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Kat Cohen


What Canadians Need to Know About Applying to U.S. Colleges

Posted: 10/18/2013 1:35 pm

Nearly 27,000 Canadian students studied at higher education institutions in the United States during the 2011/12 academic year, according to the 2012 Open Doors Report. In fact, the total international student enrolment in the U.S. is at a record high with Canada being the fifth leading place of origin. It's no wonder that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), recently hosted its first international conference -- its 69th National Conference -- in Toronto, ON.

The truth is Canadian students looking to gain admission to selective U.S. colleges are vying against not only their classmates and countrymen, but an extremely competitive global applicant pool for limited spots available. While it varies from school to school, many colleges limit their international student population to 10 per cent of their overall class. Admit rates for international students tend to be much lower than the overall admit rate.

For example, in 2013, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had an overall admit rate of 8.2 per cent, however the admission rate for international students was close to three percent, considerably lower than the domestic student admission rate of 9.9 per cent. University of California, Berkeley had a regular admit rate of 20.8 per cent, but the school's international admit rate was just 14.6 per cent.

With these high stakes, Canadian families can become overwhelmed easily when facing the U.S. admissions process, one that is much more complex than applying to Canadian colleges and universities. However, the good news is that there are steps Canadian students can take to set themselves apart when applying to schools south of the border.

Research, Research, Research!

At IvyWise, we tell our international students that the most important thing you can do when preparing to apply to U.S. colleges is to do your homework. In Canada, there are 90 universities and 150 colleges. In the U.S., there are approximately 3,000 four-year colleges with varying sizes, locations, courses of study and campus cultures. Ultimately, students want to end up with a list of 12 to 15 good-fit schools, a balanced list of reach, target and likely schools that are all academic, social and financial fits.

I encourage Canadian students to look beyond the household name schools and college rankings when building their lists. Get online today and do thorough research. Visit college websites and look at the courses offered and the professors who teach them, look at the extracurricular activities offered on campus and in the local community, and look at the internship and career services opportunities offered. What services are offered on campus for international students? Is there an international student group you can join?

Students will likely be spending four years of their lives on campus, so they also want to get a sense of the campus culture and what issues matter most to students who go there. Look at the campus newspaper, blog and social media channels to get a real student perspective. LinkedIn's newly launched LinkedIn University Pages allows students to learn what's happening on campus, ask questions of faculty, staff, students and alumni, check out notable alumni and explore the professional paths of graduates.

Research will also come in handy when it's time to write those college essays. Many schools ask applicants why they want to attend that particular college or university, and it's best to have specific examples. Schools can tell when you've done thoughtful and thorough research on their institution, so this will help set you apart.

Total Academic Performance, Standardized Tests and "Soft Factors" Count

Many Canadian colleges and universities only consider "senior-level" grades, however, U.S. schools look at grades from all four years of secondary school, so you need to put your best foot forward from day one. If your first and second year grades weren't stellar, that's OK, as long as you show improvement year-over-year. Admission officers are looking for an upward grade trend.

U.S. colleges and universities also require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. These standardized tests are marathon exams that require significant preparation. As of last year, all four-year institutions in the U.S. accept both the ACT and SAT. Take a practice test for each exam to see which is right for you. Our international students have performed better on the ACT in many cases. If you're not a good test taker, there are nearly 850 four-year colleges that are test optional listed at FairTest.org. Be sure to read the fine print and check out each individual school's standardized test policy for international applicants.

Many Canadian schools do not require essays with their applications. In fact, unless you're applying for a specific program, they generally don't require any supplemental materials. Most U.S. colleges, on the other hand, do require at least one essay and many have school-specific supplements. Essays and short answers provide the perfect opportunity for schools to get to know you better. Write about something that can't be found anywhere else in your application that gives some insight into who you are as a person, your experiences, and how you plan to make an impact in that particular school's campus community.

Canadian admissions is much more numbers based, whereas U.S. admissions offices place a greater emphasis on "soft factors" like recommendation letters, extracurricular activities, community service, demonstrated interest, and so on.

