Curated Interview From College Admission Officers (From Reddit’s IAmA)

As requested, IAmA college admissions officer, AMA.

  • What are the qualities you look for the most in an applicant? Do they need to be smart, artsy, quirky, or all of the above?

At my school, we do consider consider how a prospective applicant would fit in with the rest of the student body. Generally, this is due to the fact that we are fairly small, and we require everyone to live on campus. Not every student would do well in this sort of living environment. On the whole, we look for students who are intellectually curious, and would be capable of contributing to the academic and social life of the college.

  • A lot of people say that a college essay needs to be quirky or weird to get you noticed. Is this true, or do people also write equally good, yet strictly utilitarian, essays?

It depends on the school. At some schools, they simply want to see if you are able to write at a college level. Being able to write well can definitely set you apart from other applicants, although some students take it too far. The essay is your chance to let us know who you are, and is especially important if you did not interview.

  • How is an admissions decision made? Is it like a board of people who decide together, or are applications allocated to different groups/people who made decisions without input from the rest of the board?

This also varies greatly by school. At my school the applications are read by members of the admissions committee. Each application is read three times, typically by the counselor who is assigned to that particular geographic area, along with two other committee members. Decisions are generally made by the committee, although individual members can state their case if they disagree with the committee’s decision.

  • So basically it’s SAT score and GPA?

No, not at all. We are holistic in our admissions process and honestly SAT and GPA are not the most important factors. We consider rigor of secondary school education, along with class rank, to be the most important factors. We also consider things (in no particular order) such as geographic location, extracurricular, awards/honors, writing sample, interview, LoRs, personality, diversity, and alumni connection. The only factor we don’t really consider is your ability to pay and whether not you would need financial aid.

  • Does your college accept International students? If yes, what are some common issues you find on these applications?

Yes, we do accept international students. Frequently we run into the issue of having transcripts translated, but usually most students know how to deal with this. We have an entire office on campus dedicated to helping international students transition into college life here. The biggest issue is financial, since international students are not eligible for federal financial aid. However, we do offer institutional aid for international students. International students are the only category where we do consider the ability of the student/family to pay in the admissions decision, since it is a major factor.

IamA college admissions officer. AMA

  • What is the overall process of selecting a student for admission at the universities you’ve worked at (from application to acceptance)?

Once a student’s application is complete, I do a first read on the application and recommend a decision, then one of my bosses does a second read and signs off on the application. At my last school, I did the read on the application and would sign off on the final decision unless I wasn’t sure of what to do, in which case it would go to a committee made up of all of the other admissions officers and myself.

  • How can a perspective student catch your attention?

Students who ask a lot of questions grab attention. They have to be good questions, though, not things where you can easily find answers to them on the website. Say nice things to us, we like to hear nice things!

  • What are some major Do’s and Dont’s for college applications and essays?

The number 1 thing is to proofread (not like I did with this post)…lots and lots and lots. Don’t make mistakes in it, at all. Have everyone and your next door neighbor proofread it and spend some time on it. Also, don’t write what you think we want to hear. If I read one more "this is how (fill in x sport) changed my life" or "I look up to (fill in family member) because…" I will tear my eyes out. Be unique, don’t be afraid to be different.

  • How important are extracurricular activities/GPA/Standardized Testing Scores?

In order of importance (different at every school): 1. Grades/Type of classes that you are taking (AP/Honors/etc.)–Usually first 2. SAT/ACT scores 3. Personal Statement 4. (far fourth) extracurricular/recommendations. There’s a common misconception that being super super involved is going to get you into college. Yes, we like to see that you are involved–we don’t like to see people with no extracurricular. BUT, we don’t really care if you are the president of 15 clubs if you have a 2.0 GPA.

  • Any general advice for applicants?

Do the application early, and spend time proofreading. Visit the colleges/unis that you are interested in. That won’t just help you, but we like to see that you visited. Think about why you are actually applying to the school–and make sure they know your reasoning in some way. Just remember that you will need to pick a school eventually, so keep that in the back of your head while you’re doing this whole thing.

  • International Students: How does the weightage of parameters change for international students?

International students are judged pretty similarly to domestic. We care a bit more about your standardized test scores (TOEFL or SAT/ACTS) since we do need something that will compare you to domestic students.

  • International Students: How much does country of origin/study matter?

Country of origin doesn’t matter a whole lot. It doesn’t hurt to be from an underrepresented area, but at the end of the day most countries are underrepresented. At my school, major doesn’t matter a whole lot–but that really differs.

Unfortunately, ability to pay is going to factor in quite a bit more for international students. Not saying it’s fair, but there are many less financial aid options for international kids, so we want to make sure you can afford it.

