*Note: This post was written in 2015 so university application processes may have changed since then. This post will cover the Common Application system used by a sizeable number of U.S. universities and colleges. As I applied to Stanford under Early Restrictive Action and received my acceptance before I did my other college interviews, I withdrew my applications to my other university choices (Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and Yale-NUS – I had written my essays for all these schools! I also planned on applying to Harvard and MIT but didn’t quite get around to finishing their applications anyways.). The style and assessment of the applications were very similar though – the admission processes in almost all U.S. universities are holistic.
Application Deadlines and Rounds
The most basic question is – when do I apply? Most US universities have two different rounds of admissions – the Early round, and the Regular Decision round. Here’s some jargon you’ll need to know:
Early Round (universities adopt different policies for their early round):
Early decision: Application deadline in November. You can only apply to ONE school under this round (although you can still put in as many applications as you want to other universities in the Regular round), and the decision is binding, which means you have to enrol in this school if you get in. (e.g. Columbia University)
Early restrictive action: Application deadline in November. Again, you can only apply to ONE school under this round, but the decision is non-binding, meaning that if you get in you don’t have to enrol in this school. (e.g. Stanford University).
Early action: Application deadline in November. You can apply to as many universities as you like under this round (as long as the other universities also have an early action policy), and the decision is non-binding. (e.g. UChicago).
Regular Round: Application deadline in January. You can apply to as many schools as you like.
SAT I (or ACT)
Although some universities in the U.S. have done away with the SAT/ACT requirement, the majority of US universities still hold the SATs/ACT in quite high regard. (Frankly, I don’t really believe in the efficacy of this type of standardized testing and highly doubt its ability to measure eligibility for college, but you know. We gotta do what we gotta do.) Generally it doesn’t quite matter if you do the SATs or ACTs, but the SAT is the more common form of standardized testing that students tend to opt to take.
Students always ask me: “How much do I need to get on the SAT to get into Stanford?” I’m sorry. I don’t have an answer to that. I doubt even the Stanford admissions officers have an answer to that. Use the upper and lower quartile admit SAT scores available on the college websites as a reference, but don’t take it too seriously or spend too much time mulling over your chances based on your test score. Admissions in the US are holistic; they don’t have a cut-off score like the UK universities or Singapore universities. That being said, you do have to achieve a certain standard on your SATs if you want to get into the more selective US universities. This is especially the case if you’re applying from a country like Singapore (where dozens of students score 2400 (full marks) every year!) If you get 2400, it doesn’t guarantee you a spot at a top university; if you get less than 2000 on your SAT, all hope is not lost – you just have work that much harder to impress the AOs in the rest of your application. [Note: I’m referring to the more selective universities in the US here, 2000 is a great score and will get you into many amazing universities!]
When to take the SAT I: I took my SAT I in Grade 11 (JC1), or junior year. To be honest, the SAT I is pre-IB or pre-A level work. The SAT I math is probably easier than O level math (not even additional math, just basic concepts), but it’s just that the multiple choice questions are tricky. I basically lost all my marks on maths in my SAT I, which shows that you should never get complacent! You should aim to take your SATs in Grade 9-12 (Sec 3 onwards or freshman year onwards), or the first year of NS if you’re a guy. I suggest taking it before Grade 12 (JC2) so you have time to focus on your exams and SAT II Subject Tests in your last year.
Some people have asked if they should go for SAT prep classes. I honestly think there’s no need for such a thing – buy a few books and practice, practice, practice. Yes, some of these crash courses do indeed help you improve your score – but you can definitely do the same thing for yourself by revising from SAT textbooks and practice tests. Definitely revise by yourself the first time you take the test. If you don’t do well, then maybe consider taking up a course.
SAT II Subject Tests
Some universities also require you to submit 2 subject tests. The content of these subject tests should have quite a substantial overlap with the A level/ IB syllabus, but they’re much easier (although paradoxically trickier…) I’d suggest doing these end of G11 (junior year) or during G12 (senior year), whenever you get the time. I did mine in October/November of G12, which happened to fall during my IB final examination period. It was hectic, but it’s not an entirely bad idea to take it then because all your material will be fresh in your mind and there’s no need do any additional studying! (I do suggest doing a few practice papers though.) Most universities don’t have a preference for any test in particular, so I did Math Level II, Chemistry, and Chinese as these subjects all fell under my IB subject combination.
This may seem like a comparatively minor section of your application, but don’t overlook it. Give it as much thought as you would the other components. As the common app only allows you to put down ten activities (this includes any summer camps or work experience you may have done outside of school CCAs/ extra-curricular activities), you have to think seriously about which of your activities you want to put down. The description of the activities should be pithy and informative –give the AOs (Admissions Officers) context. If you’re the editor of the newspaper club, tell them how many people are in the newspaper club! If you were in charge of a charity fundraiser, tell them how much you raised. It’s not like the AOs will go “Oh, Person A raised $10 000 and Person B raised $150 000, let’s admit Person B” but it DOES give them a better idea of the scale of the operation and helps them imagine YOU carrying out these events.
