Where to Begin?
It sounds simple, but the first thing students should do is pinpoint their strengths. Shyam Iyer, a senior at Yew Chung International School who wants to study chemical engineering at MIT, has always been fascinated with machinery and figuring out how things work. “I wanted to see how the things we learn in the classroom are applied in everyday life,” he says. International School of Beijing student Amanda McGuire has also been very clear about where her strengths lie. “I love social studies – my curriculum is always packed with those kind of subjects.” Though she’s still mulling over which major will fit her best, McGuire is aiming for something in the field of political science or marketing and communications, which will utilize her natural abilities.
Self-knowledge separates the great students from the good students, and is one of the most desirable traits an applicant can have. Know what you’re good at, or what you love and make steps towards developing your skills in that area. Your dedication will show when the time comes to deliver those all-important applications.
Keep Your Options Open
You’ve got the grades, your extracurriculars tick all the boxes, but even the best-laid plans can go awry. Johnny Farrer-Bell was a star student, obtaining four As at A-Level when studying in the UK. Despite his scores he failed to get into his university of choice, Durham University. Most students apply to around ten universities, but some apply to 15 or more. Though it’s good to have a clear idea of where you’d like to study, don’t limit yourself to Ivy League schools, or pin your hopes on one specific major. Having a range of backups minimizes disappointment. Chiaoyu Yuan, a senior at Beijing City International School, has selected ten schools she really likes. “I don’t think I’ll miss out. I’ve got a good mix of safety schools and mid-level schools,” she says. Though Yuan hopes to study in Canada or the US, Australia is her back-up study destination. Australian universities start in February and March, leaving her enough time to apply if she doesn’t get into her preferred schools.
Many students at international schools have lived all around the world by the time graduation rolls around. This tends to make them much more comfortable selecting universities in other countries. Hong Kong native and Harrow sixth-former Yane Cheung, hopes to study in the States, either at Chapman University in California or New York University. But sometimes students crave some quality time in their home countries. After her China adventure, McGuire is ready to go home to the States. She plans to study at the University of Illinois, a mere hour and a half from her hometown. German student Clara Marquardt, who attends the Western Academy of Beijing, from Germany is applying exclusively to universities in the UK. “I decided to study in England because it offers an excellent education while not being too far away from my home. In contrast to America, studying in England will allow me to go home from time to time rather than only once a semester.”
It’s no secret that a number of colleges, especially in the US, receive thousands of strong applications from Chinese students. So how does a student impress an admissions committee?
"Highly selective colleges have a certain number of international students that they accept in a given year, so students from China compete against other students from China,” says Bev Taylor, president of The Ivy Coach, a college admissions advisory service based in New York City.
Admission is particularly tough for Chinese students who apply from a pool of talented individuals; excelling in rigorous courses and earning high scores in standardized exams might not be enough. Admissions advisers from the University of California, Berkeley recommend that students focus on developing their personal statement and recommendations as most students’ extracurriculars, GPAs, and standardized tests are relatively comparable.
“A student who is involved in math or science research, and has been playing the violin and/or piano since the age of 5 is just one example of the typical Chinese profile,” Taylor says. “On the other hand, if the student is an accomplished violinist, circling the globe to perform concerts and benefits, that student might be seen in a different light.”
In 2009, 4,259 international students applied for admissions at Berkeley; only 15.6 percent, or 666 students, were accepted. Berkeley requires applicants to have two SAT IIs (specialized SAT subject exams) in addition to the SAT Reasoning Test, as do the Ivy Leagues and most other universities with competitive admissions.
One alternate route is to look beyond the Ivy League. Parents and students usually only consider the top ten, 20 or 50 colleges in the US News & World Report rankings. “Then they make gaining admission even more difficult by narrowing down the ranked list to colleges in urban settings and where there exists a preponderance of Asian students,” says Taylor. In other words, don’t apply where every other Chinese student wants to go.
As for expat students who are applying for admission back in their home countries, they can use their international experience to their advantage by writing about their unique perspectives in their personal statements.
Even after the acceptance letters have arrived, students still have to deliver good grades in their final term. Acceptance is often conditional on a student’s final scores.
Matthew Farthing, Head Master of Harrow International School Beijing, says “Rejection is a test of character. You do not always get what you deserve, despite your best efforts. If you’re able to pick yourself up and take the new opportunities that come, you may find yourself following a more rewarding path and you will certainly have grown in character.”
Although the admissions process can be tough, most students end up happy with their decisions, even if plans don’t go as expected.
It’s important to look at the big picture. If the big envelope from Harvard doesn’t arrive, don’t worry – there are plenty of Plan B options. Some students can take a gap year, like Marquardt, who plans to study Chinese before heading to the UK; others have safety schools as their backup. And what happened to Johnny Farrer-Bell from the UK? He’s now at Harrow in Beijing and is thrilled to have the opportunity to study overseas. “You don’t need to be perfect to live the life you want,” says Tuan.
Amanda McGuire Age: 17
School: International School of Beijing
GPA: 3.7 out of 4 (ISB’s system)
Top choice: University of Illinois
Safety school: Illinois State University, University of Iowa
Expected major: Political Science
Extracurriculars: McGuire is on the basketball and volleyball teams and is a member of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds housing for homeless people in China.
Top quality: A well-rounded student, McGuire wants to channel her enthusiasm into a college with great school spirit and hopes to join the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.
Before coming to China, McGuire had never left her hometown in the States. She believes her stay abroad has forced her to mature quickly. “Being in an international school is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. After college, McGuire wants to go to University of Chicago Law School to follow her dream of becoming a corporate attorney, “My mom always tells me I’m great at arguing.”
