New US College application guide available – written by Harvard students
Last year two students in their final year at Harvard, Luke Heine and Cole Scanlon, published a comprehensive guide about how to navigate the US college admissions process. Called simply ‘The Guide’, it is based on their own experiences and took them two years to develop. At the same time, they launched a non-profit initiative called the ‘Fair Opportunity Project’ in the process. Their stated goal is “…for students from all backgrounds to have a fair shot at applying for college.”
The Guide is a comprehensive compendium about all aspects of the application process and includes samples of real college essays, a list of financial resources, and tips on how to organise applications. The overall aim of the Fair Opportunity Project is identical to that of Harvard UK Outreach – to create a level playing field so that students who don’t have access to US college advisers at their school are still able to find the information and support they need to put together a high quality application.
Although it has been written primarily for the American market (The Guide has been sent to 57,000 US state high schools), most of the contents are relevant to British students since the application process for international applicants and US citizens is exactly the same. However, some of the terms used in The Guide will not be familiar in the UK, particularly the names given to the last four years in a US high school. So for the benefit of British students, here are the four names and their equivalent for a UK secondary school:
Freshman Year: Year 10
Sophomore Year: Year 11
Junior Year: Year 12 or Lower Sixth
Senior Year: Year 13 or Upper Sixth
The same four names (Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior) are used to describe the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th years of an undergraduate degree course at a US university.
We will be highlighting different sections of The Guide in coming months, starting with information on standardised tests and financial aid.
Standardised tests: the SAT or ACT
Most, but not all, US colleges require you to take one of two standardised tests: the SAT or the ACT. The two tests are administered by two different organisations and US colleges accept both tests equally, so from their point of view it doesn’t matter which one you take. The best way of deciding is to take the free online practice tests for both the ACT and SAT and go with whichever one gives you the better score.
Both tests are mostly multiple choice and have an optional essay. However, the more competitive universities still recommend that you complete the essay section, so always register for ‘SAT with writing’ or ‘ACT with writing’.
The best way to get a good score in this type of test is to become very familiar with it: especially the type of questions asked and the time allowed for each section. So it is essential to set yourself a weekly practice schedule in the three months leading up to the exam, so you reach peak performance just before the test date. When you run out of the free online practice tests, there are many practice books available for purchase online. Simply type ‘ACT practice books’ or ‘SAT practice books’ into your search engine to see what is available.
If you are in Year 12 and planning to apply to US colleges in the autumn, you should start your practice routine immediately in preparation for sitting the tests in the spring. The spring of Year 12 is a good time to take them as you will be well into your A Level or IB syllabus by that time, and will also have the opportunity to retake them in the autumn if your scores are not as good as you hoped. But don’t forget that if you retake them, you will have to pay the test fees again, so it’s a much better option to keep up your regular practice so you achieve the scores you need at the first sitting.
Both tests cover reading, writing and mathematics, but are scored and structured differently, and the ACT also contains a science section. Here is an outline of both tests:
Outline of the SAT
- Length: 3 hours
- Optional essay – additional 50 minutes
- Scored on a scale of 400-1600
- 200-800 for maths
- 200-800 for evidence-based reading and writing
- Mostly multiple choice
- No penalty for wrong answers
- Essay is scored separately on a scale of 6-24
- 1 evidence-based reading and writing section
- 65 mins reading section, 52 questions
- 35 mins language and writing section, 44 questions
- 1 maths section
- 55 mins with calculator, 38 questions
- 25 mins without calculator, 20 questions
- 1 essay
- 50 mins – must analyse a 650-750 word document and draft an essay
- The essay is optional, but Harvard applicants are recommended to take it, so always apply for ‘SAT with writing’
- Harvard applicants who take the SAT tend to score between 600-800 for each of the two main sections
Outline of the ACT
- Length: 2 hours 55 minutes
- Optional essay – additional 40 minutes
- Scored on a scale of 1-36
- Each of the four tests (sections) is scored on a scale of 1-36, and you will also receive a composite score, which is the average of your four test scores
- Mostly multiple choice
- No penalty for wrong answers
- Essay is scored separately on a scale of 2-12
- 1 English test
- 45 mins, 75 questions
- 1 maths test
- 60 mins, 60 questions
- 1 reading test
- 35 mins, 40 questions
- 1 science test
- 35 mins, 40 questions
- 1 essay
- 40 mins – you’ll be given a topic or issue and expected to take a position on it, supporting your point of view with examples and evidence
- The essay is optional, but Harvard applicants are recommended to take it, so always apply for ‘ACT with writing’
- Harvard applicants who take the ACT tend to achieve a composite score of between 30-36
Take home message about getting good SAT/ACT scores
- Take both of the practice tests and go with whichever gives you the better score.
- A good score is one that fits the profile of the colleges you have selected.
- Consider test dates, the location of your nearest test centre, the availability of places and PLAN AHEAD.
- Familiarity with the test is the best way to boost your score, so make use of the free online practice tools (see below).