• Select one or two of your senior level teachers to write recommendations, preferably instructors who have had you in more than one class or know you in more than one capacity, i.e. a physics teacher who was also the advisor for your robotics club.

• Identify two or three extracurricular activates that really interest you and stick with them all throughout secondary school. Admissions officers look for sustained involvement in extracurricular activities, not a long list of one-off activities that you joined just to put on your application.

• Demonstrated interest, or the university's way of gauging how likely you are to attend if you're admitted, is also a big factor in U.S. admissions. Going on an official campus visit, having contact with the admissions office and doing an admissions interview (in person or via Skype), will set you apart from other applicants.

Additional Tips for International Students

Here are some additional ways international students can stand out when applying to U.S. colleges:

• Emphasize your diverse background. Colleges like the perspective multinational, multicultural and multilingual students bring to the classroom.

• Highlight what makes you different from other students at your school and explain why you have a desire to study in America.

• Demonstrate an understanding of what a Liberal Arts education means in America. It differs from more vertical, professionally oriented college curriculums that may be offered in other countries.

• If you can afford to pay full tuition and don't need financial aid, let the college know. It's much more difficult for international students who need financial assistance to gain acceptance.

The sheer size of the U.S. higher education system gives Canadian students so many options. If you do your homework on the schools you're applying to and put a lot of thought and effort into the various components of your application, you will gain admission to a good-fit school.

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  • 21. McGill University

  • 19. King's College London

  • 19. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

  • 17. University of Toronto

  • 17. University of Edinburgh

  • 16. Johns Hopkins University

  • 15. Cornell University

  • 14. Columbia University

  • 13. University of Pennsylvania

  • 12. ETH Zurich

  • 11. Princeton University

  • 10. California Institute of Technology

  • 9. University of Chicago

  • 8. Yale

  • 7. Stanford University

  • 6. University of Oxford

  • 5. Imperial College London

  • 4. UCL (University College London)

  • 3. University of Cambridge

  • 2. Harvard University

  • 1. MIT

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    Established in the early 13th Century, Cambridge is regarded as very beautiful, and also one of the best universities in the world. The most famous building at Cambridge, King’s College Chapel, is a great example of Gothic architecture.

  • University of Cape Town, South Africa.

    Set against the unique background of natural South Africa, Cape Town University is the second oldest university in Africa. The main campus area is located near the slopes of Devil’s Peak, with the mountains looming ominously above the main buildings. There's also lions on campus. Maybe.

  • Pepperdine University, America.

    Overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, California, Pepperdine is hard to beat when it comes to breath-taking views. Its iconic Mediterranean architecture adds to the coastal feel of the campus, making it a very lovely place to study.

  • Moscow State Building, Russia.

    The statuesque main building of Moscow State stands apart from the rest. Its stately features are reflected it a pool at its base—though relatively young, the university is still a striking feature of Moscow, along with the bears.

  • University of Otago, New Zealand

    Situated in the already picturesque New Zealand, this university’s campus simply builds off of the natural beauty around it. The buildings combine both the old and new, while blending seamlessly with the green spaces and the Leith River winding through the heart of campus. It also has lovely blossoms, as you can see.

  • University of Oxford, UK.

    Going back to Old Blighty, Oxford is a rather attractive university. Although it does not have a central ‘campus,’ its 38 unique colleges are each beautiful in their own respect. Highlights include Christchurch, Magdalen College, and New College. Centuries of various architecture can be found within meters of each other, and it truly makes visiting Oxford a magical experience.

  • The Queens University of Belfast, Northern Ireland

    The face of the university, the Lanyon Building, was built in 1849 in the Tudor Gothic style. Though not all of the university buildings adhere to this aesthetic, the red brick provides a warm welcome to all those who visit.

  • Mount Holyoke College, America.

    Nestled in Massachusetts, the all-female college campus was built starting in the 1890s. Features include stunning waterfalls, lakes, riding trails, and even a designated botanic garden.

  • The University of Sydney, Australia.

    The oldest university in Australia, the engaging Sydney University campus is spread across two suburbs. Architecture ranges from modern to Neogothic, the style of the Quadrangle and Great Tower buildings seen here.

