Applying to U.S. Undergraduate Colleges: How?

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Global is in: it’s a good time for international students. -James Montoya, vice president of higher education, The College Board

It’s the start of new academic year for all high schoolers! By this time, perhaps most of you will start wondering where you want to pursue your education, particularly undergraduate study. Studying in US came into your mind and you’re liking the idea of it. “Sure, studying in the US seems a lot of fun and challenging at the same time. Why not give it a shot?” If that is what you’re thinking, then of course now’s a good time to start preparing yourself to apply for schools. But then in an instance, some of you might get overwhelmed as you discovered tons of requirements to complete the entire process.

Yes, college applications might be daunting, sometimes troublesome, sometimes tiring – but hey, trust me it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Truth is, applying to colleges is a very meticulous and systematic set of actions. Thousands of students managed to get into numerous colleges in the US; therefore I’m positive everyone has equal chances of success in this global competition. In addition, I find going back and recalling things I have done as an enjoyable thing to do. So here’s what I did two years ago, and I hope it also reflects what most people who passed the process experience as well.

1. Define your school preference

First things first, you should definitely know what you want to do and where you want to go before you even start applying. Here are a couple of questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Are you more comfortable studying in smaller size colleges or large universities? Colleges in the US widely varies by class size, starting from smaller Community Colleges (you can read Felicia Johanna’s review on Foothill Community College) with a couple thousand students or large universities that are filled up to 30,000 students (you can use Veni Johanna’s review on Stanford, Kevin Soedyatmiko’s opinion at MIT, and my overall experience at Boston University as references). Campus size definitely owns a significant portion in shaping your entire college experience, therefore choose wisely.
  • Is financial barrier one of your concerns? It is undeniable that college tuition in the US spans in a wide range, even though I personally think this should not be the final deciding factor in choosing a college. Many universities in the US offer financial aids, so chances are always wide open.
  • Are you more inclined to studying a specific major for a full 4 years or exploring various subjects with an emphasis in all-roundedness? Some colleges in the US are highly specialized and only offers specific field of major (take Babson College of Business or Olin College of Engineering as an example), so if you’re applying to these schools, you should have fully understood that these colleges only offers several specified majors. On the other hand, another school category known as Liberal Arts Colleges (read Martin Tjioe’s full review here) offers a one-of-a-kind academic proficiency in accordance to their unique program structure.

2. Do Research on Your College of Choice

You’ve made your choice. Now you know where to go. The next step is to do extensive research on your preferred schools. Websites such as College Board College Search and College Board Scholarship Search do a great job in providing you information about schools you’re interested in. Take your time and browse through their site. Does everything that they’re offering match with your expectations and standards? How do you feel as you get to know the schools more? Do you feel comfortable with everything that those schools have in hand? As you explore your choices, remember to always keep your mind open. Of course it will be hard to find one school that perfectly matches all your criteria and it will take some time to shortlist your choices.  Hence, take notes on all important facts that you’re eager to know and think carefully what’s best for you. In this step, discussing with your parents, alumni of a college, and academic counselors in high school is pretty helpful too.

3. Diversify your risks!

Only because you found the school of your dreams does not necessarily mean you should only apply to very little number of colleges. According to a survey done by College Board, most high school students in the US applied to at least 6 different colleges. And here’s the bad news: we as international applicants need to realize that overall admissions stats does not necessarily determine our odds of acceptance. This is because most schools limit its international student population to 10 percent of the overall class. Most colleges don’t admit to quotas, but these numbers don’t vary much year to year. That being said, you have to take into consideration that you are only one out of thousands of applicants all over the world that are applying at the same time. In addition, acceptance rate varies from highly competitive (such as Ivy League schools) to moderate. Each school also sets different qualifications of prospective students that you are looking for, therefore chances are you might (or perhaps will) be accepted to universities that you might not expect. Keep your mind open and efforts going strong; don’t hesitate to apply to numerous schools with various level of acceptance rate. It might take a lot of additional work, but I’m positive the results should be favorable.

4. Have your academic requirements ready

A lot of people asked me questions like “What tests should you take if you want to apply to US colleges?” or “How long does it take for you to complete all of those?” and “Are the tests hard? I don’t think I can handle the pressure.”  I personally think those questions are somewhat normal as I mentioned the same thing four years ago. Nonetheless, it wasn’t actually that difficult to pass all those tests as long you’re willing to commit to the entire process. You should, however, acknowledge the fact that this process can be neither instant nor catalyzed. Each test requires extensive practice, preparation, and test-taking trials– but trust me, your hard work will eventually got paid off!

