Friday, May 3, 2013

[ADMISSIONS EXPERT] Mr. Donald Back: Keep in mind that you are special!

1. Many international students come from countries that may have a dramatically different admission system that is mostly based on test scores. Could you take us through the admission criteria here in the U.S.?
What schools look for in applications will vary according to the size of the school.  Very large schools are unlikely to spend a lot of time on reviewing personal statements; they will likely pay more attention to grades and SAT or ACT scores in the admissions decision.  Smaller liberal arts colleges are going to give more emphasis to the personal statement.

Many students will ask what grades they will need to get into your school, or what kind of SAT score?  Will a student with a TOEFL score of 100 be given more preference than a student with an 80 at a school with an 80 requirement?  We need to keep in mind that the TOEFL score is a qualifying score.  It will not matter, once the requirement is met, how many points a student obtains over that requirement.

As far as grades and SAT scores, schools generally look at students in competition with each other.  The school will choose from its applicant pool the best qualified students from those who have at least met the minimum thresholds.   Using this strategy of picking the best students, universities will continuously improve their applicant pools over time.   If SAT or ACT scores are required at a university, definitely focus on those results. 

2. How do you recommend students to schedule a timeline for their applications to schools and which resources can help students find information about schools?

Students should begin looking for universities as early as possible, beginning as early as their junior year in high school.  They should apply by the university’s deadline in their senior year.  

I suggest students start by identifying six to eight different schools they want to apply to.   Two to three of these schools should be a “stretch”, that is more difficult to get into; two to four schools should be good schools which seem to be within the student’s grade and SAT range; two to three should be backup schools, that is a bit easier to get into.

There are also many resources available to assist you in your college search.  Some of these are:
•             University websites
•             College fairs
•             Virtual college fairs
•             U.S. Department of State - EducationUSA

3. The concept of extracurricular activities and highlighting them can be new or difficult for some international students, what are some skills students can highlight to help them stand out?

Keep in mind that you are special.  You are special in some way and perhaps many ways.  That makes you an excellent student for some university - the right university for you.

I would talk about any kind of work that you have done, even if it is relatively menial.  Extra-curricular activities that you like to do at your school are important.  These could be school clubs, or different kinds of training or activities you are participating in.  Volunteer activities are great - if you are volunteering time at an area hospital or helping to keep your community clean or assisting older people then talk about your experience.  All of these things are interesting. 

If you are competitive and involved in any kind of sports or competitions, this is good to point out.  I talked to a few students a few weeks ago that were involved in robot competitions.  That would be a wonderful thing to highlight because it is very unique.  Maybe there are other things that make you special.  Maybe you love to write or enjoy reading literature or poetry.  Whatever it is about you, tell your prospective university about it on your personal statement.

4. International students who want to pursue a degree in the U.S. may be worried about their English language ability. What would be your recommendation (i.e. ESL programs, Conditional admissions) for these students?

This is a common concern of students from non-English speaking countries. 

Many universities in the U.S. have their own English language programs to help international students who need to improve their English to qualify for university admission.  These programs are generally called English as a second language (ESL), intensive English or American English programs.  The university’s English program office or the admissions office is usually the starting point for conditional admission.  Here at Virginia Tech, for example, the conditional admission process is managed by the Language and Culture Institute. 

Conditional admission is an excellent way to proceed if a student does not have a high enough TOEFL or IELTS score, but otherwise meets admission requirements (for example, grades and SAT or ACT prerequisites).  The university will issue a letter which states that a student is eligible for admission if the student attends their English training program and completes the language course.  In some cases, students can also complete SAT or ACT requirements while under conditional admission status. 

The main advantage of conditional admission is that students know that their grades are acceptable at the university they want to attend and that the university has the intention to admit them.  For most students, this could make the difference in getting into the university that they really want to attend versus getting into school that is a second or third choice.

Mr. Donald Back is the Director of Virginia Tech's Language and Culture Institute. Mr. Back has advised international students on attending colleges and universities in the United States for 25 years, and has actively traveled abroad for this purpose for nearly 10 years. He holds a Master’s degree in International Education from the University of Massachusetts.

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