Play the university application game for a brighter future

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Preparing a university application form may be daunting to many high school graduating students. It is important to work hard, get the grades you need and explore your activities.
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Preparing a university application form is one of the most daunting tasks a high school graduating student will go through. That is why it is important to work hard, get the grades you need and support the application with extracurricular and supercurricular activities.

Play the university application game for a brighter future

Standing out in a crowded college applicants list

I’m often asked by parents: “What should my child be doing to prepare for a university application?” There is a relatively straightforward answer — they should work hard on their academic courses.

This might seem obvious, but academic grades are still the most vital component of any university application. Nonetheless, it’s true that grades by themselves are not enough to guarantee a pupil will get an offer from a world-leading university. To achieve this goal, extracurricular and supercurricular activities are key in supporting a candidate’s application.

Extra vs supercurricular

The term extracurricular refers to those activities that a pupil takes in addition to and outside of their core academic program, whether at school or not.

The term supercurricular is less commonly used and refers to those activities which seek to extend knowledge of a specific subject beyond the boundaries of any official curriculum that the pupil may be studying. Broader extracurricular activities are much more important when applying to US-style universities, whilst UK-style universities will have a narrower focus on a pupil’s supercurricular studies.

Supercurricular activities

A UK-style university will want to know that a pupil has all the relevant skills and interests to succeed at the specific subject for which they are applying. Therefore, undertaking wider reading and study will be vital in convincing subject-based academic admission tutors that a candidate deserves a place. Furthermore, this commitment to independent study will also demonstrate the type of study skills that will be needed for undergraduate study.

A pupil’s supercurricular involvement is likely to be assessed through an application essay or statement — such as the personal statement required by those applying to UK universities through UCAS and potentially an academic interview. Interviews are much more likely at world-leading universities such as Oxford or Cambridge and usually involve a sitting academic assessing a pupil’s ability and interest in their chosen subject. This can be quite a daunting experience, so it’s essential to prepare well in advance.

Play the university application game for a brighter future

Steve Tippen is director of higher education and careers at Wellington College International Shanghai.

Extracurricular activities

US-style universities wish to see a more rounded view of the candidate beyond the specific major they are applying, which a university-wide admission team will assess as part of a “holistic” admission process.

Candidates should seek to use their extracurricular activities to demonstrate how they will contribute to university life — emphasizing their wider talents and evidencing key attributes such as leadership and a commitment to the wider community. Candidates will generally need to include a list of their most important activities and choose one as the focus of a college essay. Some universities may even allow pupils to send supplemental information (a video, extra recommendation, artwork, etc) to further enhance their application.

Regarding the type of activity, there is a long-standing myth that pupils need to have a ridiculous range of activities in specific categories: play a team sport, play an instrument, etc. This approach may work for some but it isn’t necessary. It is also vital that any activity reflects the true interest of the child. Forcing a child to take a particular activity is likely to be counter-productive.

It is true that there may be occasions where a particular talent or skill may increase the chance of a successful application. However, these are factors which are difficult to predict. Obviously, if a pupil has a particular skill which they perform at a high level, it is worth researching into the opportunities offered by different universities. Yet, when these exceptions are removed, universities don’t tend to favour one activity over another. It is what these activities say about the candidate that is important.

In closing, the top priority for any university application will be the candidate’s academic grades. Any other aspects of an application process, including extracurricular or supercurricular activities, should enhance and fit around the demands of a pupil’s core academic program. Ultimately, preparations for university study should start early, should focus on the full range of admission procedures, understanding how the different aspects of any application will be judged and ensure that the correct amount of emphasis and attention is placed on those different aspects.

(The article is contributed by Steve Tippen, director of higher education and careers at Wellington College International Shanghai.)

How to stand out from a competitive crowd

When we start the college or university search process at Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong, we begin by talking to students about the worldwide global opportunities. Every year there seems to be more diverse, more global, more interdisciplinary and overall more enticing options than ever before. So how do we help students boil this down into post-secondary research and our school’s limit of applying to 10 universities?