Getting Your Teacher’s Recommendation Letter

A significant part of the US application package is the teacher’s recommendation letter. When I first started out asking for recommendation, I was having a hard time with it. My teachers that I seek out had never wrote any recommendation letters before. I was the first, at least the first student that they taught, who was planning to study in the US.

Luckily, I have good relationship with most of the teachers. I held some post of power that requires me to have more contacts with teachers that the average student might have. In this case, I have a legs up as they know me better and could provide examples to point out my strong traits instead of just writing “He is a smart student, a good leader etc.” Instead, I got: “He is responsible, I relied on him to do …”

Just tooting my horn a little, I held the post of Class Monitor during my final year of high school not through election, but because my teacher felt that I did such a bang up job that they want me to continue my good work for the subsequent years. So, I have a lot of goodwill and examples for support when I asked them for a recommendation.

Hence, before you start asking for recommendations, nurture a good relationship with your teachers first. That way, they will understand you better and will find it easier to give substance for your character portrayal.

If you want to, write down what you did before, your accomplishments, what you think could jog the teachers mind about you on a piece of paper. You should not direct them to do your bidding but rather lead them. The recommendation letter is
for the recommender to write something about you that you couldn’t show through your certs, cv, results etc. It is about their personal observation, their personal experience when dealing with you. So, make it easy for them to put it on paper. Prepare everything before meeting your teachers first and when asked, guide them on how to prepare the letter. Let your teacher judge your worth of salt and give them ample time to write it up.

But, for the average Malaysian, you tend to be in local college when you are starting your application. So, should you reach out for your college lecturers or your high school teachers. There is no concrete answer to this but for you to consider the tradeoff. Your high school teachers might understand you better but your lecturers could provide a more recent picture.

When I was still applying, there’s a rumor that a friend from my batch approached an American professor for a recommendation letter. What he wrote down in return was just this, “I highly recommend this student to your institution.” My friends and I have a great laugh from it. I never did confirm to see whether the letter is true. I don’t know how the admission committee would judge such a recommendation letter but that friend is studying in Berkeley now.

How To Ace Your SAT In The Least Time Possible

A lot of students stressed out when it comes to SAT.

This happens to most Malaysian students because well, it is outside of our comfort zone. We are not used to the US education system and suddenly have to take this exam to study in the US. If this doesn’t apply to you, well, lucky you.

When I first started out, it was the grind method for me. I can’t help it. There was so much to familiarize myself with that I can’t help but just plow through everything. All I did was just to read up and do as much similar SAT questions as possible.

It is important to get familiarize to the question type and the limited time to take the exam.

About two months into my preparation and almost as much time left till I take the SAT, I read upon Xiggi’s method to preparing for SAT on College Confidential.

It is good advice, something that I would try from the beginning. I measured my progress during my study session and almost came come up with similar study method as Xiggi. It allows the fastest progression in least time possible.

Here’s an extremely condensed version written by the original author. The only difference is that during Xiggi’s time, College Board published a red book known as 10 Real SAT that contain 10 past SAT exams. During my time, the format of the SAT changed and College Board released the blue book instead. There is also a new writing component to the SAT, where you need to write an essay.

Xiggi’s method

  1. Take 1-2 tests without time limit and with open books. Take your time to read the questions, answer it, and CHECK the answers, as you take the test. The idea is to make sure to understand all the terms. The score is far from relevant.
  2. Take the following 2-3 tests without time limit but close the books. Now, you are on your own. After taking the test, check the answers and make sure to check ALL your answers, including the correct ones.
  3. Take the next 2-3 tests, within the allotted time.
  4. Take the last tests and try to shave a few minutes. Look for patterns, shortcuts. Soon enough, you’ll recognize problems in a few seconds. However, make sure you READ all the questions. Trying to save 5 seconds in that part is NOT wise. Remember that you do NOT have to finish all the problems. As soon as you can determine the BEST answer with certainty, you are DONE. Managing your time wisely is the key to a great score. This comes from practice.
  5. I would also recommend working one section at a time. Spend about one hour on each section. Marathon sessions will not be as productive as repeated shorter ones.

Here is my take on the SAT. It is an exam not to test on your knowledge, but rather a test of skill. Once you get used to the pattern and able to conquer those types of questions, you will be able to take the test comfortably.

Lu’s Modification

College Board is no longer selling the 10 Real SAT, so we have to contend ourselves with the Blue Book instead. This in not a collection of past tests, but they are still from the company that produce SAT, so the questions are comparable.

Use the practice questions inside the book as in the Xiggi method. Then for the answers, College Board actually have explanations for each question in the Blue Book available online. I found them really helpful in analyzing the questions and understanding why such and such is the answer.

