What to look for in an American institution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 11:30am

What is the difference between a US college and university? In most countries, universities generally refer to an institution of higher learning that confers degrees. However, in the US these terms are used interchangeably; Dartmouth College, for example, is a high-ranking university.

Foreign students typically aim for good liberal arts colleges with distinguished teaching faculties such as Dartmouth, which have become extremely competitive since my children filled out their application forms a decade ago. For students applying to the US this year, there are three things to keep in mind.

Most US universities take a holistic approach and do not just rely on indicators such as grades and test scores. They look for "well rounded" people, so students should showcase everything they have done, from volunteering to sports, because extracurricular activities matter.

The SAT, a gauge of academic preparedness, matters. Even students undertaking an internationally recognised high school diploma will find that most US colleges give considerable weight to SAT scores.

Similarly, TOEFL or IELTS scores matter for international students. Because English-language skills affect classroom involvement and academic success, universities select advanced English speakers.

How do students start the application process? It is probably best to use the "Common App" route, through which students can submit applications to over 300 American colleges and universities. commonapp.org/CommonApp/FAQ.aspx

By completing it online or in print, copies of the Application for Undergraduate Admission can be sent to any number of participating colleges. Students can also send their school reports, transcripts and teacher evaluation forms.

The only drawback of an online application is the limits it places on formatting essays with special characters and images. It is important to note that many schools require their own supplement to the Common App, but these additional sections can also be done easily through Common App Online.

Students with good academic standing, SAT scores and a good profile may want to advance their application process by a few months through the early decision (ED) process, which generally sets deadlines for early November.

Although this requires students to be certain of which university they want to attend, it has the highest admission rate. If accepted, they have to commit to joining the institution. Being rejected one year does not prevent a student from reapplying in the next. A deferral, on the other hand, places a student's application with those seeking regular decision (deadline mid-January) and allows students to seek admission to other universities.

ED is often confused with early action (EA), which allows students to seek early admission to several institutions with no commitment to joining any of them, if offered a place. Other than accelerating the admission process, it offers little advantage over regular decision.

International schools here continually re-examine their support systems. Hong Kong International School recently combined its counselling and career guidance departments to create a team with a full range of services from academic and personal counselling to college advice. The idea, says high school counsellor Madeleine McGarrity, is to help each student find an institution of higher learning that is a "best fit". Students are organised into four communities and each group is assigned a pair of counsellors who follow them through their four years of high school.

What happens if students are unable to secure admission to any university after their IB results are declared?

Catherine Schofield, head of career guidance at West Island School, says that during the exam results period, their university guidance counsellor works with the careers and school leadership teams to resolve uncertainty quickly by finding alternative study options.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School