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Deciphering US universities’ international admission criteria

Your exam results matter the most when deciding which applicant to admit. Source: Shutterstock

Recently, the University of Chicago made headlines for dropping its SAT/ACT requirement for all undergraduate applicants.

It’s part of the research university’s ambitious new plan to attract a broader range of applicants, namely those from low-income families or those who are the first in their family to attend university. The new programme will invite applicants to submit a two-minute video introduction of themselves as part of the initiative to make admission more accessible for under-resourced and underrepresented students.

“We want students to understand the application does not define you – you define the application,” said James G Nondorf, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Chicago.

For international students at Chicago, however, the SAT/ACT score requirement remains.

For years, educators and policymakers have debated over the necessity of SAT/ACT scores, although it should be noted that this requirement represents only one facet – albeit an important one – of the debate surrounding the role of standardised testing in admissions.

Nonetheless, now is a good time as any to emphasise that the ultimate aim of any college or university’s admission criteria is to measure the applicant, ie. you.

Huge differences remain in terms of education systems worldwide, resulting in the myriad of qualifications each confers. It can be hard deciphering the requirements universities post on their websites, but when it comes to applying for undergraduate courses at US universities, these are the common requirements international students should be aware of at the time of writing:

1. ACT or SAT scores

Your book smarts are still the main area of assessment. Source: Hannah Busing on Unsplash

This refers to how well you performed in the originally titled American College Testing and Scholastic Aptitude Tests, respectively. Nothing carries more weight than your scores on these tests as well as your pre-university grades.

Almost all four-year colleges and universities possess this requirement as it’s a relatively quick way for admission teams to assess an applicant’s merit.

Fun fact: SAT testers from East Asia/Pacific do better than American testers, scoring 1241 on average and higher in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, according to the 2017 International College Board Data Trends.

2. GPA

This usually refers to the grades you earned during pre-university studies like A-Level, International Baccalaureate and the likes, but not secondary school qualifications such as IGCSE or O-Level exams.

Basically, it’s the equivalent to the qualification that would allow you to gain admission to a university in your home country or country of graduation.

3. Extracurricular activities

According to Steve Loflin, founder and CEO of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, “Extracurricular activities matter more than you think.”

US colleges look for the “holistically” “well-rounded” students, gauging how well you do in activities outside class is a necessary supplement to your SAT and pre-university grades.

Pro tip: institutions look for diversity, so your extracurricular activities (preferably those with a multinational and multicultural perspective) could be what sets you apart from the thousands of applicants.

4. Admission essay

It’s common to require applicants to write essays as part of their admission. This is where the applicant has the chance to showcase their academic prowess.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2011 State of College Admission report, the majority of colleges and universities believe the admission essay to be of “considerable or moderate importance” in deciding which qualified students to choose from.

Interesting volunteer work such as teaching in Myanmar should be highlighted in your essay. Source: Dead___Artist on Unsplash

If two candidates have similar SAT scores, the success of your essay will often determine who gets in.

5. Language proficiency

As institutions are pressed to select candidates based on how well they will likely perform now and into the future, the international candidate needs to demonstrate that he or she has the ability to participate in class and keep up with coursework, ie. have a good command of English.

For US institutions, this means the applicant from abroad would have to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and submit their scores to show they are advanced English speakers.

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