Note to students entering American colleges

Good afternoon.

I am 25, I graduated from the Faculty of Applied Mathematics in Minsk, now I live in America (California). In 2010, my cousin prepared documents for undergraduate studies with me (she entered Stanford for Management, Science & Engineering), and this year I myself submitted documents for the master program (I entered Carnegie Mellon for MS in Software Engineering). After a long preparation and kilometers of nerves spent, the mysterious system of admission became a little more clear to me. I hasten to share some points that were news to me.

1) It is necessary to submit documents to several colleges

There is a recommendation to choose a couple of “dream colleges”, a few “good colleges” and a couple of “fallback options”. The ranking of colleges can be found here (general and by discipline).
This way you not only increase your chances of getting at least somewhere (cap), but also increase your chances of getting into each individual university. Because the more essays you write, the better each of them will be, and the more questions you read, the more ideas you will have on how to answer. An application to each college costs about 70-100 dollars, so the money issue can become an obstacle - anyway, I sincerely advise you to prepare applications for at least 5 colleges, and already apply as much as the funds allow.

2) Test scores are not a decisive factor

At least not in top colleges. Thousands of schoolchildren with continuous A + and the highest marks for tests submit documents there, and only 5 percent of them come. High marks for tests - this is the initial selection, it is not sufficient, but a necessary condition for admission. After the abiruents are filtered according to estimates, they will look at the essays, recommendations, achievements, and will make decisions based on this.
A few words about the tests. As people in the selection committee joke - the SAT only tests how well a person knows how to pass the SAT. The same with all other tests. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the structure of the test, practice, read how the job rating system works. For TOEFL (and other language tests) - reading about the structure is not enough, you need to train for all sections of the exam, regardless of how well you know English. A great influence on the assessment is influenced by the structure of the response. American schools teach a lot of "structuredness", so it is doubly difficult for a Russian person to prepare an answer with the structure that they expect, especially if this is your first time doing this in an exam where you have 15 seconds to think and 45 seconds to answer. Preparation in this matter will help you a lot further.

3) Essay is critical

After you have passed the first screening estimated (see above), the selection committee reads your essay. An incredible number of articles have been written on this topic, it will be useful to read. A couple of points that seemed important to me:

  • The essay should be clearly structured. Tell me what you are gonna tell me, tell me, tell me what you just told me. The importance of this point is difficult to overestimate, because an unstructured essay is confusing for the local reader, and he may even ignore / not understand the main idea of ​​your essay due to the lack of the expected structure.
  • Read about the main mistakes that people make in the essay. Reading is simply a must. Like many other materials on the topic of preparing for an essay, since we don’t teach such essays in schools, we simply need these materials.
  • An active position should be felt in the essay. I would not mention this moment if I hadn’t written for Russian-speaking people. In Russian, the passive voice is much more common (I like it instead of i like, it seems to me instead of i think, etc) than in English, and when we transfer this habit to English - “they took me, I was lucky, my work was appreciated” - with side of English-speaking people it sounds like passivity. So, after writing a draft, re-read the essay in order to reduce this impression.
  • The task of the essay is to sell yourself. Make them want you. One of the questions you want to consider is how will the admissions committee remember you? When a couple of professors discuss you, how will they talk about you? “That guy from Russia” or “The guy who went to international competitions” are two big differences, keep that in mind.
  • Learn more about each university. Find out what is happening there, what they are famous for, what the atmosphere is at the university, what research. The east coast is usually stricter, stiff, the west - more relaxed. Some universities are more focused on studying in-depth (like MIT), some universities attach more importance to the “versatility” and multi-discipline of learning (like Stanford). When you write an essay, you need to show that you are suitable for the university, that they need to take you from all the other abiruents, and that you will be a worthy representative of the university. In America, this sense of belonging is very developed, everyone cheers for the sports teams of the universities, wear T-shirts with caps, and the universities are very sensitive to who will represent them in the future. Anyway,
  • For graduate and doctoral studies, your scientific successes and interests are very important. Again, read what the university is doing, is there a professor with whom you would be interested in working with, think about what kind of research you would like to do, and be sure to mention this in the essay.
  • Surprisingly, social activity and social assistance are of great importance. Did morning parties for orphans? Have you organized a support group for people with disabilities? Volunteered somewhere? Be sure to mention this. It is not necessary to devote all the essays to this, but it should be clear that you are not just a consumer who goes to university to earn more money later, but an active and concerned member of the society who will make a difference, whatever that means.

4) Be sure to start preparing in advance

Not “in two weeks” in advance, but “in 6-8 months” in advance. Firstly, if you are dependent on someone (as is the case with recommendations, or when you ask to read and comment on your draft) - make sure that the person has enough time to help you. And if something suddenly does not work out - that you will have time to replay everything. Secondly, give yourself at least a couple of months and at least five iterations on the essay. Try to find someone who can give you an opinion from the outside. The help of knowledgeable people is very important, but in any case, independently evaluating your essay is very difficult, so any help is help. I copied 8 drafts before the essay was ready for submission, and the final version had very little to do with the first draft.

5) And lastly

Whatever recommendations you are given (including this entire post), your entry is your entry. Only you decide whether to follow the recommendations or not, to correct the essay or not, to explore the university or not. And only you are responsible for the success of this event. I sincerely wish you good luck, and I hope that some of the above will help you someone else.

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