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How to apply to US university from Singapore: Top 10 admissions tips

By: Jennifer Aquino

They look too happy to be studying...
I’ve just returned from visiting university campuses in Boston and New York City, meeting with admissions officers and getting a first-hand feel of the campuses. As an independent university counselor, it’s my job to be able to guide students and families through the maze of the admissions process while providing an unbiased, knowledgeable and tailored approach to each individual in order to help them find a close-to-perfect college fit. Here are some helpful tips for those just starting or already involved the process.

1. Start early: Students should begin to learn about the admissions and consider their needs, goals, dreams and begin visualizing what university might look like for them by junior year, or a bit earlier for athletes, art/theatre and engineering students.

2. Poke around: With over 4000 degree-granting colleges and universities in the US, it’s imperative to do some research. Use university websites, college guides and student blogs, and pick your teachers’ and guidance counselors’ brains. Learn what a liberal arts college might offer versus a research university. How about city versus rural campus? East versus West coast? Do you learn best with theory-based instruction or do you prefer a more experiential approach? This takes time and the more you dedicate to it, the more chances you’ll have of finding your fit.

3. Self-assessment: While it may sound like fluff, this may be the most important part of the university application process. It’s all about finding the fit: both for you and for the university. You’ll get there only by properly going through a self-assessment. And remember that everyone is different! Your fit may be drastically different from that of your best friend’s.

4. Journal everything: Carry a journal to chronicle your progress, your likes and dislikes, reactions and questions. Needs and interests will evolve as you go through the process and it’s important to see where you’ve been, what you thought and now think, and how you came to where you are at the point of applying.

5. Plan & pace: The US application process is a holistic one and takes months to years to complete. From standardized testing to planning summer activities to strengthen your application to determining your final list of universities to which you’ll apply and then strategizing how you will apply, pacing will be key. There is a timeline and if you start “early” the results – and stress level – will be optimized.

6. Look beyond Harvard: Everyone can list on two hands the universities they “know” in the US. That doesn’t mean they are the best or, more importantly, the best fit for you. Know what you want and which colleges will provide that for you. Universities look for not only a contributor to their community for the four years you’re on campus but also for a life-long alumnus who will continue to stay involved in various ways throughout his or her lifetime.

7. Standardized tests still count (but not everywhere & not for everything): There are many myths (and many truths) associated with the sometimes frightening standardized tests: SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests. Take one, take all, but get advice on each before you do. Some universities are starting to not require SATs or ACTs for international applicants. While this may cause joy on the part of many, we would never advise a student to apply to X university solely based on the fact that it is SAT-optional. In other words, prepare for and take the standardized test(s) and then work with your counselor to determine your strategy for applying to each university on your list.

8. The List: As you develop your “List”, make sure you’re being true to yourself (most admissions officers can see right through an applicant who is not) and your character, goals, needs and dreams. Find out who the admissions officer is at each university and develop an appropriate relationship with them. And, please, don’t have your parents write to them. You the student need to own this process.

9. Visit: One of the best things you can do in this process is get on campus and visit yourself. Yes, the US is a long way from Singapore and by no means an inexpensive journey, but when you consider the amount of money that will be invested in those four years, this can be just a small percentage of it – and to reach such an important conclusion. Meet with student guides, request an interview while you’re on campus and see for yourself what life might be like on campus. There’s nothing like feeling something first-hand.

10. Enjoy it! Yes, the process is a long one. It’s going to take a great deal of time and energy. But, if they do it well, students will come away not only having identified and applied to (and been accepted by!) universities that truly fit but also have a better understanding of who they are and how to self-assess – truly a life skill as they move on to career choices, graduate school and beyond.

Jennifer Aquino is an independent university counselor based in Singapore. She is an Associate Member of IECA and Member of OACAC and is the owner of Atelier Education . You can follow Atelier Education on Facebook and Instagram.