I’m asked to provide tips for admissions by some high-school students every year. Here’s the collected advice I give:
Universities and Targeting
If you’re an international student applying to top American universities, the competition is fierce. May the odds be ever in your favour.
When it comes to undergraduate education, the quality of the teaching is, at best, vaguely related to the university ranking. Universities are ranked based on endowment, research output, and many other factors that really don’t matter to you as an undergraduate. A better way to sort through universities is to group profiles by institution on RateMyProfessor.com.
If you’re interested in doing undergrad research, professor availability is important. On average, top-40 schools put less pressure on their faculty to meet funding goals, get grants, and hit metrics than top-5 schools, which allows professors to spend more time with students.
Make sure that you apply to a spread of universities, not just the top few. Undergraduate admissions is probabilistic; don’t be disheartened if you don’t get in. Always hedge your bets; apply to at least 3 safety schools. (The advice used to be two, but the field is slowly getting more competitive.)
I applied to more than a dozen and only got in to three. I even got a letter from one university telling me never to apply again.
Grades are used to filter students, not to select them. As international students, we tend to see universities as a place for intellectual advancement. American universities (especially top liberal-arts schools) see themselves as places for holistic personal advancement, of which intellectual advancement is only one facet. Accordingly, they first filter by grades and then select by other criteria. Ensure your grades are good, and then talk about activities, leadership, etc. over pure academics for these.
What Universities Look For
Each university has its own culture, and you should align your application accordingly. Small, rich, private universities, particularly those in the Ivy League, tend to select for a particular type. In Brown, for example, they tend to select people who have had unusual backgrounds and experiences. Larger universities, particularly state universities, are dependent on state funding and, accordingly, tend to favour academics. British universities tend to focus on academics far more than American, consider applying there as well.
Universities admit you based on incentives, both external and internal. By admitting you, universities get:
- Future donations, benefits to reputation, etc. contingent on you doing well in the future. This is the incentive you should target in your essay.
- Increased prestige for having someone with your background and/or achievements in the student body, which, in turn, increases the demand for the university from other students. Here you can set yourself apart by either having some very impressive achievements. Real examples include: having an IOI Gold, starting and selling a company by the age of 18, winning a national trebuchet design competition, being a professional male model, being Emma Watson, etc. It is foolish to rely on this: I and most students have none of these.
- Donations, which is only relevant if you come from a family with millions in spare cash. (If you are from such a family, why are you reading this?)
- Full tuition (in Brown, only half of all students pay full tuition, but all international students pay in full). This doesn’t distinguish you from other applicants, so you can’t really leverage this.
Accordingly, you should convince the admissions officers that you have what it takes to do well in the future.
One way to differentiate yourself from other applicants here by showing how you have overcome hurdles in your past, which gives them an idea of your mettle, and suggests that you will overcome difficulties in the future. Another way is to show that you have consistently put in effort pursuing something over many years: something like a sport, instrument, or a hobby.
What (Not) To Do
A common trope that’s very off-putting is excessive praise. Don’t do that. They already know that you think they are a good institution (otherwise, why would you be applying to them?). Instead, write as though there are particular traits that you are looking for in a university, and you are considering them because they have that trait.
Another tip is that of Zahavian Signalling: write about things that cost you something to achieve. You should not write anything that many other applicants could write without having to put in any work. If you follow this, then your essay will focus on things that few others have done, which differentiates you meaningfully.
Given the volume of applications that universities receive, you can assume that your reader has seen every possible attention-grabbing gimmick. Avoid these. Write honestly, directly, and adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s writing rules to non-fiction.
Universities get many, many applications from Singapore, China, and/or India; our background does not count as unusual or exotic. In a talk a decade ago, I was told that Raffles students submitted more applications to Stanford than any high school.
To make matters worse, National Service (or conscription in general) does not count towards having an unusual background. Mention it to forestall any questions about employment, but don’t bother harping on it. The exception to this is that you had an unusual job and/or were deployed to an active conflict (that American cultural sensibilities approve of). If you were fending off pirates in the Straits of Malacca with the Singaporean Navy, that’s great!
Government/state-funded scholarships count slightly in your favour, not because you have one, but because of the qualities you must have had to get one. (Costly Signalling again!) Mention it but don’t harp on it.
The elephant in the room is that you are jumping ship from one university to another. In your essay, you should make it seem like applying to your selected university is either a natural extension of your life plans so far (“coming to Brown is the obvious next step in my life plan”) or something you were always planning on doing but were interrupted by life (“I would have applied to Brown, but something got in the way.”)
Completing two years in a state school (as a local American student) and then transferring in your third year to more expensive institution is considered praiseworthy, particularly if you secure scholarships to help you pay your way. Universities have pretty strict academic standards for such students, but they recognize that this is a pathway used by brilliant students who can’t afford four years of tuition.
Transfer admissions is more competitive overall; in Brown the transfer student admission rate was about 3.5% when the new student rate was about 5%. (This changes from year-to-year, each university publishes stats like this.) It would be a mistake to transfer to one university and hope to transfer again; most universities are wary of students who want to transfer a second time. I only know of one US Citizen who transferred twice. She moved from a state school to Brown and back, both times for financial reasons.
Best of luck in your application!