Dubai: Want to apply to your dream university or college, but don’t know where to start?
From finding out how to build a strong application, to increasing your chances of getting accepted at your preferred university, admissions procedures can feel overwhelming.
Gulf News spoke with university admissions experts in the UAE and US, to find out exactly how students can streamline their approach to increase their chances of success.
1. Start early
Every education counsellor who spoke with Gulf News highlighted the need to start early when it comes to planning your university admissions, as cramming the whole application process in the last year is impractical.
Tiffany Blessing, college admissions counsellor at Ivy Wise education consultants and former Assistant Director of Admission at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), spoke about how students in the UAE would also need to consider how their school curriculum, and its academic calendar, would impact how early they should start preparing.
“Because the UAE has different curricula, they would need to think about which university system or which country they would like to consider as early as their first or second year in high school. For example, if you are planning to go the UK, you have to be admitted to a course and those courses have very specific requirements, which depends on your A Level courses in school (if your school follows the UK National Curriculum). So, where you want to study may also inform which courses you need to take in school,” Blessing told Gulf News.
Because the UAE has different curricula, they would need to think about which university system or which country they would like to consider as early as their first or second year in high school.
Soraya Beheshti, regional director of Crimson Education, a global higher education consulting company, spoke about the requirements for some of the top universities in the US, and explained how students would need a few years’ time to plan and work on their application.
“Admission to top US universities is about so much more than just academics. Essays and storytelling can make or break an application - but even they are just the tip of the iceberg. Beautifully written essays polish the work a student has done in building an extra curricular profile, but the body of the iceberg itself is what takes time. You can only write about what you've done, so if you only start thinking about applications when you're ready to apply, you miss the opportunity to build a really solid body of work to write about,” Beheshti said.
While displaying an entrepreneurial spirit is a requirement for universities in the US, what about colleges in other parts of the world? Beheshti explained that different countries have distinct approaches towards the qualifications they value in applicants, which affects how admissions procedures are weighted.
Starting early can help you zero down on which part of the world you wish to study in, and what their admissions requirements may be.
“In the UK, what they need to see is a burgeoning interest in the subject that you want to study. You should be able to have adult conversations around the subject. Australia is like the UK, with a stronger focus on academics. In the European Union (EU), every country has its own system, and it requires a lot of conscientiousness. You really must do your research, because every single university is going to have its own application portal and criteria,” Beheshti said.
“Canada’s admissions system is somewhere between the US and UK. They have that focus on academics but also give weightage to extra-curricular activities. Universities in China are also a very popular choice as some of their English-taught programmes rank as highly as American universities and are a lot more competitively priced. They get a lot of international students as well,” she added.
Admission to top US universities is about so much more than just academics. Essays and storytelling can make or break an application - but even they are just the tip of the iceberg. Beautifully written essays polish the work a student has done in building an extra curricular profile, but the body of the iceberg itself is what takes time. You can only write about what you've done, so if you only start thinking about applications when you're ready to apply, you miss the opportunity to build a really solid body of work to write about.
Grade 9 – Exploration – during this year, explore different interests before settling into the ones you really like. Explore available jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities.
Grade 10 – Solidification – During this year, students need to start increasing their involvement in the extra curriculars they are passionate about, while decreasing participation in extraneous ones. They also need start working on their leadership project, considering potential majors, college choices or career paths and start preparing for preliminary standardised exams.
Grade 11 – Intensification – as this is one year before the application year, students can lean into their strongest subjects, choosing electives and other additional courses that relate to their eventual major. This year requires you to continue solidifying your application by pursuing your top extra-curricular activities, generate a shortlist of majors and prepare to write college essays. You will also be taking your standardised tests like SAT or ACT.
2. Shortlist universities based on your priorities
While a university’s global ranking or even how much the programme would cost are two factors that applicants would check first, students nowadays appear to also be focusing on the long-term benefits of the education they are planning to pursue.
Rema Menon, an education counsellor with 25 years of experience in the UAE, spoke about how she has seen a shift in focus from students more recently – students are considering options other than the countries that have been traditionally popular for higher education (like the US, UK and Canada), and are also interested in knowing exactly how they will benefit from the degree.
Menon spoke about how a lot of students who come to her have questions like “What are my permanent residency options after graduation?”, or “What is the likelihood of landing a job?”
“Generation Z (the generation born between 1997 to 2012) is very conscious of long-term choices, you would even hear them talk about the return on investment and whether after investing time and money into the degree, it is going to pay off. The world is changing dramatically, the pandemic and technology have together contributed towards this shift of focus,” Menon said.
“I have students who have gone to Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, and New Zealand. As students are becoming more aware by looking at videos on social media platforms, they are becoming more aware of other people who might be living as students or who have made it after studying in these different colleges and universities,” she added.
Having a comprehensive checklist, based on your priorities and preferences, is extremely helpful in determining which universities you wish to apply to.
Blessing, however, advised students to have a balanced list.
“Universities have varying degrees of selectivity. Make sure that you have universities that are competitive and aim for them – something we refer to as ‘reach schools’, but also apply to some unviersities that may not be as competitive.”
