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MAR 09, 2020 • 11 min read
Your first step to decoding the US application process is most likely your trusty search engine, Google.
The problem is, Google’s filled with myths about college admissions that may not actually help you apply, and get into, your dream university.
How are you supposed to exceed admissions officers’ expectations if you can’t even figure out what you need to do to meet them?
It’s time you got your information from a trusted source who can set the record straight about all of the college application myths you’ve been reading.
There’s a lot of confusion around which college entry tests you need to take.
As you know, you need to sit either the SAT or ACT in order to get into any US university.
Although the SAT and ACT are technically the only required exams by the majority US universities, there are subject-specific exams you can (and in some cases, must) sit to boost your chances of getting into your dream university.
The SAT subject tests, also known as SAT IIs, are hour-long, subject-specific exams administered by the College Board, the same company that produces the SAT.
Unlike the SAT, the subject tests are scored out of 800. Obtaining a 700+ is usually a competitive score for top universities.
There are 21 SAT subject tests that fall into five categories: Mathematics: Math Level 1, Math Level 2 Science: Biology Ecological, Biology Molecular, Chemistry, Physics English: English Literature History: US History, World History Language: Spanish, Spanish with Listening, French, French with Listening, Chinese with Listening, Italian, German, German with Listening, Modern Hebrew, Latin, Japanese with Listening and Korean with Listening
The only eight universities that require SAT subject tests are:
California Institute of Technology: Math Level 2 and one science Harvard University: Any 2 tests Harvey Mudd College: Math Level 2 and one of any other subject MIT: One math and one science Cornell University: Required only for Arts and Sciences (any two subjects) or Engineering (one math and one science) majors Rice University: 2 tests in the subject you want to study Webb Institute: Math Level 1 or 2 and Chemistry or Physics Tufts University: SAT with two subject tests or ACT
However, taking multiple subject tests gives you a better chance of getting into any US university, whether they require the exams or not.
Harvard and other top universities have enough applicants to fill their incoming classes with students who have perfect SAT/ACT scores and perfect high school scores almost every year.
Therefore, in order to differentiate between students, universities rely on extracurricular involvement, interviews and personal statements to select a diverse class filled with students who have unique perspectives and interests.
That being said, many students only sit subject exams if they have to and more often than not, only take two exams. Little do they know that they could stand out academically by scoring highly on four or more SAT subject tests.
SAT subject tests also allow you to reveal to admissions officers that you are knowledgeable in multiple different subjects.
As one of Crimson’s college application strategists, Nicole Teoh, reveals, “taking SAT subject tests that are not in subjects you already do in their school curriculum demonstrates your intellectual curiosity, hence giving you a leg up. For example, admissions officers will be very impressed with you if you sit the US/World history and literature exams even though you only take science-based subjects in school.”
You should consider taking SAT subject tests in your second to last year of high school (or before, if you feel prepared). This way, you can balance the SAT and the subject tests and sit either exams again in case you are unhappy with your scores.
Remember, it’s no longer good enough to simply meet the requirements to get into top universities, you need to exceed them and scoring highly on multiple SAT subject tests is a great way to start.
The Common App has a dedicated section where you can write about your extracurricular activities, your leadership initiatives and awards. Because of this, your US personal statement shouldn’t directly highlight your greatest accomplishments or mimic your resume.
You’ll also need to write supplemental essays for most of the universities you apply to, but those tend to be shorter and more research based (e.g. Why Duke?), so for now, let’s focus on the main essay: your personal statement.
Take a look at the 2018-2019 Common App Essay Prompts:
The essence of each of these prompts is the same. They are all designed to reveal your personality, how you think and what makes you unique.
Think of your personal statement as a 650-word novel. It needs to have an intriguing protagonist (most likely you), a beginning, a middle (conflict/climax) and an end but it also needs to subtly highlight your best qualities.
How about this for a college mythbuster: one way to write a fantastic essay is by not talking about yourself at all.
As Crimson Education’s Senior Director of Global Service Development, Gabe Gladstein, puts it, “typically, the best essays are portrayals of difficult lessons learned through intimate relationships between the you and someone close to you.
“These essays provide you with an opportunity to illustrate how observant you are, to show how much you care about another person, to show how humbled you have been by that person or by what you’ve learned from that person and to show how much you still don’t know.
“Your descriptions of other’s actions and how they affect you can actually reveal a lot about you, about the things you observe, the things you care about, the things that make you tick and the qualities in people that you respect or fear or idolise or despise.
“Thus, these essays present an incredible opportunity to talk directly about yourself, without seeming conceited, because you’re discussing yourself in the context of a relationship, an entity, something inherently larger than you.”
Your personal statement could make or break your application so you need to put in a lot of time and effort into every part of the process, from brainstorming to editing to ensure you have the best possible essay.
Forget any topics that may sound braggadocious, out of touch with society or overdone. Say goodbye to your cliche essay about the time you won your ski race against the odds, the violin recital you messed up in and the five-day volunteering trip you took to a rural village.
Instead, focus on the interesting experiences and relationships you’ve had throughout your life, experiment with different perspectives and different beginnings and endings, leave the admissions officers begging to know more about you and the unique way you handle life.
If you’ve been under the impression that you need to choose a major before you apply to universities, you’re absolutely right.
Unless you want to study in the US.
One of the best, and most unique, things about US universities is that you don’t need to pick a major before you apply.
In fact, at most universities you don’t need to declare a major until two years into your four-year degree.
Although you can apply to any US university as “undecided”, our strategist Nicole Teoh recommends that “you list the subject that you are most likely to pursue (or that seems most likely based on your academic and extracurricular profile) to demonstrate some form of intention.”
If you have absolutely no idea what you want to pursue or are stuck between two very different majors, feel free to apply as “undecided” but keep in mind that it’s relatively easy to switch majors so if you end up with a major you don’t love, you can switch!
How is this possible when pretty much every other higher education system around the world requires you to pick a major before you apply and stick to it?
Two words: General Education (GE).
General education courses make up the majority of your first two years at college. During this time, you’ll take a mixture of courses ranging from math to science to English and will have space for electives that can help gear you towards a major or minor.
This flexibility allows you to experiment and take courses in subjects you’ve always wanted to try but may have never had the chance to in order to find your true passions.
Even if you are interested in technology, finance or engineering, you will immensely benefit from studying something other than numbers all day long.
That being said, taking courses you aren’t interested in can be frustrating but you never know when a history class may help you view one of your psychology patients differently in the future.
The US system forces you to expand your horizons and gives you the opportunity to come up with unique, interdisciplinary ideas.
A word of warning: this system is not the right fit for everyone. If you know you want to be a medieval historian or if you want to read Chaucer for the rest of your life and write five books on his greatest work, the UK is probably a better fit.
On the other hand, the US is perfect for you if don’t know exactly what you want to study yet, want the flexibility to take classes in different subjects or combine courses to create a specialised major.
Want to know what the real key is to getting into any US university?
It may sound cliche but If you try to imagine what every university is looking for in a student and how you can change yourself to fit into your perception of that university’s expectation, you will never get in.
Admissions officers see right through phoniness.
The truth is, most students who apply to top universities nowadays are extremely competitive applicants so learning insider tips about how many SAT subject tests you should take or what your personal statement should be about (or not be about), will allow you to stand while still highlighting your best self.
All you need to know is that you have what it takes to get into your dream school, with a some polishing and advice from experts who have been in your shoes before, you are bound to succeed.