There’s only 5 spaces for this so list the most important few awards. You can try to fit a few awards under your “activities” section (e.g. if you’re part of Maths Olympiad club and you won several maths competitions, you can try to fit it under the description of that activity to make more space in your honors/awards). Don’t overthink this!
There’s nothing more bamboozling than having to think of what to put in the “Additional Information” section of the Common Application! Actually, in most cases, if you really have nothing you feel you need to add, don’t add anything. Less is more.
This is not a section for you to ADD more activities or awards that you couldn’t fit into your activities/honors/awards section. This is also not the place to submit another essay. Stanford clearly asks that you NOT submit any unsolicited materials (eg. resumes and research abstracts), so do not try to slip these in the additional information section.
So what can you use the additional information section for?
- Clarification of unusual situations: e.g. your transcript may have dropped a few grades due to family circumstances, or you may have dropped rugby or your major sport due to injury, etc.
- Elaboration on activities: (**Note, not for all activities.) If you took a particularly unusual activity that doesn’t typically fall under the normal spectrum of school/outside school activities, and the word limit on the activities section isn’t adequate to fully explain what that activity entails to the AOs, then use this section to elaborate on it. For example, I elaborated on my volunteering at MPS (Meet-the-People-Sessions) in my constituency, as it isn’t practiced in the US.
- Significant things integral to you that may not have fit under the other categories of the application. This is where I added in my note about my IGCSE and IB revision websites – both very significant but they didn’t fall under the realm of “activities” since it was basically a one-man show with a few inputs from other kind students! Please exercise discretion and try not to annoy the AOs by being overly wordy (Stanford had nearly 43 000 applications for the class of 2019! If everyone wrote an additional 600 word essay that’s another whopping 25.8 million words to read.) Just a short paragraph will do.
Common App Essay
Just the very mention of the Common App essay will elicit diverse reactions ranging from: “OH WOE IS ME” to “Don’t tell anyone but that was my FAVOURITE part of the app!” Honestly, only you can help yourself in this section. Read any advice online and they’ll tell you: Just be yourself. I know, it’s much harder to translate that into writing, but you just have to do it.
Be prepared for many drafts, so don’t leave this to the last minute. I wrote at least four different essays, and seven or eight drafts of my final essay. But then again, your first draft might just wind up being the draft you like best. After going through my essay a billion times and having other people give me suggestions for my essay (including some professional input), I ended up going with my first draft a few hours before submitting it (albeit with a few grammatical changes) because it just felt more authentically me. It’s not necessarily what you write about your topic, but how you write about it (and convey your thoughts and feelings) that matters. It doesn’t really matter if you’re writing about tying your shoelace or saving that neighbour’s life back in the fifth grade. It does matter that you feel deeply about your topic and are able to convey something about your personality through it.
Get people to read your essay for you! See if people who know you well can hear YOU in the essay, and see if people who don’t know you well are captivated by it. And try not to fret too much about it. To be honest, I didn’t like any of my essays as they didn’t really feel like me, and the more I edited my essay, the more I hated it. In the end, you just have to make a decision and say, “This is it. I’m not changing this anymore.” It still worked out for me in the end, so don’t worry too much about it!
Same goes for the supplement essays for each individual university. Be yourself. Also, don’t repeat what you said in your Common App essay. Use this as an opportunity to display another aspect of your personality or interests. Also, if you know that you are unable to attend an interview, this is a good place to slip in why you’re interested in the school in particular – for example, in Stanford’s “What matters to you, and why?” essay, you can elaborate on what you’re interested in and link it to why you want to study at Stanford (does School XXXXX have any specific programs or courses that you are particularly stoked about? The answer is YES.)
Most interviews for US universities are alumni interviews. Don’t worry if you don’t get the opportunity to interview! Especially in international countries where there may be a lack of willing alumni, interviews may be hard to come by. But if you do get an interview opportunity, just… That’s right, you know it… BE YOURSELF! I had my Stanford interview on my 18th birthday so I was pretty dang excited (best birthday present ever.) The interviewer didn’t know it was my birthday, but I think you could call it birthday luck! US style interviews are super casual and take place at a chill café or Starbucks most of the time. My interview took place at this swanky tea place at the Fairmont Hotel, but it was very laid back. The questions were quite general, e.g. “What are your strengths/ weaknesses?”, “What was your favourite CCA?”, “What did you like most about your school?”, “What are you passionate about?”, “Favourite subject?”, “Why should we admit you?”, “Why do you want to come to University XXX?” (impt question. Be specific to that university. Nice environment and diverse student population and “I’ve always wanted to go there!” doesn’t cut it.)
Just relax and have fun! Prepare one or two questions for your interviewer as well – show that you’re really interested in the school and treat it as a dialogue, not a monologue.
Aaaaaannnnd that concludes this post. Good luck, and know that whatever college you end up going to (even if you don’t get into your first choice), it’s what you make of your college experience that matters!