In general, there are two main standardization tests that all US colleges will ask from you: TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and SAT (Standardized Aptitude Test). While I’m pretty sure there won’t be any college that doesn’t ask you for TOEFL, SAT can sometimes be replaced with ACT. The goal is actually pretty simple: ace these tests and send them to colleges before application deadline. Here are some steps you can do:

  • Go to TOEFL & SAT’s official website and set up an account. You’ll need to do this in order to be able to take tests. As you create one, you might be asked numerous questions about your academic background or major of preference – it might be a lot, but answer it carefully. Eventually, both sites will regularly send you emails about colleges that match with your academic interests. I happened to even receive a couple of scholarship offers from several universities in the US. As we always click “I agree to Terms of Use” without even reading it, same thing applies here: pay attention as you go through those survey questions; who knows it might be beneficial for you.
  • Practice, practice, and practice! – I have complete faith in the phrase “practice makes perfect,” and the only way for you to excel on those tests is by constantly going over as many exam samples as possible. There are lots of TOEFL and SAT Preparation Books sitting on bookstores (Kaplan for TOEFL and College Board for SAT are my personal favorites,) and both tests will send you daily emails of practice questions. If you feel you need to take prep courses, there is no harm in doing so too. I believe acing TOEFL & SAT tests require numerous repetitions and versatility in dealing with various questions they’re going to ask in the actual test. So spare an hour or two everyday to sit down and go over questions. Or kick back with your friends and discuss the questions together. Do it in a way that works best for you. Muhammad Janra from our site has provided us with a great article on how to ace your TOEFL test. Read it here.
  • Register for a test once you’re ready to give the test a shot! (And don’t just take it once.)– You’ve practiced enough. You got all those extravagant SAT vocabularies on your head. It’s time to do the real challenge! Both TOEFL & SAT site should be able to clearly assist you in registering for those. Do keep in mind that both exams have specific dates and places, so plan ahead before your application deadline. Once you get your results back (it can take up to 2-3 weeks,) assess yourself: is your score sufficient enough for applying to a specific school? If you don’t think so; just give another shot. I learned that the more tests you take; the higher results you will generally obtain. Therefore, spare few months ahead before application deadline so you allow enough room to have those tests more than once.
  • What If my preferred college asks for SAT Subject Test(s)? While SAT I (the one I mentioned above) is mandatory for most US colleges, some universities ask for another set of exam results called the SAT Subject Test. Think of it as the English Version of UN (Ujian Nasional) as a simple analogy. College Board offers a wide range of subjects available for tests such as Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Math, Spanish, French, even World History. Should you require study materials, I noticed many major bookstores sell it nowadays. Again, College Board Edition & Princeton Review are my personal favorites. Prepare yourself well, familiarize yourself with types of questions and you’re good to go.

In addition, if you happen to go to IB, A-level or AP-based schools, some colleges accept your high school credits to be transferred as your early college credit. Those who happen to have these should definitely take advantage of this opportunity. For those who do not, no worries! Most students apply with their officially-issued high school transcripts. Just ask your school to issue an English Version of your transcript and I’m sure they’ll be glad to do so. Don’t forget to ask your school principal to sign and stamp the document, as they will require actual copy of it, plus sealed in school’s official envelope. You will have to send this to each school’s Admission Office Address.

5. Obtain recommendations from people who know you (very) well

Most colleges in the US will ask you for letter of recommendation from people who know you exceptionally well. For most of us, this might be somewhat unfamiliar; in the US, however, this has become quite a common practice. If your preferred colleges have a standard form of recommendation letter, download it and study it well. Then think of who you can ask for his/her help. Personally, I think the easiest person to approach will be one or two of your high school teachers. Still, it can be anyone as long they are able to comfortably elaborate your strengths and qualities as a person. Ask them to write what’s good about you and why you will make a positive contribution to the university/college community you’re applying. This requirement might sound supplementary, but most Admissions will take this into consideration in deciding whether you’re the one they’re looking for.

6. Write a standout essay

Ah, here comes the most interesting part (for me) in applying for US colleges. In my opinion, this topic is so special that it deserves a separate article that exclusively discusses this topic. In a nutshell, writing a personal essay comprises several key factors: make yourself heard, campaign to win, flaunt your talent, and be honest about yourself. An essay is a reflection of who you are as a person; it is also an opportunity to show the other side of yourself that cannot be exposed by test results or academic transcripts. Remember the bad news that I (unfortunately) have to mention above? As there are always good for every evil, the existence of essay as one application requirements serves as the good news. This is the perfect time to highlight what makes you different than other applicants and to show how big your desire is to study in the US.  Read the essay question carefully, plan out your work and write passionately. Make sure you answer the essay question without wasting the chance to show your qualities as a prospective future student. Should you need reference of how college application essays look like, check out our Essay Clinic section for real examples. Don’t hesitate to submit your essays to us too; we’ll be happy to help you improve your work.

