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Tips for Applying to US Colleges

Editor's note: Here at VOA Learning English we get a lot of questions from our audience about higher education in the United States. So we visited several universities and spoke with students and administrators about your questions.

The first school we visited was American University. It is a private university in Washington, D.C. More than 70 percent of its students take part in study abroad programs. About 13 percent of its students are from other countries. Julie Soper is the Assistant Director of International Admissions. She met with VOA Learning English to answer some of your questions about the application process. Click on the video to hear Ms. Soper in her own words. She is speaking at regular speed, so you may need to repeat the video a few times.

Q: How can students prepare themselves for study in the US?

A: One of the fantastic things about the US educational system is that you have many, many choices. But one of the flip sides of that is that those many, many choices mean that every school has their own set of requirements. So getting that jump start, making sure that you have enough time to gather all of the requirements from each different school is really going to set the whole tone for your application process. So in terms of being prepared, starting as early possible is what I would recommend overall.

Q: What advice do you have for admissions essays?

A: I think that one of the things that’s hard to adjust to with the American educational system is that on our applications, we want you to be as individual as possible, which can be pretty time-consuming. So, making sure that you—for any of your essays—that you are using something that is original, something that you haven’t used in other school work. Something that you’re sending just to AU in terms of a writing supplement or an extra resume or something like that—making it personalized for each school is something that I think is different for the US and I think can be a stumbling block for some students.

Some cultures have a hard time—you know stepping into and owning that role of, you know, really talking about their accomplishments. And I think that can be not just a cultural thing, but just an effect of being, you know, 17, 18 years old and not really having learned to own what are your strengths. So that is something that can be a challenge for any college applicant.

Q: What is a mistake you've noticed in admission essays?

A: From time to time, unfortunately, there’s, you know, one or two every application season where they’ve forgotten to proofread effectively and caught those, you know, little mistakes. And they’re little in terms of, you know, it was just one word, but it can make all the difference in your application.

In terms of the essay, I think that it should be noted that we’re not looking necessarily for something tragic or traumatic or just earth-shattering. Not every student has access to that story. Not every student has had something earth-shattering happen to them and that’s okay.

I always encourage students to just speak from the heart and tell the story that they’re familiar with. Be reflective, think critically about their experiences that they have had and connect that to an academic experience and what their goals are. So, it’s not so much about the content of the story, but really getting into the mechanics of the story. Grammatically, your vocabulary has to be strong and it has to be fluid writing. But also, just communicating whatever story you have effectively.

Q: What kind of students are American universities looking for?

A: We’ve got these 4,000 universities and colleges in the US and there can be a big range of what each college or university is looking for. Some colleges, some universities are looking for a very simple equation. They’re saying, you know, if you’ve got these grades and you’ve got these test scores then you’re in. Other schools, such as the one I work for, are a little bit more complicated and a little more comprehensive in their outlook on the student. They really want to not only find somebody who is going to be academically successful, but somebody who has done the research and knows that—that this school is going to be a good fit and is going to really dovetail into their goals--somebody who is thinking critically about where they want to be and how they want to get there.

So, conveying that in the application, that you have done the research and that you know that this school is going to help you achieve your great goals, that is definitely something that we are seeking in an application beyond the basics of academic success.

* This story was produced for VOA Learning English by Adam Brock.


Words in this Story

flip side n. a reverse or opposite side, aspect, or result

jump start n. to cause (something) to start quickly

set the tone forv. to establish a particular mood or character for something

stumbling blockn. something that stops you from doing what you want to do

earth-shatteringadj. something that is disasterous, a big problem

dovetail v. to fit together in a pleasing or satisfying way

Now it’s your turn to use these Words in this Story. In the comments section, write a sentence using one of these words and we will provide feedback on your use of vocabulary and grammar.

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