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Applying to U.S. Colleges as a Singaporean Student

Are you a Singaporean student looking to attend a top college or university in the United States? If so, we have you covered! This blog post will serve as an in-depth look into everything you’ll need to know about the U.S. college application process. Note: In the U.S. the terms “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably, as the only difference between the two is the presence of graduate school programs.

Testing

For context, in the United States just about every applicant will apply to top colleges during their final year of high school (secondary school), which they attend for four years between the ages of roughly 14-18 years old. U.S. students typically take the SAT or ACT during their second to last year of high school, and will have secured a final score on one of these tests by the time they start their last year of high school. U.S. students receive their admittance decisions before graduating, and then complete the remainder of their final year of high school before receiving their high school diploma in the spring and attending college in the fall.

Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level/ International Baccalaureate (IB)

Almost every top university in the U.S. will require Singaporean applicants to complete the GCE A Level Exams or the IB Diploma as an equivalent to the U.S. high school diploma. You can either begin applying to universities in your final year in junior college before you have taken your A-levels/IB exams, or take a gap year and use the time off from school to study for standardized tests and apply to colleges. If you are a male Singaporean Citizen or permanent resident, you should plan to apply in your final year of junior college and defer until after you’ve completed National Service (NS) if you are not able to apply during your NS.

Standardized Testing (SAT/ACT)

While the GCE A Level Exams or IB Diploma are required for applicants, you will also need to take one of the two standardized tests used by most U.S. colleges: the SAT or the ACT. As previously stated, U.S. students tend to take one or both of these tests during their third year of high school. We highly recommend studying for these using testing books, tutoring or class options. Here is a bit of information about the differences between the SAT and the ACT:

The SAT is scored out of 1600 and is composed of two math sections, one reading section, and one writing/language section. The SAT tends to have more difficult problems but offers more time per problem than the ACT. Each elite school has a range of average test scores accepted, but most Ivy League (or equivalent) bound students will score a 1550+ on their SAT.

The ACT is scored out of 36 and is composed of one english section, one reading section, one math section, and one science section. The ACT tends to ask straightforward questions but allot less time per question than the SAT. Like the SAT, elite schools accept students with a range of ACT scores, but most students will score between a 34-36 on their ACT.

To register for the SAT or ACT, it is important to check which dates and which testing sites are available in Singapore on the official SAT and ACT websites. This info can be found under the “International Students” section on both sites.

Here are some sites that have often held these tests in the past:

TOEFL/IELTS

The TOEFL and IELTS are tests used to measure English proficiency. Many U.S. colleges and universities require non-native speakers and students who attend a school where English is not the primary language of instruction to take one of these tests. Fortunately, as almost all schools in Singapore follow a curriculum taught in English, most U.S. colleges will waive this requirement for Singaporean applicants.

Despite the tendency of colleges to waive this requirement for Singaporean students, it is still worth checking colleges’ websites or sending their admission offices a quick email to see if they do require it, as all colleges can individually choose whether they will waive the language testing requirement.

Grades and Testing: The Base of Your Application

While your score on the SAT or ACT forms one part of your application’s base, your school grades form the rest of it. Colleges will look at your grades in the context of your school and your school’s grading system, so standing out amongst your peers is essential for getting into top colleges.

Colleges are not just looking at the numbers though, they want to see that you took the most difficult classes available to you, especially in your areas of interest. Colleges will receive a school report along with your transcript which will help them to determine whether or not you took the most rigorous classes available to you, so achieving top grades in difficult courses will strongly bolster your chances of admission.

Extracurriculars, Volunteering, and Awards

The foundation of your application is built upon your SAT/ACT score and your grades, but colleges look at candidates holistically, meaning that they also care about the activities you participate in and the awards you earn. When you apply to colleges using the Common Application (which we’ll get to in a minute) you’ll have 10 slots to write about your activities and 5 slots to write about your awards.

Extracurriculars: Your extracurricular activities will consist of sports or instruments you play, school clubs you are involved in, student council roles, internships, jobs, and any other activities not considered volunteering. For most Singaporean students, your Core Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) and a Secondary CCA will be some of the most important activities in this section. Colleges particularly consider whether you have taken on leadership positions within these activities, as well as your associated accomplishments and the time you devote to each. Therefore, it is more important to have accomplished a lot (awards, leadership, etc,) in a few activities than to be involved in as many activities as possible.

