The Big Envelope

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Applying for university can be an incredibly daunting task. beijingkids asked experts from four international schools in Beijing to discuss how a student can optimize the chances of being admitted to his or her dream school. From picking a university and making the grades, to coping with setbacks and standing out, read on to ease your worried mind. To meet six college applicants in Beijing, see our Feature article "The International Edge".

Michelle YK Chow-Liu
High School Counselor

Question: How do you advise students to stand out from the crowd?

Answer: We believe that a well-written college essay is one of the most important ways to stand out in the highly competitive college admissions process. The college essay is where a student can demonstrate and showcase their individual accomplishments and achievements.

Living in such an international and cosmopolitan city as Beijing, we are fortunate to have here alumni from the various top colleges and universities from around the world. We also encourage our students to take advantage of the opportunity to have alumni interviews. This allows the students to meet face-to-face with representatives from the selective colleges and universities and for the alumni reps to be able to put a face to an application.

In addition, there’s been a recent flurry of interest from more selective colleges and universities in the US to recruit students from international schools. For example, just last week, schools such as Columbia, Georgetown, Princeton, and Northwestern visited our school with a record student turnout for our evening program. We strongly advise students to take full advantage of these visits and to make a connection with these admissions representatives.

Michael Halley
Guidance Counselor
Canadian International School

Question: How can a student stay motivated to perform well in school?

Answer: Student success is student-directed.
It does not merely come from a good lesson plan or the recommendation of a tutor. Students, as members of a school community, need to feel connected to the broader community. To become competent, young people need to feel secure in their learning environment. They must understand that errors and mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth. Reflecting on errors and making the subsequent improvements is a positive learning experience. Expectations of achievement must be very high and opportunities to improve must be allowed. Giving zeroes for unsubmitted work and using them to calculate school averages is punishment, not an evaluation of achievement. Opportunities to finish an "incomplete” program allows students to correct an error in judgment and to demonstrate their achievement of the learning objective. 

Schools should incorporate opportunities for students to develop self-control and have a say in classroom rules, projects, and assigned reading; we should provide a forum to express their interests and values and discover their unique traits. Having a say in specific areas of their schooling allows students to take ownership and responsibility for their learning, helping them develop their potential as a student and as a citizen. How often have we noticed that a child who participates in many activities also excels academically, musically, athletically, in a leadership role or all of the above? Excelling in diverse fields promotes success and commitment to the community.

Kevin Huntley
IB Coordinator
Dulwich College Beijing

Question: If a students don’t achieve the test scores they had hoped for, what should they do to optimize their chances at getting into their top choice of school?

Answer: Good grades strongly support a university application but they are not the only criteria used by admissions officers when deciding whether to accept an applicant. Students with average or below average grades can impress with their leadership ability or through showing initiative.

Presidents and governing bodies want their universities to be to be exciting, dynamic places and so they look to enroll exciting, dynamic students. I have known students who have come up with new fun projects and this has really supported their application. One small group in Year 12 approached a teacher with a well-thought-out plan to develop a Model UN-style conference in their school. This project was carefully organized, and they were able to reflect on their work in order for it to continue the following year. One of these students entered a college where the average SAT and GPA grades were higher than he had achieved.

Most colleges are looking for students with such skills. One example is Brandeis University. On their admissions page they state: “The Office of Admissions looks at the student’s academic record but also they ask, ‘How do you spend your time outside of the classroom? Do you show evidence of commitment and leadership?’”

Another area that can help students is a commitment to social service. Many universities are keen to give back to others and look for students who have the self-confidence and desire to help others.

That said, great grades are the best way to get into a good college. A proven track record of leadership and initiative, or in social service will support an application and can help a student with slightly lower grades get into their dream college.

James Batten
Headmaster, BSB

Question: What is your advice for helping students choose the right universities to apply to?

Answer: Choosing which college or university to apply for is probably the most important decision a teenager will have to make. The variety of courses and universities is huge and the competition is stiff. In the UK there is an average of six
applicants per place available with some courses such as veterinary science attracting ten applications for every space.

To apply to a UK university, a student must use UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) – the portal through which they make their course choices, choose their universities, and enter their previous examination results, personal details and personal statement. The personal statement is their opportunity to show universities why they should make the student an offer. Schools must also use UCAS to write a reference for the aspiring undergraduate and give predicted grades.

Choosing the course is the first step a student needs to make, but the choice can be bewildering – entering the course, English, produces 3,192 results in the UCAS course search engine. Then there is the type of university to consider: a suburban or rural campus or a city center? The former has great potential for outdoor activities, fresh air and a closed student community life. The latter has the buzz and excitement that many young adults crave.

So we have chosen a course that exactly matches our interests, say Economics, course code L101. There are 22 universities offering this course and the student can only apply to five. Of course the entry requirements for each university are not the same – check carefully for each university’s requirements. Students need good advice when making their five choices. Try for a top university if it really suits you but also make sure you have a Plan B in place.

So exactly how do students make their final choices? The best way is to talk to their teachers, parents and friends. Decide on the course and the location, have an eye-catching personal statement and work very hard to get the best grades possible. My answer focuses on the UK, but the same considerations should be made for any university in the world.

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