The downside to this is that it cost money to have access to the answer. Use them to help out with your practice. (You should realize trend by now that CB earns a lot from you) Pool with your friends to buy an access code or look for other methods online to access it.

Get the Blue Book (Official SAT Study Guide) here.

Get the Official SAT Online Course here for more practice questions from College Board.

Memorizing Strange Words

If you have started on your SAT preparation, you’ll sure to come across words that you have never heard before. I read a lot, have a couple big size dictionary at home, yet I also have a problem understanding certain words when I come upon them cause I never encounter these words before.

Look them out and write out their definitions when you come upon them. Some words are used more than others in the practice questions, so you will be more familiar with them. Other than that, try to learn a few new words a day and incorporate them into your daily speech so that you will learn them faster.

What I did actually was to rely on a book, WordSmart from Princeton Review. Inside was a list of words and their definition. It’s easier for me to refer to this than to look them up in the dictionary.

My cousin actually recommended the book to me, saying that it’s useful. She scored 1600 (max score in the old SAT) so I tend to trust her suggestions.

Get the WordSmart book here.

Essay Portion

Now, here’s what I would add to the method mentioned above. There’s a new writing component in the SAT, where you have to write an essay in just 25 minutes.I can’t believe that I’m saying this but the best way to handle this is to resort to your UPSR or PMR essay writing skills. Straight to the point and not too many use of flowery words.

This probably won’t give you the best score but with just 25 minutes, it is a safe route to get a good score. Develop your own style of writing to a point where it almost seem automatic to you.

Start with a thesis statement and expand it. Continue on with three paragraphs of content. One main point for each paragraph and 2-3 sentences for support. End the whole thing with a conclusion. Be logical and have a flow when you are writing.

It’s better to prevent your points from being cut due to grammar mistakes than to be too adventurous with your writing. The time constraint makes to hard to review and edit your essay. Also, I found that longer essays typically correlates with higher score.

Last Word

That should be all that you need to prepare for your SAT. Though I would also recommend getting a review book. I prefer the Princeton Review’s Cracking the SAT, or if you prefer more challenge, get the Barron’s SAT. Get plenty of practice, but approach the practice the smart way. I also have some past SAT tests, which I did add to my practice pile.

Before the test day, get plenty of sleep. The SAT test is a marathon and is quite taxing on your ability to focus.

Also, I understand that SAT books can be quite expensive (blame it on Malaysia’s low purchasing power). So, before you decide to buy a book, head to your nearest bookstore (MPH or Kinokuniya) to look at the price there. Then, go online to look at the prices there. Sometimes, the books that you want can be cheaper if purchased online inclusive of shipping cost though you must wait for the books to arrive. Decide whether the tradeoff is worth it or not.

Good luck, and go ACE that SAT.

US University Application Timeline

Now, this is where things get a little tricky. I could not emphasize enough how important it is to keep thing organized.

So, what I did in the past was to prepare a spreadsheet (you can do whatever that fits you). Inside, I set up everything with details and the deadlines. I will create another progress bar and pull forward those deadlines a little earlier so that I have some extra time to fall back on.

An example when this come in handy would be getting the teacher’s recommendation. Inside the spreadsheet, I would write down the teacher’s name, contact detail, and deadline etc. Since most teachers are busy, I will note in the spreadsheet at several instances to contact the teacher and ask them about how the recommendation goes.

Being organized will keep the application process less of a nightmare, especially if you are applying to a lot of schools.

Ideally, you will start this earlier but for some, like the scholarship students, the process starts around July.

For US Universities application, the application deadline would be around November (for Early Decision/Early Action) and around end of December (for Regular Decision). If you are applying to top US universities, do try to apply for ED/EA. You have a better chance of getting a spot instead of competing with other applicants in the regular round, with much higher acceptance rate. Also, you get to know the result of your application earlier, in December instead of April.

For Early Decision, if you get an offer, you would need to decide whether to accept it or not. If you accept the offer, you have to withdraw your admission from other
universities. For Early Action, there is no such clause. So, try ED?EA for the university that you really want to get into.

If you are a borderline case in ED/EA, your decision could be deferred to the regular decision instead.

Timeline

Approximately 12-15 months before enrolment

Americans usually start this process a lot earlier than stated here.

Determine the university that you want to go to. You can check reviews and basic information from books, online or email the admission officers. Consider the size, majors, activities and your other criteria  about the university when deciding.

Also, if you need financial aid, check if the university offer financial aid to international students. Not all do offer them.