Volunteering: Almost all applicants to top universities have some volunteering experience. Some applicants tutor their peers or younger students, others volunteer at food pantries or hospitals. Colleges and universities look for applicants who give back to their communities, so volunteering serves as a way to show colleges that you are positively involved in yours! Ideally, you should try to volunteer in an area related to your interest: e.g. a student interested in politics volunteers for a small political campaign, a student interested in medicine volunteers at a hospital, etc.. If you cannot volunteer in a way that matches your career interest, try to look for something that connects to another one of your passions, like volunteering to teach young kids how to play a sport if you are an athlete.

Awards: This aspect of the college application is often overlooked, but colleges want to learn about the distinctions you have earned in your academic and extracurricular pursuits. Here are a few examples of awards that belong in this section: a first place finish for your team at a robotics competition, an individual award you won for academic achievement at your school, a top finish at a large-scale tournament in your sport, a musical competition in which you placed highly, etc.. Additionally, there are specific scholarships you can apply to (often essay based competitions) that will go in this section if you win them.

Passion Project – Hook vs Well-Rounded

If you know a little bit about applying to U.S. colleges, you might have heard the term “well-rounded” used quite often. Colleges used to be most interested in students with good grades who partook in many different activities. These well-rounded applicants may have played multiple sports and instruments, volunteered, joined numerous clubs, and held a position in their school’s student council.

As admissions have become increasingly selective, colleges are now more interested in students who take on leadership roles in few activities and develop a “hook” that allows them to stand out. A hook is an individual pursuit of a passion that shows exceptional leadership and self-motivation. Here are some examples of a hook: a student starts a small business selling clothes, a student starts a charity organization to combat an issue they see in their community, or a student creates an online presence to teach financial literacy.

On paper, your various extracurricular involvements come together to tell a story about how your interests align with your eventual career goals. Your hook is the perfect way to show colleges exactly how you have explored and pursued your academic and career interests.

College List

While your score on the SAT or ACT forms one part of your application’s base, your school grades form the rest of it. Colleges will look at your grades in the context of your school and your school’s grading system, so standing out amongst your peers is essential for getting into top colleges.

Achieving balance

Now that you know what elite colleges in the U.S. are looking for, it is time to decide what YOU are looking for in a college. Unlike in Singapore, where there are just over thirty universities to choose from, there are thousands of options in the United States. Simply applying to the top ranked colleges according to the U.S. News & World report is a mistake that could be costly.

Creating a college list is all about balance. Your list should be separated into three categories: safety, match, and reach. We at Command Education suggest applying to roughly 15 colleges: 3 Safeties, 6 Match, and 6 Reach. You can determine which category a school falls into by comparing where your test scores and GPA rank relative to the schools’ published admissions statistics. You can specifically consider the 25-75 percentile statistics and the school’s acceptance rate. For competitive students:

  • Reach: <20% acceptance rate
  • Match: 20-50% acceptance rate
  • Safety: >50% acceptance rate

As college admissions have become more selective, it is important to have a balanced list, as even extremely competitive students can be rejected from all of their Reach schools.

Researching Colleges and Creating a College List

Here is our advice on how to research colleges and create a balanced list.

Utilize resources available to you:

  1. Attending seminars and college fairs held at the U.S. embassy or other locations can help you learn about different colleges in the U.S.
  2. If you learn about a college and want to know more, you can go to their website and attend a virtual information session.

Come up with criteria:

  1. Does this college offer the specific major you’re interested in?
  2. Where in the U.S. is the college located?
  3. Do you want to live in a big city or in a true “college town” where everything revolves around the college itself?
  4. How large do you want the student population to be? Are you excited to be constantly meeting new people or would you rather have the opportunity to get to know your class?
  5. How important is the student:teacher ratio to you? Do you enjoy small class sizes or are you comfortable attending large lectures?
  6. What aspects of social life are important to you? U.S. colleges place a huge emphasis on social life and clubs, and the student experience can differ wildly depending on the opportunities offered by each school.

Look for specific programs or opportunities that excite you! This will also be very important when writing your supplement essays.

  1. Some schools may offer interesting dual degree programs, independent research opportunities, or other options that might catch your eye.
  2. The more unique that an interesting program is to a school, the stronger a case you can make on your application as to why you want to attend that specific school.