One of the first discussions we have with students is to consider when they felt they were truly in the “flow.” We explain “flow” as the mental state in which a person is engaged in an activity where they are fully immersed with a feeling of energized focus, involvement and success in the process of an activity. We emphasize that while courses in university can prepare one for employment, if that is all you focus on during your three-to-five years of attendance then you are missing out on the wider opportunities to truly develop.

Secondly, as we further explore their personal and academic values, we talk to students about what they want to study and what problems they want to solve. We want them to see their post-secondary years as a means to engage in the world not simply as it is, but as it could be. At Dulwich we find we have as many students pursuing pre-professional degrees in business, medicine and engineering, and just as many interested in sustainability, international development, the liberal arts and humanities.

Location of their university for access to their family and support network, as well as future living and work visas, is equally important.

We are planning for the next three-to-five years of study and also for the next three-to-six years of post-tertiary life.

This is often a new parameter for students to think about. As the importance of internships and relevant work experience have increased during university study, so has the value of being able to access those same networks once a student graduates and wants to enter employment.

Finally, we remind students that they remain in the driver’s seat of this decision.

We are fortunate to receive over 250 university admission representatives a year from all over the world to whom our students can ask questions and learn what academic and extracurricular opportunities there are on campus.

Play the university application game for a brighter future

Kathleen Schultz is director of university counselling at Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong.

Ways to stand out among your competitors?

Young people from China make up the largest number of international students worldwide. So how does a student stand out from other applicants in this competitive arena amongst the many young people who are academically eligible? University representatives unanimously report, “We’re looking for students who are curious about the world around them. We like students who ask the questions other students don’t ask. We’re looking for the innovators — the students who take things as they are and make something new out of them.”

So much of students’ time is spent in front of adults and in school and structured activities that it is sometimes difficult for them to switch off the dutiful part of them and turn on the creative part. At Dulwich we start this process of self-assessment and awareness through a university counselling lens as early as Year 7 (11 years old).

It takes time to cultivate the initiative, intellectual curiosity, independence and innovativeness that will be the foundation for life outside the classroom, but by Year 12, the activities that remain on their busy schedules are the ones to highlight in a university application.

I have been continually impressed with the way that Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong has supported students with an emphasis, not just on academics but, on staying involved in all activities through their graduation.

(The article is contributed by Kathleen Schultz, director of university counselling at Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong.)

How to create a university application list

The first advice I would give students would be to use your school’s university counsellor as much as possible.

Something I always tell my students is that they only get to play the “university application game” once but your counsellor has played it, depending on their experience, hundreds if not thousands of times.

Use that experience to your advantage. If your school doesn’t have a university counsellor, then try and ask some teachers for advice. The more help you can get from people who have experience with the process, the better.

Finance is important. Have an open conversation with your parents and try and get a ballpark figure about what your family can afford. Yes, there are some universities that can offer scholarships or financial aid but you don’t want all of your choices to have to rely on that, so take a look at the costs carefully. There is nothing worse than getting an offer from a school that you can’t afford to attend.

What are the university entry requirements? The first thing you need to do is to take a look at what the university requires. Is it only grades? If it is, how do yours match up? Or is it a holistic application?

A holistic application means that the admission will be based on not just academic grades but on your character, essays and extracurricular activities. For those universities where applications are holistic, it is important to note that you must meet their minimum academic requirements first before they would start to look at other factors.

Play the university application game for a brighter future

Mark Donagher, head of Counselling Department at SSIS, has been involved in international education for over 20 years, including 11 years as a university counsellor.

Next I would look at location. Besides what country, students need to consider the climate, city or countryside location and the number of students.

Going to a small rural school in the northeast of the United States will be a very different experience to a large midwest state university.

