According to a survey by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the US enrolls more of the world’s 4.5 million international students than any other country. However with over 2,000 four-year colleges and universities to choose from, the prospect of applying to colleges in the US can feel daunting; especially for international students who may not have first-hand knowledge of the US or its applications process. As most university counselors will stress, only once students have narrowed their scope can in-depth research begin – the intensive, time-encompassing quest for colleges that are the much hyped “right fit.”
“It’s been estimated that solid research takes approximately 10 hours per school. Understanding the culture of a school, the type of students who typically attend, and all the other factors takes time,” says Hamilton Gregg, a college advisor at Harrow International School Beijing (HISB), and the founder of Beijing-based International Educational Consulting. Gregg has worked in education since 1985 and helps students and their families understand their personal and educational needs and find the right school to meet their requirements. School lists should generally be broken down into three categories: reach, match, and safety schools.
With the start of another academic year upon us this month, we speak with Gregg as well as three recent graduates from Dulwich College Beijing (DCB), the Schlueter triplets. We met with the American-born sisters twice as Year 13 students: once after they applied to universities last winter and again after they received their acceptances. The girls provide an inside look at applying to US colleges and their experiences finding the right school.
Location, Location, Location
The first time we meet with the Schlueter sisters at a coffee shop in Shunyi, it’s the middle of December and the girls arrive for our interview dressed down in leggings, UGG boots, and fleece jackets. Alivia, Brooke, and Caroline Schlueter are originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and have lived in Beijing for six years. The Schlueter sisters are applying to between six to eight universities each, an average number by American standards.
The girls’ 20-year-old sister also went to DCB and had a hand in influencing their choices on where to apply. “We’re mainly applying on the East Coast and in the South as well as to a few similar schools, like Fordham University, University of South Carolina, and Northeastern University,” says Brooke. “After going on college tours with our older sister, we happened to like a lot of the schools she was applying to.”
“Visiting campuses over [last]summer played a big a role. Some of the schools I thought I wouldn’t like, I really liked and vice versa,” adds Alivia.
Campus visits are an ideal way to get to know a school, as students often have the opportunity to talk with current students, representatives, or even alumni, however the reality is that tours are not always possible for international students. Gregg emphasizes that while it’s hard to get a true sense of what a school is like without seeing it in person, it’s not impossible. In addition to using the school’s website as a starting point, Gregg recommends students and parents use credible resources and tools such as guidebooks like The Fiske Guide to Colleges, Colleges that Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges, and Princeton Review’s The Best 379 Colleges, to shed further light on what it’s like to go to a particular school.
Websites that have student comments like College Confidential and Unigo can also provide useful insight and opinions. However, Gregg cautions that when using the Internet and books remember “one man’s opinion may not be another’s and not necessarily factual. The more resources you consult, the more you may be able to iron out any inconsistencies. Also, if you read something that looks questionable, contact the admission office directly,” he says.
Alivia came up with her final list of schools based on where she’d ideally like to live. Notably, in addition to the sisters’ common schools, only Alivia is applying to West Coast colleges in sunny Southern California: University of California, San Diego and University of California, Santa Barbara. The beachside Santa Barbara campus comes in as her top choice. “I don’t want just the city, like New York University. Campus plays a big part for me,” she says.
Caroline’s first pick is Fordham University. She explains that campus’ surrounding cities helped determine the schools she’s applying to. “Coming from Beijing, I like the big city feel. I don’t want just a college town – I want to have things to do around me.”
Brooke doesn’t necessarily have a top school in mind. “I like all the schools I applied to so I’ll just see after I get in,” she says.
Gregg agrees that one of the best methods for coming up with a list of schools comes down to location and personality match. He advises students to ask themselves the following questions when doing university research: Do you prefer cities, suburbs, or countryside? Do you want hot, cold, rain, and snow? Do you prefer mountains, beaches, or flat plains? Do you want a big, small, or medium-sized institution? Where can you get involved or pursue activities that you are interested in?
Some teens may know exactly what they want to study, but it’s also common for students to have only a vague idea or even to change majors. One of the best ways students can significantly narrow down their pool of choices is to have a set major in mind. Brooke has applied for nursing programs and seems to have the most concrete idea about what she’ll do in the future. Caroline and Alivia have a more general idea of what they will major in; either sports management or business for Caroline, while Alivia says she’s been influenced by her time abroad and is considering studying international business.
Help Wanted? – Making the Final Call
The second time we meet the triplets, it’s the middle of May and acceptances have recently come in. Brooke was accepted into the nursing program at University of South Carolina where she will join her older sister. To their disappointment, Caroline was initially deferred from her top choice at Fordham while Alivia was also deferred at Northeastern, one of her two top schools. “We didn’t get rejected but we were still both really upset,” says Alivia. “Later we found out we both got in so it all worked out.”
Tasked with choosing between Northeastern University and University of California, Santa Barbara, Alivia has decided to go to Santa Barbara, where she will run for the school’s Division 1 track and field team, and study communications, “probably marketing or advertising.”
The girls say family had an instrumental role in their application process, from writing essays up to making a final decision on where to go. “Although Mom thought I should choose Northeastern because she doesn’t think I’ll get much work done in Santa Barbara,” says Alivia. “Because of its reputation for the beach and parties.”
The girls agree that outside input, specifically when it came to writing essays, proved stressful as multiple people gave conflicting feedback. “Three family members would say three different things and it’s hard to incorporate all the different perspectives,” says Brooke.