Common App, Supplements, and School-Specific Applications

The Common App

The vast majority of colleges in the U.S. use what’s known as the Common App to accept applications from potential students. The Common App opens up every year on August 1st. You can go to https://www.commonapp.org/ to create an account. The Common App is composed of a few key components:

  1. Personal Essay: This is a short essay (250-650 words) that tells a story about yourself. The essay demonstrates your writing abilities as well as your uniqueness as a candidate.
  2. 10 Activities: List up to ten activities (jobs, clubs, volunteering, internships, research, passion project, etc.) and write brief descriptions about your responsibilities for each, similar to descriptive bullet points included on a resume.
  3. 5 Awards: Like the activities, you will be able to list and briefly describe up to five awards that you have received. You can list the awards at different levels ranging from school/local to international.
  4. Transcript: You are required to include a transcript of your most updated Junior College grades up to the point of submission.
  5. Test Scores: Standardized test scores must be sent through the official SAT or ACT website, and they will be sent directly to the schools you apply to.
  6. Recommendation Letters: These letters are written by teachers and school counselors. They are technically sent directly to the schools you apply to, but you will “add a recommender” directly on the Common App website, which will send each recommender an email instructing them how to send their letter of recommendation through the Common App. While most universities in Singapore do not require letters of recommendation, almost every top college in the U.S. requires multiple. For more information on these letters, please read the “Letters of Recommendation” paragraph below!

Supplements

Almost all top schools will ask applicants to submit at least one supplemental essay in addition to their personal essay. The most common prompt asks why you are interested in the particular school you are applying to. Having researched a specific answer to this question is essential to gaining admission to an elite college. Other supplemental questions might ask for you to describe a community you’re a part of, an activity that is meaningful to you, or how you’ve pursued a potential career path up to this point.

Supplement essay questions are sometimes listed as optional, but your application will suffer if you do not provide thoughtful responses to these questions. You will be able to answer these supplemental essay questions directly on the Common App.

School-Specific Applications

Not every college is on the Common App, as some colleges choose to have their own unique application. Some elite colleges that are not on the Common App include University of California schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley, etc.), University of Texas school (such as UT Austin), and Georgetown University.

If you cannot find a college on the Common App, it means that they likely have their own application, which can be accessed on the school’s website. Additionally, some colleges may use the Coalition Application. Many colleges are on the Common App but still offer their own application on their website, but it makes no difference in admissions decisions which application you use.

Letters of Recommendation

Almost every top college in the U.S. will require two letters of recommendation from your teachers and one letter of recommendation from a counselor. These letters of recommendation will be submitted with your application, so be sure to give your teachers and counselor plenty of time to write them before you plan to submit your application. Additionally, be ready to provide any information your teacher might ask for to assist them in writing a great letter

When selecting teachers to write your recommendations, there are a few different factors to consider, such as:

  • How well does the teacher know you as a student and as a member of your community outside of the classroom?
  • How well are you doing in their class and do you actively participate in lessons and discussions?
  • How long has the teacher taught you? (Typically, the longer the better, since they will know more about you.)
  • Do any of your planned colleges require a letter of recommendation written by a teacher who taught you a specific subject?

Each college is allowed to set their own requirements for letters of recommendation, so it is important that you research exactly what each of your planned colleges and intended major requires in terms of quantity and types of teachers. For example, some colleges (and some programs like engineering) might require at least one letter of recommendation to be written by a science or math teacher.

If none of the colleges and programs you’re applying to require specific teachers, we still recommend trying to pick teachers in different subjects, particularly in the main fields of study. For example, picking an English/History teacher and a Math/Science teacher will show range in your abilities in both the humanities and STEM. Ideally, one of your recommendations will be from a teacher who teaches a subject relevant to your intended major. For example, a student interested in studying business might ask an economics teacher, and a student interested in majoring in STEM might ask a biology teacher.

Timeline

We’ve presented you with a ton of information, so here’s a timeline that should help you figure out when everything is supposed to happen. This timeline assumes that you are planning to apply in your final year of junior college, but a similar timeline can be followed if you want to wait another year, if you cannot get your predicted GCE A-Levels Exam results before college deadlines, or if you just need more time (but you should ask for your recommendation letters in your final year.) If you are a male Singaporean Citizen or permanent resident, you should generally plan on applying in your final year of junior college, but deferring admission until after you have completed National Service (NS).