What about rankings? I think focusing solely on rankings is not smart. Make a list of what is really important for you in a school, between six and eight factors, and then try and find schools that meet those needs, such as the minimum academic requirements and affordability. Rankings should be no more than one factor on your list.

Go for two or three reach universities that would be really hard for you to get in to; two or three fit universities where you have a good chance of getting in and at least one safety university where you are sure you can get accepted if all else fails.

Good luck!

(The article is contributed by Mark Donagher, head of Counselling Department at SSIS.)

A guidance counsellor helps you make right choice

Choosing a university is an exciting time: a fresh start, studying the subject you love and getting your own independence. It can be, however, a difficult and stressful time: Will I get the grades? Is this the right university? Is this the right course? These questions and many more can plague students and families as they prepare to apply to thousands of choices of great courses and institutions across the globe. Luckily, at Nord Anglia International School Shanghai, Pudong, we have the perfect program and a proven track-record in getting students on to their first-choice courses in world-leading institutions.

Starting early

Kathryn Watson, our experienced and dedicated university guidance counsellor, has over 10 years’ experience in helping students make the right choice of university from a mind-boggling array of options. Her best piece of advice is to start early. That’s why university guidance really begins in Key Stage 3 through our excellent Guidance Program. During this period, students are introduced to the world of higher education and careers.

“Not that students are asked to choose now, but it is hugely important to sow the seed when students are younger as it helps them define what they want and helps toward the important choices to be made at IGCSE in Year 9,” Watson said.

The annual university fair, held at NAIS in March, invites younger students to attend and ask questions through a scavenger-hunt activity that makes it less intimidating, while older students have the time and space to explore options with representatives of universities from around the world. Not only that, every year people from industry come to the school to speak about their professions to all year groups explaining the various pathways to employment in these areas including university options.

The Guidance Program introduces students to the possibility of university choices in an open-minded and accessible way. Students undertake psychometric testing, curriculum vitae and letter-writing courses and learn interview techniques while in Key Stage 3 and 4. Later on, in Year 12, the Bridge-U Program is offered to help refine choices. All along the way, Watson holds university lunchtime talks with representatives from global colleges and spends her days interviewing students about appropriate courses.

“Much of these sessions focus on encouraging students and supporting them while also building independence. We do a great deal of searching through the student’s particular needs and wants and then begin the process of honing down decisions,” she said.

Meetings with parents and students together are also a central aspect of the process and helps in making good choices. It is with great pride that NAIS boasts an enviable sticking rate — very few students drop out of university or decide to transfer, because we ensure the choices are right before they go.

Tailored provision

Because each student is different, the provision for each student is also varied and bespoke. At NAIS, we have a gloriously diverse student body, so university guidance has to be underpinned by expert advice on UK options and the UCAS system as well as US colleges and the SAT/ACT tests, as these are the most popular destinations. However, we also have expert understanding of how to apply to Asian institutions, Indian universities and European colleges.

Watson attends the annual CIS Higher Education Counsellor Conference in order to establish networking links with university admissions officers that also helps put our students in ideal position.

When students enter Year 11, they also have the option to spend a week touring UK universities on the annual university trip. Rather than buy an off-the-shelf tour, Watson makes the tour economical and tailored to the kind of institutions that our families wish to see, so the tour is a perfect way to introduce students to college life and allows them to see what a university looks like. This process is an inspiring opportunity for students to get a face-to-face view of the university system and some of the social aspects of life on campus.

In Year 12, Watson begins the process of teaching how to write a college application essay and personal statement. Students can find this tricky as it requires writing about a wide variety of experiences with a limited word count. This tough process is handled on a one-to-one basis with our students receiving individual feedback and the ability to consult with subject teachers for advice. Throughout life in the IB Academy, students are supported by a highly knowledgeable, professional team.

