U.S. College Application Process
By Esha Maheshwari
What does the US college application process look like?
Before I talk about my experiences, I would recommend reading through this page to gain a general idea of what the application process looks like, given that the application process is so broad.
To give some perspective, here are some of the things that I did when I was applying to colleges in the States. I took the SAT when I was in Grade 11. In the same year, I also took three SAT subject tests, specifically, Math 2, Physics, and English. What is considered a ‘good’ score on the standardized tests that you’ll have to take are completely relative to what your goals are and what schools you’re aiming for.
In terms of applications, I applied through the Common App, where I wrote one longer essay , which was centered around my grandmother and the unseen impact people have on each other. I also wrote several smaller essays that were responses to specific questions that colleges asked. I asked three of my high school teachers if they would be willing to write letters of recommendation for me: my Calculus teacher, my English teacher, and my Computer Engineering teacher. Again, based on which schools you’re applying to, the requirements may be different.
I applied early to approximately three schools and got on the waitlist for two of them. I applied to a few more through the regular decision application and decided to wait until April to make a final decision. During that time, I had the chance to give an interview for two of the schools that I applied to, which I thought were both wonderful experiences.
In April, I finally made the decision to accept an offer from the University of Michigan.
What is the timeline like?
This resource provides a detailed timeline of the college application process that I found was helpful:
In the United States, students usually start doing their testing for colleges in their junior year (Grade 11). In the US, the SAT’s are offered for students to take almost every month. However, in Canada, since there’s a much smaller pool of students who are looking to take the SAT’s, testing is only offered around 4 to 5 times a year. It’s important to plan ahead and get started as early as the 10th grade if you feel that you’re prepared to do that.
It’s also important to give your teachers time to write letters of recommendation. I would imagine that it’s a good idea to ask your particular teachers if they’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation as early as mid-September. The more time you give your teachers to write your letters, the better.
How does it differ from applying to universities in Ontario?
I think the biggest difference between applying to schools in the United States versus Ontario is the way you’re evaluated as an applicant. In the States, colleges definitely tend to evaluate you through a much more holistic approach. In Ontario, generally if you maintain a certain average and are in one or two ‘good’ clubs, you can almost guarantee that you’ll get into a certain program that you apply to. Although this reassurance can be beneficial for some students, I personally don’t think it’s the smartest way to not only spend your time as applicants, but also be evaluated on for something as big as an undergraduate degree. I find that schools in the States are more inclined to take in all aspects of your life so that your application isn’t based solely on whether or not you were able to maintain a pristine transcript in high school.
A smaller difference that I noticed was in the amount of responses and essays I had to write, which was consistently bigger for schools in the US. One drawback to not being assessed only on grades is the steep increase in written applications you’ll need to do in order to give the universities a better picture of yourself as a person.
What was the most difficult part?
I never expected that I’d have to write as many short essays/responses as I did, so that aspect definitely threw me for a loop. I definitely didn’t start as early on writing essays as I probably could have and I found that more than writing the actual words, I was having trouble thinking about what I wanted to write in the first place. Writing applications requires you to reflect on yourself more than I was prepared for personally, and I did not account for the time that this would take me. You’re essentially picking out the parts of yourself that you want to showcase and put on display for people who are judging you to see and oftentimes, this can force you to become more vulnerable than you expected to be. This is especially true if you choose to write about things that are very personal or close to you, which is usually the case, because oftentimes these are the things that shape you as a person.
What was the most enjoyable/rewarding part?
I think the very common response to a question like this is getting accepted to your schools, but this definitely wasn’t the case for me. I don’t think I fully registered that I was actually applying to college until I got my first acceptance letter, which is when things started to seem very real. And although it was pretty exciting to see that working hard in high school had paid off in a concrete way, I don’t think it was the absolute most enjoyable part of this whole experience for me. Rather, I found that meeting alumni from the different schools during the interview process was very, very rewarding. I only got to do interviews for two of the schools that I applied to, and they both were such stimulating conversations that each lasted for almost two hours. I got to learn so much about the specific alumni I was speaking to and how their life had progressed after attending their respective schools.
What’s the process of accepting offers like?
It’s very similar to what I imagine you’d do for universities in Ontario. Once you accept an offer, you will have to pay an enrolment fee and will be asked to send in some paperwork that indicates that you’ve accepted the offer. If you’re not an American citizen, there are some other small things that you’ll need to do, but this should all be relayed to you by your school’s international students’ department.
What tips do you have for those planning to apply to US schools from Ontario?
Every school is very different in terms of the application process. Some schools don’t require testing at all, whereas others require multiple subject tests and standardized tests. Some schools don’t require recommendation letters, whereas others require almost four or five. The point is, make sure you thoroughly research the requirements of each school you’re applying to and ensure that you can prepare those artifacts in a timely manner, before your application is due.
Start working on your writing pieces in advance! The Common Application goes live in early August, and I’d definitely recommend spending a good chunk of your summer working on your responses because you will thank yourself for it later. Make sure that you leave time to truly reflect on yourself as a person, not write what you think admissions officers are looking for.
Another good thing to account for is the cost of this entire process. It may not seem like it, but things tend to add up very, very fast. From having to send out testing results to each of your schools, to sending out applications, to filling a bunch of other deposits and fees, it all ends up becoming very expensive. It’s important that you’re keeping track of that and if you can get fee waivers from your guidance office at school, please take advantage of it!
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