January – April

Begin studying for either the SAT or the ACT, whether you choose to take a class, have a tutor, or self-study online, you should give yourself at least 3 months to study. This is also the time to research when and where the SAT and ACT are offered. For 2021, the ACT is expected to have international test dates available in June, July, September, and October. For 2021, the SAT is expected to have international test dates available in August and October. Registration closes about a month before the test date, so make sure to register early!

This is also an ideal time to begin researching colleges and attending information sessions to put together a list of colleges you want to apply to.

May

The mid summer months are a great time to take the ACT if you are going with this test. Most U.S. students will take their respective standardized test at least twice, so registering to take the ACT in June and July is a strong plan. For SAT test takers, the earliest date for the test is generally in August.

At this point, you should begin finalizing your college list by creating a balanced list of reach, match, and safety schools.

June

June is a great month to sit for the ACT for the first time. Ideally, you should be registered for both June and July to give yourself a second chance and stay on a solid timeline.

With your college list basically finalized, you should begin checking to see which colleges use the Common App, which use the Coalition Application and which use their own apps. This is also a great time to start brainstorming ideas for the Common App personal essay.

July

July should be the second and last time you take the ACT if you want to complete it by the end of summer. The SAT will be available for the first time in August, so now is the time to register if that is your preferred test. The ACT will continue to be offered throughout the year, but to give yourself time to balance school and applications, we recommend that you complete your ACT testing by the end of the summer.

Whether you are sitting for the ACT or SAT, you should begin writing your Common App personal essay and putting together a list of your activities and awards.

August

The Common App officially opens on August 1st, and you should create a Common App account and begin filling out the application. By the end of the month, you should have your personal essay, activities, and awards filled out. If you have not already, you should finalize your list of colleges and create a master timeline of their deadlines.

For SAT test takers, this is your earliest chance to take the test. Ideally, you will hit your SAT goal score the first time around, as your next chance will not come until October and will squeeze your overall timeline. If you took the ACT and are satisfied with your scores, now is a good time to send them to the colleges you are planning to apply to. Additionally, this is a prime time to make sure the colleges you are applying to do not require a TOEFL or IELTS test, and if they do, look into taking one around August,

September

If you are in your final year of junior college, now is the time to ask your teachers and counselors for letters of recommendation. As a reminder, most colleges require letters from two teachers and one counselor. If you are planning to take a gap year and apply after graduation, discuss this plan with the teachers and counselors you are hoping will write your letters so they know to keep in touch or to write them now for later use.

At this point, you should select the schools you are applying to on the Common App, and begin filling out their supplemental essays. For colleges that are not on the Common App, confirm their deadlines and fill out their individual applications according to the timeline you have created.

October

In October, you should continue writing and polishing supplemental essays and getting everything ready for submission to colleges. For SAT test takers, this is the latest you should be taking your test, and it might cause problems for Early Action/Early Decision deadlines if you did not receive a submittable score the first time around. Be aware that some Early Action/Early Decision deadlines are in October, so if you are planning to apply early, make sure you meet these deadlines.

This is also a crucial time to figure out if you will be able to get your A-Levels scores by November/December. If you are not able to get your scores by then, try to obtain your predicted scores since most top colleges require A-Levels scores or an IB Diploma along with your transcript.

November

Like October, November should be spent continuing to write supplemental essays and getting everything ready for submission to colleges. The majority of Early Action/Early Decision deadlines are at the beginning of November, so be especially cognizant of these dates if you are planning on applying early action or early decision.

December

All of your applications should be submitted by the end of December, and all of the following must be submitted for a complete application:

  • Standardized Test Scores (SAT or ACT)
  • Transcripts (Junior College/Polytechnic)
  • National Exams Results (A Level or IB)
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Activities, Awards, and Essays (Personal Statement and Supplements)
  • (If not waived) TOEFL or IELTS results

If you applied Early Action/Early Decision, letters of acceptance may start coming in around December, so keep an eye out for those!

January – April

More early decision results will come out in January, and regular decision results will come out in March and April. If you are accepted, your decision letter will come with an I-20 form (in specific cases might be DS2019 form) that allows you to apply for a Student VISA. For male Singaporean citizens and permanent residents, this is the time to contact your college and let them know you have to defer admittance until after National Service.

If you were accepted to multiple schools, now is the time to choose which one you want to attend and officially accept the invitation by submitting a deposit (instructions will be given in the school’s decision letter).

May – July

Now that you have decided on which college you will attend, it’s time to apply for a Student VISA. Be aware that you cannot apply earlier than 120 days before the start date on your I-20 form. You should also look into booking your flight to your college, but it can be no more than 30 days before the start date on your I-20 form.

