s not unreasonable to take advantage of both rounds of ED, if you so choose.
Although it’s never wise to rush into an Early Decision application if you’re not sure about where you really want to be, there are definite advantages to showing a school that you love it … and of getting this frustrating process behind you, too. As we say here in the U.S., “The early bird gets the worm.” While the thought of eating worms for breakfast may not be very appealing, what this really means is that starting on any project as soon as possible can be a good way to beat out the competition … and college admissions is no exception.
Posted in Study in the US