- If your test scores don’t reflect your potential, consider colleges which are test flexible (e.g. Chicago, NYU, Hamilton, Middlebury) or test optional (e.g. Clark, Connecticut College). Click here for a full list of test optional colleges.
Here are the links to the free online practice material:
For the SAT, there are also free online practice tools provided by the Khan Academy.
The ACT has its own ACT Academy where you can take full length ACT practice tests, and use learning materials including educational games, short skill tests, interactive apps and video lessons.
If you need additional practice material, books of SAT and ACT practice tests are available from online publishers at around £20-25 each.
Upcoming SAT dates and deadlines (35 UK test locations)
There are two remaining dates this academic year to take the main SAT Test and the SAT Subject Tests, but note that you cannot take the subject tests on the same date as the main test. Therefore you will need to book a place on BOTH the dates given below, one to take the main test and one to take your two subject tests. Not all subjects are available on both dates, so check the table before you book. The main test also has an optional essay, but the more competitive colleges will expect you to take it, so make sure to register for ‘SAT with writing’.
SAT Test Date: 4 May 2019
- Registration deadline: 5 April 2019
- Subjects offered: Math Level 1; Math Level 2; Literature; Biology; Chemistry; Physics; French; Spanish; US History
SAT Test Date: 1 June 2019
- Registration deadline: 3 May 2019
- Subjects offered: Math Level 1; Math Level 2; Literature; Biology; Chemistry; Physics; French; German; Spanish; Modern Hebrew; Italian; Latin; US History; World History
Upcoming ACT dates and deadlines (18 UK test locations)
The ACT offers a Reasoning Test, but not Subject Tests, which have to be taken under the SAT administration. The different test dates offered by the ACT increase flexibility by providing additional days on which to take the Reasoning Test. US colleges have no preference between the ACT or SAT, so you should take whichever one gives you the better score when you practise. For the more competitive colleges, students should always register for ‘ACT with writing’, which includes a short essay in addition to the multiple choice sections.
ACT Test Date: 13 April 2019
- Registration deadline: 8 March 2019
ACT Test Date: 8 June 2019
- Registration deadline: 3 May 2019
The ACT does not offer Subject Tests, so applicants must register with the SAT if they need to take Subject Tests in addition to the ACT Reasoning Test.
Types of Financial Aid
Last month we gave you some tips about how to research the US college system to identify a short list of colleges that you might want to apply to later this year. An essential element of the research process is to find out which colleges provide financial aid to international students, and if so, how much you are likely to be awarded.
Since 2005, Harvard has provided generous financial aid to those families who need it, so that today, families earning less than $65,000 a year (around £50,000 at current exchange rates) pay nothing toward the cost of their son’s or daughter’s education. These students now also receive a $2,000 start-up grant that helps support move-in costs and other expenses incurred in making the transition to college. International students have the same access to financial aid as domestic students. Families earning up to $150,000 a year (about £115,000) with typical assets will expect to pay from 0-10% of their income towards university costs.
Other colleges with generous financial aid schemes include Yale, Princeton, MIT and Amherst, but others may not provide aid to international students, or may have limited aid available, so you should always check out all financial aid options before arriving at your final shortlist of colleges. The main types of aid available are:
This is the most common type of aid so is usually the first port of call for families on modest or middle incomes. As the amounts awarded by different colleges vary from year to year, you should check the websites of all your short-listed colleges to find out if you are eligible for financial aid, and how much you might receive. By law, every college website must have a ‘Net Price Calculator’ that will estimate the annual cost of a college education based on your family’s current financial circumstances. Not all such calculators will work for international students/currencies. Click here to see an example of one that works for all families.
When to apply: you should apply for need-based financial aid at the same time as you submit your admissions application, since an offer of financial aid, or lack of it, will have a significant effect on whether you accept any offers of admission you are sent by the colleges. You therefore need to receive any offers of financial aid at the same time as the result of your main application.
Many colleges, in addition to need-based aid, may offer merit-based aid for strong academic performance, or a particular talent in sport, the performing arts or other extracurricular involvement. As funding is usually reserved for top students, your SAT/ACT test scores should be well above those of typical students admitted to the colleges where you will be applying. To help you to assess your performance in comparison with others, the percentage of admitted students who achieved particular scores is shown on all college websites.
College sport is massive in the US and universities are keen to attract the best players, particularly for their varsity teams (premier league teams that play in organised inter-college competitions). Unlike academic scholarships where students simply submit an application to the college, the process for applying for sports scholarships is long and complicated. Click here for the Fulbright Commission’s web page on sports scholarships and the athletic recruitment process.
Some scholarships are also awarded based on specific personal qualities outlined by the university or an individual donor or sponsor. These qualities often correlate to the mission of the organisation or interests of the donor and could include country of origin, ethnicity, religious faith, interest in a particular field, gender, interests and talents. There should be information about such niche scholarships on the college’s website.