Please see the “VISA Application” section below for more information about applying for a Student VISA.

August – September

Congratulations! You’re off to college, but remember that you can only arrive in the US a maximum of 30 days before the start date on your I-20 form.

We recommend checking in with your college to see if there are special programs for international students to get familiar with the campus or arrive earlier than the official move-in date.

VISA Application

Once you are accepted into a college in the U.S., the next step is applying for a student VISA. Much of the work will be handled by a U.S. embassy or consulate, but you will have to put in some time and effort as well. Here’s what you will need:

  • Your I-20 Form (or in some cases DS2019 form) sent by colleges that accept you along with your decision letter
  • A completed D-160 application form and barcode (can be found online)
  • A paid and printed receipt for the SEVIS fee
  • A paid and printed receipt for the VISA application processing fee
  • An interview appointment letter with the U.S. Embassy which will be printable once booked online with your D-160 barcode and payment receipts
  • A 2×2 passport style photograph
  • A passport valid for travel at least 6 months past the final date of your expected stay in the U.S..

If this list is not quite descriptive enough, we’ve included a handy link with a full description about getting a student VISA: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/study/student-visa.html#howtoapply

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Types of U.S. Schools

Unlike British system, The U.S. Department of Education cites over 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., with each offering an idiosyncratic approach to education.

The main categories, however, are:

The Ivy League Schools

The eight Ivy League Member Schools are Harvard, Yale, Columbia, UPenn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, and they are primarily situated in the American northeast. These schools are widely considered some of the best schools in the nation, and are some of the oldest that were originally linked by having the same sports league, the “Ivy League.” In terms of student body size, the largest Ivy is Cornell, while the smallest Ivy is Dartmouth. They range from city to rural environments, so there is an Ivy that fits best with everyone!

The Top Non-Ivy Schools

Not all great schools reside in the Ivy League, however! There are a lot of schools throughout the nation that offer the small student-to-teacher ratios, world-class academic and research opportunities, name recognition and driven student bodies that distinguish the Ivy Leagues!

Non-Ivy Schools Examples: MIT, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon

Liberal Arts Schools

Liberal arts schools offer small student populations, small student-to-teacher ratios, unique school traditions and, or course, the hallmark and specialized “liberal arts curriculum that focuses on developing the whole student through diverse and comprehensive areas of study.” 

Liberal Arts Schools Examples: Amherst, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Haverford, Bates College

The UC System

UC Schools, based in California, are some of the finest state schools in the country, with a diverse array of student bodies and research opportunities. To apply to the UC schools, you use the UC system application rather than the CommonApp. The largest UC is UCLA, with 31,000 students, and the smallest is UC Merced with 7,000 students. California universities as a whole, UCs and non-UCs alike, produced nearly 50,000 STEM degrees in 2012-13, with the UC system’s 23,000 STEM degrees far outpacing all other universities in the state.

UC Schools Examples: UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara

State Schools

State schools are often large, and offer diverse and dynamic learning communities and great research opportunities!  Compared to the aforementioned institutions, state schools receive public funding from states that often empower them to offer more affordable tuition rates to residents. In-state students receive a special discount that out-of-state students don’t, making them an appealing option for many looking to expand their educational horizons while minimizing their budgets. Private schools, on the other hand, don’t receive such robust funding from the state, so much of their scholarship budgets derive from internal financial resources and private donations. 

State Schools Examples: California Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, UMichigan, and Virginia Tech.

25 Top Schools with the Highest International Populations by Percentage, Ranked (Compared to National Average of ~5.5% – Source: US News)

1. The New School – 31%

2. Boston University – 22%

3. Carnegie Mellon University – 22%

4. New York University – 22%

5. Columbia University – 17%

6. Northeastern University – 17%

7. Emory University – 15%

8. University of Chicago – 15%

9. Georgetown University – 14%

10. UC-Berkeley – 13%

11. The University of Pennsylvania – 13%

12. The University of Southern California – 13%

13. George Washington University – 12%

14. Harvard University – 12%

15. Johns Hopkins University – 12%

16. Princeton University – 12%

17. Rice University – 12%

18. Brown – 11%

19. Stanford – 11%

20. Tufts – 11%

21. UCLA – 11%

22. American – 10%

23. Cornell – 10%

24. Dartmouth – 10%

25. Duke – 10%