  • Xiamen University, China.

    Situated by the Xiamen bay, the campus backs up into the foothills of green mountains. Serene views and a mix of modern and classic Chinese architecture greet visitors to the campus, which is one of the main tourist attractions in Xiamen. Which is in the southeast of China.

  • Aarhus University, Denmark.

    Planned and constructed in the 1930s while still continuing construction into today, Aarhus University is one of the more recent universities on the list. The campus has a unified, cohesive look, achieved by fabricating all buildings with a yellow brick. Its location among a hilly park forms an inviting place to take a stroll.

  • University of Virginia, America.

    The quintessential southern US university, UVA is known for its Jeffersonian architecture, broad green spaces, and use of red brick throughout the campus. Its main building and symbol of the university, The Rotunda, showcases white columns and has inspired similar architecture across the United States.

  • University of Rostock, Germany.

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  • Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland.

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  • Peking University, China.

    The unique aspect of this campus is its location—the former Qing Dynasty royal gardens. Many beautiful traditional Chinese structures, such as pagodas, bridges, houses and gardens remain because of this historical link, and many travel to northwest Beijing to tour the campus.

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  • Puppeteering

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  • Packaging

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    UC Davis and Cornell University take advantage of their ripe location in providing this major. As <a href="http://grapesandwine.cals.cornell.edu/cals/grapesandwine/undergraduate/index.cfm" target="_hplink">Cornell's website </a>explains, "Due to rapid growth in the region's wine industry, there simply aren't enough people qualified to manage vineyards and run wineries," while <a href="http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/" target="_hplink">UC Davis</a> states that the University of California has had this sort of program for over 100 years.

  • Comic Art

    Acknowledging the significance of comic books in modern society, <a href="http://mcad.edu/academic-programs/comic-art" target="_hplink">Minneapolis College of Art and Design </a>offers a B.F.A in Comic Art. Students in the program study "line, color, and composition, as well as character development, storyboarding, and plot." Future careers include: Cartoonist, Comic Editor, Comic Illustrator, Comic Writer, Penciler, Colorist, Letterer, Inker

  • Bowling Industry Management and Technology

    At Vincennes University in Indiana, the laboratory is substituted for a bowling center. According to the school's <a href="http://www.vinu.edu/content/bowling-industry-management-and-technology" target="_hplink">website</a>, the major is intended to prepare students for "management of a bowling center, sales and marketing, pro shop operations, and pinsetter mechanics."

  • Bagpipes

    <a href="http://www.cmu.edu/about/history/index.shtml" target="_hplink">Andrew Carnegie</a> did not neglect to honor his Scottish roots when he established Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA in 1900. Since the early 1990s, the school has offered a degree in bagpipes. In an interview with the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1990/07/15/style/campus-life-carnegie-mellon-a-different-beat-when-bagpiping-becomes-a-major.html" target="_hplink"><em>New York Times</em></a> in 1990, Marilyn Taft Thomas, head of Carnegie Mellon's music department stated, "The entire tradition of campus has been to have celebratory bagpiping. It just makes sense for us to acknowledge bagpipes as a legitimate musical instrument."

  • Bakery Science and Management

    In this major, available at <a href="http://www.ag.ksu.edu/p.aspx?tabid=876" target="_hplink">Kansas State University</a>, students not only take classes in baking and cereal science, milling, flour and dough testing, but also in math, science, and microbiology. The program falls under the larger College of Agriculture, and is listed among other unique majors offered within the College, such as <a href="http://www.ag.ksu.edu/p.aspx?tabid=995" target="_hplink">Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management</a> or <a href="http://www.ag.ksu.edu/p.aspx?tabid=882" target="_hplink">Park Management and Conservation</a>.

  • Video Game Design

    Video game fanatics can live out their dream at certain colleges by majoring in video game design. The major can be found at a plethora of different universities, with schools as prestigious as such<a href="http://cinema.usc.edu/degrees/minor/videogame.cfm" target="_hplink"> University of Southern California </a>providing a minor in Video Game Design & Management.

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