Medical, art, Oxbridge

We are very proud to have students accepted to a wide range of universities, but some require more dedicated support, such as those students who apply to medicine, Oxbridge, art courses or engineering where interviews are expected. Oxbridge potential is spotted early and supported in the junior years through The Critical Thinking Club but in Year 12 the process is further developed with students being assigned a mentor from the teaching body. The same is true of medicine applicants who are given support through MedSoc, a weekly society that prepares for medical entry, and also through dedicated tutors helping students prepare for the exams and interviews.

Overall, the university process at NAIS Pudong is made easy and enjoyable through a wide range of activities all run by our dedicated university counsellor Watson. We are exceptionally proud of the fantastic university offers achieved by our students and love hearing about their experiences when they come back to visit. It is not uncommon for our alumni to host sessions with our students and also to talk at assembly about their experiences.

Therefore, at NAIS Pudong we are confident that our students have the opportunity to access beneficial courses and this is a result of strong ambition, expertise and tailored support.

(The article is contributed by Michael Watson, assistant head of Secondary at NAIS Pudong.)

Play the university application game for a brighter future

The importance of choosing the best school

You’ve worked diligently in school, engaged in leadership through activities, and now it’s time to consider where you want to apply to university, an equal mix of feeling excited and overwhelmed. With literally thousands of universities to choose from, in dozens of countries, how do you know where to start? You could simply look up a list online and consider that your college list, but are those schools really the best options for you?

It’s important to start the process of deciding where to apply by taking stock in what is important to you; not only the university experience but understanding your personal value system. These values and other important items are considered your criteria, essentially the road map you use to filter universities through as you do research, which eventually leading to schools that are a “good fit.”

Criteria can be a range of things: values and beliefs, activities that you hope to continue, research opportunities, post-graduation employment or internship availability, or reputation of a particular program. I specifically note the reputation of a program as an important criterion to consider, because many rankings you see don’t take into consideration individual programs but possibly just the school in general. Recognizing the reputation of the program is vital because this will be where you gain the knowledge, skills and professional connections to advance you. A good resource to help identify your criteria and find universities that match can be found at website Collegexpress.

Play the university application game for a brighter future

Michelle Klar is high school counselor at CISS.

Many families might ask, “Why is a good fit important when choosing universities in which to apply?”

Universities routinely look at student retention rates and the complex factors that play into whether students are satisfied and remain at their schools. Research routinely shows that when the previous expectation of the school matches the reality you experience when you actually attend, students are more satisfied. This satisfaction can lead to a greater commitment to academics, engagement and other endeavors. We see this routinely in job and career satisfaction. When a job not only fulfills your interests, but also matches your values and personality, the satisfaction tends to be greater.

Research is the key to uncover whether a school is right for you. Choosing a university to attend is a large commitment of time and money, so thoroughly understanding not only the academics and activities that are available, but also the philosophy and culture of each school is vital.

By knowing what is important to the university, you will gain an understanding of whether your personal criteria can be met or not. Don’t take others’ words for it that a university is “good” for you, but spend the time to investigate the school’s website, talk to admission representatives and determine your own conclusions. This information can become overwhelming, so many find it helpful to have a sheet listing each school you are considering with the criteria that is important to you. Then rank how each criterion is met at the individual schools. This method can assist you in making informed choices based on your fact-finding.

Lastly, it is highly beneficial to visit the university campuses you are considering when possible. There is nothing like being on the campus, speaking with professors, and interacting with other students that will help you gain clarity if a place is for you. You can often be surprised during a visit, finding the school you had been dreaming of just didn’t live up to your hopes or a school that was barely on your radar went beyond your expectations.

If you are unable to visit a university in person, most schools’ admission offices will have virtual tours and online meetings with representatives available for you. It is important to keep an open mind, as well as seek information during the visit about how the university might meet your criteria. In the end, deciding where to apply to university involves many aspects, however having an understanding of what is important to you, as well as expectations for your university experience, will help guide your research and assist you in making decisions.

(The article is contributed by Michelle Klar, high school counselor at CISS..)

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