Once you decided on the universities, write down the deadlines on the spreadsheet. Also, begin registering for standardized test like SAT I & II, TOEFL or ACT. You can take the SAT test in Metropolitan College, KL (7 times/year), KDU College, Penang (not sure about number of tests held) or in Sinaran Institute, KK (2 times/year).

Do register early for the test because spots filled up very fast during peak season. I remembered being indecisive of when I want to take my tests only to see that spots are gone in just days.

August

Contact the university or go to their website to print out application form. Your application can be submitted through mail or online. Begin:

  • Writing your application essays for the questions from the application form. This is a vital piece for evaluating you as a candidate for admission. So, spend a lot of time on it and don’t be surprised to constantly rewrite the essays. I asked friends who entered top universities the amount of time they spent on their essays. Most used a few hours a week writing, then tweaking and the rewrite the whole thing again and yet, some are still not satisfied until they submitted their essays.
  • Request official transcript from your school. For Malaysians, this usually involved your secondary school report card and your college transcript.
  • Ask for teacher’s recommendation. Most universities usually asked for two teachers, from different teaching field. List down your achievements and traits you want them to highlight because you want to make the teacher’s job as easy as possible. Set aside a lot of time for this because the teachers are usually busy, forgetful and it takes time to write a good recommendation letter. Don’t expect to get a quick reply during the SPM/STPM examination period.
  • Ask for counselor’s recommendation. Ditto for teacher’s recommendation.

September to January

Complete your applications and send in all your forms, transcript, standardized test results during this period (before the deadline). Also, check that your teacher’s recommendation had been sent. Follow up with the teachers to remind them. Deadlines for EA/ED are usually in November. Deadlines for RD are in late December/early January.

April

By now, your admission result should come in. Decide on which university you want to attend and notify your decision to the admission office. Complete any necessary form.

June to August

The admission office will send you future information about what you should do. Settle you finances by now along with your accommodation and insurance with the university. Pay the SEVIS fee to apply for a visa at the US embassy as soon as possible. Then make travel arrangement and you are set to go. Prepare for the unexpected. Things can and do go wrong. You can be denied a visa at the embassy etc. That’s why it’s best to settle things as quickly as possible. Also, the embassy would need to see that you are able to support yourself overseas before they will issue you the visa. Hence, the finances.

When it comes to the applying for US universities, a rule of thumb is to keep organize. Prepare for setback and overcome them as soon as possible. Pace yourself or you will be stressed out trying to rush through things.

US Education–What Makes It Different From Others

The information here are mostly from my personal experience. I had went through the whole process back in those days, and also from other applicants that I helped out with – my friends and aspiring applicants who contacted me.

I started this because I want to see more Malaysians apply to the US, in particular Sabahans. I find the general awareness of US education especially lacking for those from North Borneo. Sorry, my friends from Sarawak. You know just how disproportionate large you guys are among the top US universities population.

When I first started put exploring about the US university application process, I found it intimidating to say the least, all those forms, procedures and essays. To put it simply, Malaysians just aren’t used to the US university application process. So, I try to help out if I could. When my friends are trying to apply to US universities, some seek me out for guidance. I provided some advice, guidance and for some, reviewed their personal essays and gave pointers so that their essays showcase more of their personalities. Face it, in top US universities, competitions are stiff and every little bits help to let the applicants stood out from the crowd.

So, why US?

When I first started out, I cannot understand why would anyone want the US education. To tell the truth, if you meet me several years ago, I would have preferred the UK education system and would have aim for Oxbridge. However, I continued on to US, but that was because I had a full scholarship to go there.

In the end, money talks and that probably sums it all.

It’s flexible. It’s all about options!

During my time in the US, I truly realized why some people prefer the US education. Whereas the UK, Malaysia, or the Australian education system would provide guided road from early on, the US education system is all about one’s own path. It is all about options when it comes to the US system. During my university time, I majored in Actuarial Mathematics and Economics, picked up and later dropped an International Studies major. However, I also took an acting class out of interest. I would not have the same opportunity if I did not take the US path. In fact, US universities allowed applicants to apply as undecided whereas other system would have needed a major decided before applying.

Also, grab a copy of any top universities ranking and you will see that US institutions occupy a large number of the top spots. The large size of US meant that there are a lot of education institutions to choose from and a variety of courses to take.

If you’re good, it’s cheaper to study in US

When it comes to financial, the US tuition might appear as more expensive. But, studying in the US could actually be cheaper than in UK or in Australia because the US universities tend to be more generous with their financial aid (provided you know where to look). In a sense, think of the US education cost as a ceiling, it is possible to pay for the maximum amount but you can work to keep it from reaching the limit in the first place. But for the best ROI, nothing beats the Malaysian public universities when it comes to value for money.