7. Organize your required administrative documents – you’re all set!

You’re almost there! Make sure you have all your documents ready and neatly organized. Besides academic-wise requirements, you should also prepare personal identifications such as photocopy of your passport and your financial supporter’s Bank Statements – once you get accepted, US Embassy will require you to present this when you’re applying for your student visa. Complete your application form as well – make sure you don’t leave any single required space blank. Compile, proofread, proofread, proofread, and send! Make sure you don’t miss the deadline for every school, as most colleges will wait for your application until late November – mid December.

8. All Done – Sit back and relax!

Now aren’t you glad you’re done? You’ve passed through all troubles of taking TOEFL and SATs, asking help from people to write you recommendation letters, creating nicely constructed essays, and compiling additional required documents – that’s a lot of thing to do, but you’ve done everything you need and the best you can do. It usually takes up to 4-5 months for colleges to review your application (along with thousands other applicants besides you!) You should expect application decisions to be sent around late March the earliest, except if you are bound by Early Decision (this is a special occurrence, refer here for more details). What’s important is that there should be no regrets once you’ve reached this step. You’ve stayed true to yourself, and if you happen to be the one your preferred colleges is looking for, great future awaits you!

Do keep this in mind: with good organization, planning, and execution, applying to US colleges can be an exciting journey by itself. Feel free to contact me and other Indonesia Mengglobal Contributors if you have further questions. Meanwhile, best of luck to all of  you!

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Alicia Kosasih
Having interests in the world of design, quality control and sustainable practices all at once, Alicia Kosasih earned her Bachelors degree from Boston University in 2014, majoring in Operations Management and Environmental Science. Throughout her study, she and her team of nine is awarded First Place at the Annual Boston University School of Management New Product Challenge for both product design and operations strategy plan of an innovative pet product, Lock-A-Bowls. Her interest in both quality control and sustainability issues is well reflected on her being a Six Sigma Green Belt Certified and LEED Green Associate. Alicia currently resides at Boston, USA pursuing her Masters degree in Interior Architecture at New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University. Academics aside, she enjoys her free time baking macarons, room decorating, and watching DIY videos on Youtube.
  • I actually want to take medicine, and i’m still in high school. So, after i graduate frm hs i should take pre-med. and for pre-med, can i take any major that i want? E.g. Economics, bio-tech. And is it hard for international student to apply to a med school? Thnks

    • Hi Eugenia,

      Actually a specific writing about doing pre-med as an international undergrad is coming in a couple of weeks  – Subscribe biar nggak ketinggalan ya :)

  • Putri Permatasari

    Hi Alicia, I plan to continue postgraduate in Yale University for Forestry and Environmental Study but just like usual, financial is still a huge problem for me. I don’t think if the scholarship is available there. And just like you said, schools in America offer financial aids so it’s still wide open, but what kinda scholarship that mostly they offer? And how to get the criteria? Thank you very much in advance. Hidup Indonesia! :-)

    • Hi Putri,
      First of all, congratulations on your next step of education! Financial problems do tend to be the main concern for most people who are considering to pursue their graduate study in US. This is completely understandable as sufficient amount of investment (both money and time) must be sacrificed in order to have such educational experience. Scholarship application can be tricky; but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible to get a sponsor who is willing to fund you. Although we need to acknowledge that graduate-level scholarships from universities are relatively hard to attain (especially for international students,) other options such as Fulbright Scholarship, G2G (Goverment to Government) Scholarships, Company-funded,and numerous Graduate/Research/Teaching Assistantship are available and worth applying. My best suggestion for you will be to start browsing some information on those scholarships first – AMINEF and US Embassy website is a good place to start. As for criteria, you will also have to do more research as various bases ranging from merit-based, need-based, or teaching-based are required in order for you to be granted a scholarship. Hope it helps! Hidup Indonesia

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  • Johnny Chen

    Hi Alicia
    Your information above are really helpful. I’m preparing for the scholarship as well and would like to take the degree in Interior Design too. Btw could I have your email address – very hopefully you can give me some favors for my some questions; understand that you took Interior Architecture. Thanks in advance. Johnny Chen (johnnychen13@yahoo.com)