An early start to your global aspirations

Lisa Jain charts down some do's and don'ts for those who are aspiring to go abroad for higher studies

An early start to your global aspirations

Many students who wish to study abroad start planning for it in only when they are in grade 12.

But college applications require time, thought and effort, so aspiring high school students should try and begin the ground work much earlier, when they are in grades nine or ten.

Starting early gives students a better understanding of what the college application process entails, and prepares them to deal with it more systematically, without getting overwhelmed.

Students can create an action plan for themselves spanning 3-4 years and approach the college admission process in a planned manner.

Here is a rundown on what students in grades nine or ten can do to prepare for the college application process:

Develop a sense of self

Students should try and gain a better understanding of themselves – their interests, passions, skills, aspirations, dreams as well as limitations.

An understanding of oneself can help students identify projects and activities they want to get involved in, and choose wisely, when building their profile. Developing this sense of self is also extremely important for writing good, insightful college application essays.

Start building your profile

Foreign universities, while making admission decisions, focus on many facets of a student’s personality and life, and not solely on academics.

Your experiences and achievements beyond studies are given a lot of importance, as they help admission officers gain insights into who you are as a person, and whether you’ll positively contribute to their college community or not.

It is extremely important for students to consciously build their profiles, and engage in activities, projects other than pure academics that will help in creating a strong application.

Narrow your focus

Some students believe they need a long list of extra-curricular activities to strengthen their application, but this isn’t always a good strategy.

Instead, you should involve yourself deeply in a small number of activities for a long time period (sports, arts, writing, research, community work etc.).

You should create impact in whatever it is you choose to do. For example, work your way up to a leadership position, develop some skills, learn from failure and so on. You can’t suddenly pick an activity in grade 12 and claim that you’re really passionate about it. It will look superficial and probably is.

Don’t ignore academics

Academic performance is the most important component of college applications. Students have a perception that only their grade 12 marks matter.

What they don’t realise is when they apply to college, their final exam results from grade 12 aren’t even available. Universities look at a student’s academic transcripts of four years (9-12), if not longer. Try your best to perform well in academics throughout high school and not just in the final year.

Hone your reading and writing skills

Being able to express yourself clearly through writing, reading through information critically and forming an opinion and carrying out independent research, are crucial skills needed at university and even in future jobs.

Develop these habits when you are young and it will be of tremendous help to you in your future.

Prepare for standardised tests

Standardised tests such as SAT are a critical component of the undergraduate college application process. Students typically take these tests in grades 11 and 12, but they can begin preparing for them earlier, through options such as the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT), a test conducted by the College Board, makers of SAT.

By taking the PSAT in grade nine or ten, students get an idea of what the SAT is. The PSAT score report gives students detailed feedback on their skill gaps. By identifying weaknesses early, students understand where to focus while preparing for the SAT or other similar tests.

Start researching colleges

Start conducting research to understand the different college options available to you. Which country do you want to apply to colleges in? Understand how the experience differs between countries – USA vs. UK vs. Singapore vs. Canada, and so on.

If you are applying to the U.S., start understanding the different kind of college systems – public versus private, need-blind or otherwise and so on. Attend college fairs and learn about different universities and colleges from your seniors, friends and family who’ve been through the experience before.

Starting this exercise early will make the college shortlisting process less stressful later on. Once you have reached grade 11, you can do the following things:

Finish your standardised exams

Students should take their standardised tests (such as SAT) in grade 11. This is for two reasons – one, they are less burdened than they will be in grade 12, so it’s good to take care of one crucial component of the application process early.

Second, if they aren’t happy with their test result, they’ll still have enough time to retake the test. If you also need to take additional tests such as SAT subject tests, you can consider completing these at the beginning of grade 12.

Explore college majors

Some students know exactly what they want to study at college, while others are not certain. It is normal to be confused with so many options at your disposal, so don’t panic if you are a bit lost.

Start reflecting internally on what you enjoy learning about, as this might sometimes determine which colleges you apply to, especially if you want to focus on a specific field of study instead of pursuing liberal arts or a more generic course of study. If you plan to pursue your studies in the U.S., most colleges don’t expect you to declare a major in the first year – you have the liberty to study various subjects and decide your major later.

Start shortlisting colleges

Determine which factors will determine your choice of colleges. Is it the location, or the university’s rank in your chosen course? Are financial aid and scholarships an important factor for you, or are you looking at a college where you can pursue a particular sport in a big fashion? Don’t blindly look at rankings.

Instead, shortlist around ten universities that meet your needs. If you do look at rankings, check the university’s rank in the course you want to pursue, and not the overall ranking.

Finally, put all the pieces together in your grade 12. All the ground work you do in grades 9-11 will pay off in grade 12 and you will feel better prepared and confident.

In the final year of school, you should:

Work with a college guidance counsellor to finalise the list of colleges you will apply to.

Attend college fairs, visit university websites, understand individual university
requirements, application deadlines etc. If applying to the U.S., decide if you’re applying ED (Early Decision)/EA (Early Action) to any university, and create a working timeline for yourself.

Writing essays takes time, and there are many to write. All your profile building efforts are crucial here. Give yourself time to perfect your essays. Start early with your drafts, get feedback, and keep improving till you’re happy with the final outcome.

Fill in your applications, get your letters of recommendation, finish your financial aid documents and anything else the universities require.

College applications require discipline and effort. Make sure that you have a plan to tackle every component, and have a support system to help you through the process.

If you do everything at the right time, you will find the process enjoyable and find little reason to stress.

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