1) Be strategic in taking the SAT or the ACT
In the United States, students take their first test in the spring (in fact, many schools set aside a school day for students to sit for it) because testing early gives them plenty of time to retest if necessary. I’ve found it’s common for international students to wait until the fall to take their standardized tests, but this is not recommended because late test score results could exclude your student from applying at all, and there won’t be time to improve the results if he or she has an off day.
Additionally, make sure your child takes the test that best suits them. Wondering which one that might be? You should read an article I wrote a while ago outlining the differences between the two tests: Which is better - the SAT or the ACT?. Your child should take the test that is going to make him or her the most competitive in the eyes of admissions officers.
It is very important that you remember these admissions tests are graded on a curve. This means that your child’s score is determined by comparing their performance against other test takers. So, while for most the SAT is “easier”, it is easier for everyone who takes it. And since the ACT is harder for everyone who takes it, this is something your student can use to their advantage.
Your child should take full, timed practice tests to see which one they perform better on.
2) In fact, be strategic in taking the TOEFL or the IELTS as well
For the same reasons listed above, plan for the TOEFL or the IELTS carefully. It is hard to compare the two directly, as they cater to different skill-sets, so you can consider the following yes/no statements:
- I have decent handwriting.
- I am comfortable talking to people.
- I am able to understand a variety of English dialects.
- I prefer tests with multiple question types (true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, etc.)
- I am comfortable communicating about non-academic subjects.
- The majority of the English I engage with is for entertainment purposes, rather than academic.
If you answered “yes” to the majority of these statements, then IELTS is probably the better test for you.
Now consider these yes/no statements:
- I am comfortable talking into a microphone to record spoken responses.
- I can type quickly.
- I prefer multiple choice questions.
- I am most comfortable with American English.
- I am comfortable communicating about academic subjects.
- The majority of the English I engage with is academic, rather than entertaining.
If you answered “yes” to the majority of these statements, then TOEFL is probably the better test for you.
That aside, my clients often find IELTS to be easier. This is because it focuses more on "general" English, but it is best for you to consider which of the two tests play into your child’s strengths.
3) Go both deep and broad with the extracurriculars
Your child needs to show both a breadth and a depth of extracurricular involvement to build what I call a “T-Shaped” profile. Gone are the days of tackling music, sports, community service, debate, and student government simultaneously. Now, admissions committees want to see students who have really developed themselves in one or two areas, particularly within the last couple years of high school, because it shows commitment. Your child will be most competitive if he or she finds one (or two) things they’re truly passionate about and takes it beyond a standard level. What do I mean? If your child likes to play the violin, they can go deeper than simply playing in the school orchestra by doing things like composing their own music, teaching younger children in the community, or playing fundraisers for causes they care about.
4) Make sure you are demonstrating interest - including opening school emails
One important factor in university admissions is demonstrated interest. Simply put, schools prefer students who genuinely want to be there. These days, universities are using big data to track demonstrated interest, such as whether or not your child is following them on social media, visits the campus, reaches out to the admissions department, and - yes - is opening their email correspondences. I recommend that all clients start a new email account just for college applications because schools send out a lot of information, and it can be easy to be annoyed and/or overwhelmed by it all. When you do this, please make sure your son or daughter’s email name is professional.
5) Hone the art of the essay
Strong essays are imperative to your child’s success in the admissions process. They are the “window” admissions committees use to understand who your son or daughter is as a person - their passions, motivations, and unique characteristics. Working with clients, the essays are the most challenging (and often most stressful) part of the application. So, with that in mind, I offer you four tips to make your student’s essays stand out:
Make sure your child uses his or her own voice
In other words, have your child write in a way they would speak - using language they would use in everyday life. Do not have them get out a thesaurus to replace their words with new, different, or difficult words because this will sound inauthentic (trust me, admissions committees can easily spot a thesaurized essay).
Also, as a non-native English speaker, it can be powerful to incorporate Chinese words or phrases into the essay. When done correctly, this makes the essay more original and reminds the reader of your child’s multilingual and multicultural background.
Show and then tell
You’ve probably heard this one before, but it’s true: Admissions officers want to glean who your child is through stories and examples. You absolutely want your essay to use language to paint a picture, inviting the reader into your son or daughter’s world. Doing so demonstrates that you are a strong writer.
But, don’t stop with the pretty pictures. Your child must also explain “so what.” Why is his or her story important? What was learned from it? How did he or she change as a result of the experience? By explaining the “why” after the story, your student will demonstrate their critical thinking skills and maturity.
Grab the reader’s attention immediately
This, too, is not new advice; however, if you want (hint: you do) admissions officers to pay you attention to your child’s essay, they must grab their attention right away.
6) Apply Early
Applying Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) will give your child a huge advantage. I wrote an article, Applying EA & ED: It Works, that will explain this in further detail, and, though it’s a couple years old, the advice is still firm. Why?
Most schools have higher EA/ED acceptance rates, but selective schools accept TRIPLE their EA/ED applicants than their RD applicants. This is partially because those who apply early tend to be the more motivated and organized students (the students universities are most interested in).
Applying early also demonstrates interest. Ultimately, universities are interested in accepting students they believe are likely to attend their institution. This guarantees tuition and increases their yield rate. Universities consider EA/ED applicants to be serious about attending their institution and are thus more likely to admit them.
7) Have your child apply to schools that are less popular with local families
Geographical diversity is important in admissions. By adding a few less-popular schools to your child’s list, you increase his or her chances of admission to a good school in the US. I am not saying you should decrease the ranking or rigor of the school, but rather consider comparable schools that are outside of those your child’s friends are focused on. Simply research admitted student profiles, then find similar programs that receive far fewer applications from students in your area. For example, Wellesley and Amherst are popular liberal arts colleges, while comparable Bowdoin and Oberlin do not draw as many applications from international students.
8) Make a schedule
Time is a fleeting resource. It is easy to get immersed in day-to-day responsibilities if you don’t create a concrete plan to build your child’s profile. Students in the United States have access to counselors who begin them on the road to college in grade 7 or 8. It is perfectly fine if you haven’t, but you will need to create a plan as soon as possible and stick to it (after all, perseverance is a top quality in any college applicant). I’ve published my recommended timeline from the summer before 11th grade through admission. Please check it out to make sure your child is on track.
➽➽➽If you would like more help with your child’s application, consider working with me directly. I will make sure their applications are strong, attention-grabbing, and worthy of any of your target schools.