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How US universities evaluate their prospective students

In my five and a half years as Head of Admissions in the United States for EF Academy, I’ve found that the number one reason international students choose to attend high school in America is to improve their chances of going to great universities in America.

This leads naturally to my follow-up question, “What do you think is special or different about American higher education that isn’t available to you in your home country or elsewhere?” Much to my pride as an American-raised academic, most students and their parents do in fact understand and admire the qualities that make American education exceptional, touting its intellectual flexibility, diversity of thought, collaborative project-based teamwork, value of the individual, and the freedom it provides students to discover their passions and hone their skills through extracurricular activity.

All too often, however, these same students and parents do not know how to properly leverage these priorities when it comes time to put their best foot forward during the university application process.

How do university admissions offices evaluate and choose from among the tens of thousands of applications they receive on an annual basis? It is important to understand how American educational philosophy plays a role in the actual decision-making.

While each university has differences in culture and priorities, the overarching goal is the same across the board: to admit qualified students who can perform at the appropriate academic level and who also will contribute to the campus community in interesting, positive ways.

Academic Ability

Unlike in some countries where a cumulative exam at the end of high school is all-determining, American universities prefer to see long-term academic strength over the entire high school career. A student’s work in grades 9, 10, 11, and in the first part of 12th grade are all relevant in determining both the academic ability and stability of a student. American undergraduate education is four years, so it follows that all four years of a student’s high school record are applicable as well.

In this way, American university admissions is a bit more forgiving for those who face test-taking anxiety, but not entirely. Because every high school is different (another hallmark of flexible American education), it is important for universities to also set some objective standards for their applicants.

This is where exams like the SAT and ACT come in to play. While not the single determining factor in the application success, these exams often serve as a basic benchmark for university admissions offices to weed out potential students who might not be able to succeed in the academic environment of the most rigorous programs.

Skills, Community, and Personal Appeal

In the fray of becoming academically prepared for universities—with a focus on attaining the highest possible grades in the most challenging possible courses—many international students miss (understandably) the uniquely American assessment of subjective, less measurable qualities.

Admissions officers at the most competitive American universities are accustomed to reviewing students with high grade point averages (GPAs) and high standardized test scores. However, they want to avoid admitting applicants who will solely be great students and test-takers at the risk of taking coveted places away from students who can contribute to campus life and university reputation in other noticeable ways as well.

Good news for students: universities value a wide range of extracurricular skills and competition as they seek to foster a dynamic, well-rounded undergraduate community. For example, I was not a competitive high school athlete, but I was highly competitive in other creative areas. I performed as an ensemble musician on flute and piccolo at a very high level, captained my school’s academic quiz bowl team and debate team, served as president of my school’s marching band, completed summer college courses at Cornell and Harvard, and gained valuable insights through international travel experiences with my teachers.

Other students might be exceptional athletes, or artists, computer coders, and/or active community service volunteers. Demonstrating special skills, as long as you are genuinely passionate about them, enhances your university application in the United States.

This “personal appeal” is also relevant in American university admissions, particularly for the most selective schools that insist on candidate interviews, and should not be overlooked. American universities value scholastic achievement and special skills, and they also value genuine, thoughtful people who demonstrate both self-awareness and awareness of the broader world around them.

Even in the absence of a required candidate interview, students should select their teacher recommendations carefully. They want to ask teachers who can speak not only to academic ability but also to their personal character qualities. For most, this— along with the ever-crucial personal statement essay— are the only opportunities to demonstrate the important “human side” to their university applications.

Ultimately, students who work hard in school and who do not forget to make room for deeper exploration of their interests and talents— performing well and having fun at the same time— will find an American university where they will be both happy and successful, putting themselves on a trajectory for a lifetime of opportunities.

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