It’s time to start your application for US Colleges!
Online applications to US colleges are now open, so if you have come to the end of Year 12 and intend to apply for entry in September 2018, you should now register at one of the application websites and put together as much of your application material as possible over the summer. If you intend to take a gap year, it is easier to apply this year, at the same time as other students, and then to defer entry for one year if you are offered a place.
Last month we outlined the three application methods, and here is a recap:
1. Common Application Form (Common App)
The Common App is used by 702 institutions, including all the top research universities, so most applicants are likely to use this method.
2. Universal College Application (UCA)
The UCA currently only serves 24 colleges, but if all the colleges on your shortlist accept it, then it is worth checking it out to see if you prefer the UCA’s interface.
3. The Coalition
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, to give it its full name, was launched last year with the purpose of making the US college application system more accessible to students with modest means, particularly those whose high schools are unfamiliar with the application process. It currently has 121 colleges signed up, including all eight Ivy League schools, Stanford and the University of Chicago. It contains an online storage facility called the ‘Coalition Locker’ where students may store essays, artwork, videos, class projects, extracurricular activities, awards and letters of support, that can be used to support their future college applications wherever appropriate. Students in Years 10, 11, 12 and 13 may use the Locker to build up an application portfolio even if they will be applying via the Common App or UCA. Hence the Coalition may be used alongside other methods, as well as an application platform in its own right.
Harvard and a few other colleges will accept all three application types – however, many colleges only accept one or two of them, or in some cases have their own individual application forms. Therefore an important factor in your preparation is to find out which application methods are accepted by the colleges on your shortlist.
Differences between US and UK university application systems
All three US application methods differ from the UK’s UCAS system in the following ways:
- you send your US application directly to the American colleges to which you are applying, whereas you have to forward your completed UCAS form to your school before it is submitted
- in the US system you apply to the college as a whole, not to a specific department, so your application will be assessed by the undergraduate admissions office, not by departmental tutors
- you can apply to a maximum of five UK universities in the UCAS system, but there is no limit to the number of US colleges to which you can apply, and you may apply to both the US and UK systems at the same time
- if you are applying to Oxford or Cambridge, you can apply to one or the other, but not both, whereas in the US you can apply to as many top colleges as you wish
- about 75% of the colleges that use the three US application methods also require you to fill out a supplementary form, whereas British universities do not usually require additional material
- offers of admission to US colleges are not conditional on attaining specific grades or scores in your final A-Level or IB exams – but be warned! there is still an expectation that you will achieve grades roughly in line with those predicted, or your offer of admission may be withdrawn.
The personal essay
Most students find that the personal essay (equivalent to the UCAS Personal Statement) is the most challenging and time consuming part of the US college application process.
The essay topics that are being used this year by all three application platforms are given below. You will notice that all the topics prompt you to talk about yourself. This is a fundamental difference with the UCAS Personal Statement, which asks you to explain why you are well prepared to follow a particular course of study. But when you apply to a US college, it is not to study a specific subject, and for the first 18 months you will have the opportunity to explore many different topics before deciding on your ‘major’ (sometimes known as a ‘concentration’, or main area of study). So the purpose of the personal essay is to enable Admissions Officers to find out what you are like as a person: your ambitions, interests, opinions, achievements and challenges. Each of you is a unique individual with a unique story to tell, so you must produce an essay that no one else could write.
The suitability of the various essay topics to your particular story will be one of the factors that will help you decide which of the three application platforms to use. You should try to identify a prompt that will enable you to describe your unique qualities as an individual – something that will set you apart from other candidates. Then plan the structure of the essay and write several drafts. There is a plethora of online material to help you – simply type ‘college admission essays’ into your search engine.
In addition to the main essay topic, most colleges have supplements in which they require further short essays or memos. Check out what is required by all the colleges on your shortlist before you start writing, as different colleges sometimes ask similar supplementary questions, enabling you to adapt the same answers.
Common App personal essay
Following feedback from over 5,000 individuals and colleges, the Common App essay prompts for 2017-18 have been significantly revised from last year. There are now seven titles instead of five:
- two titles are unchanged
- three have revised wording (shown in italics below)
- two are new titles, including a re-introduction of the ‘topic of your choice’ option.
The word limit is unchanged at 650 words.
2017-18 Common App essay prompts
- Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change]
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]
- Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]
Universal College Application personal essay
The UCA has one broad essay prompt:
Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event. (650 words or fewer)
They also require a short activity description:
Tell us about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities. (100-150 words)
The Coalition personal essay
The Coalition essay prompts for 2017-18 are:
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
The Coalition website gives the following essay guidance:
“In general, we have found that concise, straightforward writing is often the best for college essays, and that good essays are often 300 to 400 words in length. While there is no perfect length for an essay, most application readers find college essays are rarely improved when they are longer than 500 to 550 words, and we strongly recommend you stay within that limit. For more information on specific application requirements, please consult the website for each institution to which you are applying, as requirements often vary.”
USA College Day, 29 & 30 September 2017
If you live near London and want to speak to representatives from US colleges before deciding which ones to apply to, then come to the Fulbright Commission’s USA College Day at the ILEC Conference Centre, 47 Lillie Road, London SW6 1UD on Friday 29th or Saturday 30th September. It is Britain’s largest US college fair with over 150 exhibitors. USA College Day is free, but you must register in order to attend. Sign up here to be sent a reminder as soon as registration opens later this month.