Though parents will have an obvious influence on a their child’s applications and final university choice as they are likely paying for tuition, Gregg reminds parents to keep in mind that the student will be the one going to school, not them, and that they should be proud no matter where their child chooses to attend. Gregg advises students to be upfront with their parents and says school counselors should act as an intermediary for students if there is conflict.
Gregg says counselors may also get students thinking about the overall educational experience and even make suggestions about schools that are off the radar. Caroline agrees. “Our counselor [Heather Pineda] really helped me with choosing my schools. She asked me questions that made me think about why I want to go to each school and helped me question each decision,” she says. “And she responds really quickly,” Alivia adds. “I didn’t start my [Common Application] essay until the beginning of Year 13 and had to do several drafts. She really helped me make my essay as good as it could be.”
Pineda also helped Brooke stick with her initial university choice after input from friends caused her to question the decision. “Our classmates are very academic and applied to Ivy League schools like Harvard; they don’t consider fit as much,” she admits. “Everyone was questioning me on why I’m choosing South Carolina over Northeastern when Northeastern has a higher ranking and the co-op program, where you get work experience while you’re in school. But our counselor knows me pretty well and reassured me that I’m making the right decision.”
“Ms. Pineda is really good because she’s trying to change the mentality about ranking,” adds Caroline. “Even though Ivy Leagues are some of the ‘best schools,’ it might not be the best fit for you or your major and a lot of people forget that.”
Basing school choice solely on ranking as opposed to other, more reliable indicators such as fit is a common mistake says Gregg. He finds that managing families’ expectations is of utmost importance as top schools are not for everyone. “Everyone assumes they would ‘dream’ to go to Harvard, but ask yourself, is that really the best environment for you? Be reasonable and appropriate.”
Contrary to popular belief, especially in China, ranking and name recognition do not tell the whole story of a school. “Schools have been caught manipulating SAT scores, or spending loads of money to build more prestigious programs which raise their rankings. Increasing the number of applicants, which in turn lowers their admittance rate, also influences a school’s ranking,” Gregg says.
What factors do tell a fuller story? Gregg points to student retention, job placement after graduation, and student satisfaction, as more quantifiable and reliable factors. Lastly, Gregg points out that while it’s hard for any one person to know everything, college counselors are generally an invaluable source of help and information. “There are always lots of unfounded rumors floating around,” he says. “Talk to your counselor often. They can get to know you and help define what kind of school and experience you want.”
Before wrapping up, we have one last question for the triplets: What will be the hardest part about leaving Beijing? “Well,” Alivia begins, “We haven’t really…” “Ever been apart before,” Brooke says, finishing her sister’s sentence. “The one time I’ve been apart from them was when they went to track camp,” adds Caroline. “It’ll be different.”
Famous Last Words – Advice to incoming seniors and Year 13 students
On essays and research
"Have a schedule for essays: how many you need
to write, brainstorm topics, and mark down
when you’re going to finish each draft.
Also, do thorough research. I went into
applications liking all my schools and thinking I wouldn’t mind going to any of them, but once I learned more I realized some actually
weren’t the best fit for me. I didn’t do much more research beyond the tours we went on with our older sister; I stuck with what I knew. Looking back, I probably would have applied to different schools
than my sister’s and done more research based on my major."
On number of schools
"Don’t forget to apply to your safety schools!
Also, it’s not necessary to apply to more
than 10 schools. A lot of our friends applied
to something like 20 even though our
school policy says no more than 10.
We have two college counselors at DCB; one
focuses on the US and one on the UK.
It doesn’t help if people apply to 20 schools."
On creativity and starting early
"Start early because applications
are time consuming. Every college I applied
to had a very different application and it
was really hard juggling with the IB.
[International Baccalaureate Programme].
Also, most of my supplement essay topics
weren’t connected so you have to think about
what qualities you have and find a
creative way of saying it."
Gregg’s Expert Advice
“Set out your goals, learning style, and once again, think about where you want to live and learn.
Finding the right fit takes time and research. If you haven’t found a school yet, that’s great. You have many of schools to choose from; keep researching and investigating. The more thorough you are, the better your choices will be. Take the appropriate amount of time to dedicate to the job ahead. Finally, remember, your final year in school is your full time job, applying to school is your part-time job. Do well in school. You have not finished high school until you graduate.”
The College Commandments Checklist: Gregg’s top ten tips on applying to US Schools
1.Always make sure you are honestly appraising your abilities and talents.
2.Expect the unexpected in your research.
3.Don’t follow the crowd. You are an individual and there are a group of schools that are a fit for you.
4.Know what you want and what you think you want to study. But remember, you may change your major, possibly more than once. That being said, make sure the schools you choose have everything you would possibly want to study.
5.Truly consider where you want to live and study.
6.Make sure your list is comprised of a healthy range of schools that are Foundation, Core and Appropriate Reach.
7.Research, research and more research.
8.Get to work early on the application, especially the essay.
9.Manage your time and set a plan to get through all aspects of the process.
10.If you have not started yet for next year, do it now. Multitask to get through all the pieces of the application.
Dulwich College Beijing
Beijing Riviera Campus: 1 Xiangjiang Beilu, Jingshun Lu, Chaoyang District (8450 7676, email@example.com) www.dulwich-beijing.cn 朝阳区京顺路香江北路1号香江花园
This article originally appeared on page 42-47 of the beijingkids August 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Courtesy of Lisa and Bruce Schlueter