1. Ranking: What is the global, regional, or national ranking of the university?
2. Fees: Are the tuition fees manageable? Does the university offer scholarship? According to Menon, even if a college or university offers a scholarship, you should still consider the overall tuition fees, as not every applicant is granted the scholarship that is offered.
“Don’t embark on a journey that does not cater to or fulfill your long-term needs. Be realistic. If you get the scholarship, great. If not, it is important to remember that international students’ fees are higher,” Menon said.
3. Location: Is the university located a short flight away from your family? Do you have friends or family in the area? Do you want to live in a busy city environment, or prefer a quieter campus?
4. Pre-requisites: What are the admissions requirements, in terms of standardised tests, experience or qualifications, that you need to meet? What are the visa requirements, documentation for finances that you need to submit?
5. Research options: What are the research opportunities for undergraduate students.
6. Extra-curricular: If you have a particular interest in music or sport, does the university have activities or clubs that you can join?
7. What are your employment placement options? How does the careers department work – do they recommend graduates to companies? Do they call in employers for an employment day?
3. Enhance your application through free courses, volunteer work
Part of preparing for your application early includes creating your student profile in such a way that you can support your interests and passions with certain achievements. Enrolling in free courses, signing up for volunteer work, or even pursuing entrepreneurial projects care all excellent ways of standing out as an applicant.
“I have had students who have done a whole host of things until Grade 10 and have been involved in sports, Olympiads, and extra-curricular activities. But after Grade 10, their focus turns only towards academics. I am not saying this is bad, but how you juggle academics with extra-curricular also makes a difference. Your experiences are unique to you, when I am an admissions officer, I would like to see not just the marks, but the person behind the marks - things that set them apart,” Menon said.
She also advised students to look for internships to understand what it would finally mean to be a professional in their field of choice.
“Summer is the best time to plan for internships. Many students don’t know that even if you are younger than 18 years of age, you can do work shadows. Whether you want to become a doctor or work in an administration department of a large company, get your feet wet and understand what the job entails. It will put you in a better position to find out if this is the right department for you,” Menon said.
Summer is the best time to plan for internships. Many students don’t know that even if you are younger than 18 years of age, you can do work shadows. Whether you want to become a doctor or work in an administration department of a large company, get your feet wet and understand what the job entails. It will put you in a better position to find out if this is the right department for you.
4. Prepare your university application
Depending on which country you are applying to, you may also need to apply through standardised application systems. For example, in the UK, applicants would need to apply through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), while in the US, you may be asked for the Common App (Common Application). Both UCAS and Common App college admission applications, which allow students to apply to universities in a standardised way.
While this might seem intimidating, the process is easier than you might think, according to Blessing.
“For example, UCAS allows you to apply to five courses through that one application. So, students get to select five courses on that one application for different universities, whether it is Computer Science at University of Cambridge or Political Science at Imperial College London. Similarly, in the US, the Common App is one application that can be used to apply to 800 to 900 universities. So, these are two big application systems to navigate,” Blessing said.
Similarly, if you are planning to study in another country, you would need to look at any admissions tests they may have in place.
“When you move to other university systems like Singapore or Australia, they use university specific applications. Their system does not have one large application that can be used for more universities. The more university systems that a student and his or her family considers, the more guidelines they will need to check,” Blessing said.
“I would also advice students and families to consider working with an education counsellor, so that they don’t have to do any guess work,” she added.
University websites, too, clearly list admissions requirements on their websites, which can be helpful to print out and keep as a record with you, while you do your research.
“A lot of websites now also offer virtual tours, which can give students a better idea of what life is like on campus” Blessing said.
5. Get your documents in place
From your high school transcripts to passport copies or qualifications, make a list of all the documents you need to submit along with your application and ensure you have enough copies as back up.
6. Start submitting applications, track admissions deadlines
Once you have your university shortlist in place and have a fair understanding of all the test and admissions requirements you need to fulfil, the next step is to finally make the applications.
This is where having a good tracking system, and strong organisation skills, will help.
“A great organisation plan can help a family manage a process that could feel crazy. Tracking admission deadlines, listing additional requirements a college may have for documents, etc., can help you manage the stress and anxiety,” Blessing said.
Once you have submitted all the applications, you would simply need to wait to hear back from the universities or colleges, which, Blessing said, can be hard for students.
“The waiting period varies by university system. In general, anywhere from mid-October is when you submit your application and admissions decisions can start to come out anywhere between November all the way through March or May. However, universities tend to give you a heads up of when you can expect a response. In the meantime, it is important to keep your academics very strong. It’s not over, right after you submit your application. You could potentially receive a conditional acceptance or be on the deferred or wait list, where the university could seek more information. So, if you have just applied to your university, don’t stop paying attention to your studies, or quit all the clubs you were a part of. Continue to be engaged,” Blessing said.
Finally, once you do hear back from universities and receive acceptances, you can once again go back to your original checklist, to weigh your options and then finally respond to the universities that best suit your interest.