School: Dulwich College Beijing
IB Scores (out of 7): HL (Higher Level) Geography (6), Business (6), English (5);
ST (Standard Level) Math (5), Biology (5),
Top choice: Loughborough University (England)
Safety school: University of Edinburgh or
University of Nottingham
Expected major: Events Management
Extracurriculars: Illingworth loves sports. He plays on the rugby and volleyball teams and is the captain of the soccer team. In his spare time, he coaches a kids’ soccer team and produces the school’s radio program.
Top quality: Business is a passion for Illingworth, as well as his top-scoring subject. Able to adapt quickly to any social situation, Illingworth wants to study events management as part of a broader business degree. He believes he can use that qualification to travel and find employment in other countries. A natural leader, Illingworth is sensitive to cultural differences. “I understand different people do things differently, and you have to respect that.”
Illingworth was originally planning to do A-Levels. However, after learning more about the IB program, he and his family were so impressed that they decided the IB was a better fit. Illingworth sees his future being far away from his native Scotland. After living in Malaysia for several years and Beijing for four, he believes his experience overseas has made him a well-rounded person. “My parents went out on a limb for me by taking me overseas. If I have a family, I think I’d like to do the same for them.”
School: Beijing City International School
IB Scores (out of 7): 6 out of 7
SAT I: Reading (550), Math (680), Writing (650); Tuan plans to re-sit the SATs
Top choice: Stanford or University of British Columbia
Safety school: Grinnell University
Expected major: Psychology
Extracurriculars: Aside from her roles in drama productions and the Model United Nations, Tuan is a member of the Beijing Student Press Association, an international organization for budding journalists. She’s had articles published in the Chinese student magazine, 39.2°, as well as the Middle School Times.
Top quality: Despite fierce competition between Chinese students seeking to study abroad, Tuan believes she has what it takes to impress admissions officers. “I know I’m not the top, but what I did at the Press Association will help me stand out.” She thinks her background, personality, and life experience make her more than just another high-performing student.
Born in Taiwan, Tuan moved to Beijing when she was just two years old. Many of her friends took the gaokao (Chinese university entrance exam), but Tuan believes her broader education at an international school has not only been more valuable, but will give her an edge when applying overseas. It has always been her goal to study abroad, following in the steps of her older sister who is currently at university in the US. “I never really thought of doing anything else.”
School: Western Academy of Beijing
IB Scores (out of 7): 7 each subject
Top choice: Cambridge or London School of Economics
Safety school: Warwick University
Expected major: Economics
Extracurriculars: Marquardt is a member of the varsity swim team, philosophy club and Model United Nations; but her passion is microeconomics and supporting long-term community development. Marquardt is the chair of the Migrant Schools Project, a 50-member group that teaches English to migrant children as well as funds and organizes the renovation of migrant schools.
Top quality: Marquardt is very ambitious. “I set high targets for myself and I aim to achieve them.” An exceptional student, she skipped the seventh grade and will now graduate among the top of class.
Marquardt moved to China three years ago, first living in Dalian and then in Beijing for her final years of high school. She plans to take a gap year to study Chinese and get some work experience. “I aim to improve my Chinese at a local university, hopefully completing the HSK exam. At the same time I plan to work as an intern at a microcredit institution.” Marquardt hopes that speaking fluent Chinese will help her stand out when applying to universities in the UK.
School: Yew Chung International School
IB Scores (out of 7): HL (Higher Level) Physics (6), Chemistry (6), Math (5); ST (Standard Level) English (5), Chinese (7), History (5)
Top choice: Massachusetts Institute of Technology or University of California at Berkeley
Safety school: State University of New York at Buffalo or Penn State
Expected major: Chemical Engineering
Extracurriculars: Iyer is the head of the Student Council and dedicates a lot of time to community projects. He volunteers at Amazing Hands orphanage, as well as teaching Indian culture to children at Beanstalk. “There isn’t a big Indian community here – it’s hard for the kids to connect with their heritage.”
Top quality: Iyer is dedicated to higher learning, “I want to go all the way – bachelor, master’s, Ph.D. Then I want to move into research and become a university professor.” His focus is on learning and researching so that he can then teach other students.
Iyer spent part of his childhood in Australia and the majority of his high school career in Beijing, where his family has been based for the past four years. Iyer believes in honesty and integrity, which he credits to his parents. He hopes his life will center on learning and personal development rather than simply making money. “I’m much more interested in job satisfaction and helping other people be the best they can be.”
Nationality: Hong Kong
School: Harrow International School Beijing
A-Level Grades: Chinese (A), Performing Arts (B), English (C)
Top choice: Chapman University, New York University or California Institute of Arts
Safety school: Boston or Arizona University
Expected major: Theater studies
Extracurriculars: A member of the choir, Cheung is also the school prefect. Her love of the spotlight took her to the University of California, Los Angeles for a summer theater camp.
Top quality: Before arriving in Beijing nine years ago, Cheung spoke no English at all; she’s now fluent and sings almost exclusively in her second language. “When I first arrived, all I could say was ‘Hi, my name is Yane.’” Cheung is dedicated to performing and spent her summer interning at the Beijing Playhouse, even teaching a few classes.
Cheung loves both acting and singing and found it hard to decide which to pursue: “It’s so tough to just choose one.” Cheung’s performing arts teacher recommended she study theater studies at university. “This way I have my bases covered and I can do both.” After university, Cheung wants to go back to her native Hong Kong to show the local pop stars that performing is not just about making money. “I want to remind people why they started singing in the first place.”
Photos by Mishka Family Photography