Congratulations! Making the choice to study in the United States is the first of many decisions you’ll have to make as you begin the college application and admissions process. Navigating the American college and university system can be overwhelming, this is exactly why we created our mobile app, Vitae.me (download here for iOS and Android), which parents and students can use to organize the application process anytime, anywhere. Following the steps below can serve as a general guide as you begin this journey:
First, identify the field(s) of study that interest you most. What are you most passionate about? When asked what you would like to do for a career, what do you say? This is the ideal starting point since you will want to focus your American college/university search on those schools that have programs and majors related to your career goals. For example, if you plan to study engineering in school, you will want to make sure the colleges you apply to have an established engineering program and major. As you search, create a list of schools you think you’d like to apply to. It’s best to have a variety of schools on your list-small, large, private, public, "reach" schools and "safety" schools.
Once you’ve created your college list, your next step will be to create a testing plan. Look at each school on your list and determine what tests you will be required to take: Some universities only require the ACT or TOEFL, while others may request you complete SAT subject tests in the subject(s) you plan to study. To give yourself enough time to prepare for the various standardized tests you’ll be required to take, it is best to create a testing plan at least a year before you begin your applications. You also will need to identify the latest test dates individual schools on your list will accept-be prepared to have taken all your standardized tests (ACT, TOEFL, SAT) before that date or your scores will not be received by the school in time to make an admissions decision. It is also important at this stage to research the scores you’ll need to be admitted to the colleges or universities of your choice. For example, the average ACT composite score for an incoming Harvard University student is a 34.
After you have identified all of the tests you’ll be required to take, research tests dates for each of those tests and register. It always better to over-register and take some of these tests more than once, since it is likely your scores will fluctuate each time you take the test. Once you have the test dates on your calendar, creating a plan to prepare for each test in a timely fashion is essential. You want to have enough time to practice thoroughly for each test and enough time between tests to improve with additional practice. Working with professional tutors at this stage is extremely helpful, as they will be able to tailor a practice plan for you and maximize your opportunity for growth and progress on these tests, often resulting in impressive test score gains over time.
Assembling your resume is the next step. When you create your resume, be sure to include any and all work experience, academic honors, extracurricular activities, internships, and other important information. It is best to have a professional look over your draft resume once it is complete; they will be able to identify anything that is missing or hindering your acceptance into an elite university. This step is really tough for a student or student’s family to do themselves as they often do not have the same professional experience or in-depth knowledge of the various colleges that a resume specialist does. In addition, especially for students wanting to go to an Ivy League school or other elite institution, this is the part of the application that can set you apart from other applicants- and a professional can help you determine the types of extracurricular activities, achievements, or courses you’ll need to make your application look its best to a school’s selection committee.
Essays are a major part of most applications. These essays often take weeks to write and are another key hurdle students must overcome in the college application process. Start by brainstorming the skills, experiences, and accomplishments you would like to highlight in your essays. As you write your essays, be thoughtful and authentic; these essays are the main way colleges get to know you. While the quality of your writing on these essays will be important, the quality of the essay’s main idea is really what determines how good an essay will be and how well it will be received. Since many college’s essay prompts are similar it is a good idea to aggregate the essay topics, identify those with common themes, and write essays in batches-reusing ideas, phrases, or topics when appropriate. This can help you save valuable time and energy-if you apply to 8-12 universities, don’t be surprised if you have to write 12-20 essays. Getting guidance and feedback from someone with experience reviewing admissions essays is definitely a good idea-not only can they help you brainstorm original and unique essay topics and craft your essay, they can also help you edit and refine your essays once they are complete.
At this point it is probably very clear to you that the college applications process is very complex. You’ll need to be organized and focused each step of the way. The final part of this process, preparing the actual applications and submitting them, is no different. It is a good idea once you’ve created your college list to also find out the submission deadlines for each school (for example: the University of California application is open from 1-30 November, many universities have early application options due 1 November, while many others will have 1 January deadlines). It is imperative to send off your applications by the due date. There is no advantage to sending applications closer or farther away from the deadline, but they must not be late. Applying to college is an exciting yet stressful time in any student’s life. We wish you the best as you navigate the process and are here to help provide expertise, support and guidance should you want a professional to help you demystify the process and help you reach your goals.