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Tips for Applying to Study Abroad

Luke Curran, College & University Guidance Counsellor, was interviewed to share with parents what their Secondary children can do to give their university application an extra edge, how parents can find out more about possible university scholarships and what are these universities’ scholarship eligibility criteria, and what international qualifications are most popular with leading world universities.

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Can you please share with parents what their Secondary children can do to give their university application an extra edge?

Academic grades are the key part of any application and students should follow the advice given them by their teachers to develop good study habits to make these grades the best they can be. 

However with lots of students offering the same good grades it is also important that students can show something more, so that their application stands out.  What this ‘extra edge’ should be depends on the country they intend to study in. I’ll offer some advice for the three main countries our students go to: the USA, the UK and Australia.

In the USA some large universities simply use iGCSE, AS and A level grades to determine entrance but most use what is called holistic admissions.   In this form of admissions the student’s grades are considered alongside their admission essay and extracurricular activities.  Admission essays often require students to reflect on their life experience and demonstrate commitment to their local community.  Students should make good use of the sessions offered on essay writing at BVIS and ask for advice on essay drafts; excellent essays often take eight or more drafts.  The content of the essay often comes from a student’s extracurricular activities.   For a top American university students need to show a range of activities which they have done for several years.  These should match the skills and interests of the student but should include activities where they help others, activities which show their ability to lead and activities which demonstrate a passion.  This passion could be almost anything from rock climbing to computer coding or reading poetry but students need to show they are interested in and do something beyond their academic work.  Some American collages also like applicants to play a sport, you don’t need to be good but you do need to show commitment.  Therefore in the USA, the extra edge is provided by showing what things a student is committed to beyond studying alongside demonstrating great personal qualities.

In the UK offers are made based on a combination of actual AS level grades, predicated A level grades and the student’s personal statement.  Unlike the USA, which tends to look for a breadth of interests, UK admission staffs are interested in how a student’s extra-curricular activities and passion relate to the subject they want to study in university.  The edge is provided by ensuring that a student’s personal statement contains a range of activities related to the subject they want to study and a great explanation of why they want to study it.  For example if you want to study law, good activities to include in a personal statement would be visiting courts, reading law reports and taking part in things which demonstrate an ability for logical argument such as the BVIS Model United Nations Club.   UK universities also like students to do work experience or internships related to their subject, so for law an internship in a law firm is great.    

Australia admissions are still very much driven by academic performance so getting the edge here really requires great grades.  Increasingly though universities are beginning to make use of personal statements and look for evidence of student’s personal as well as educational achievements so a balanced CV with a range of activities is good.    Universities often also ask why students have chosen a particular subject and a clear, well-thought out answer will always help get an application considered.

How can parents find out more about possible university scholarships, and what are some key ‘standard’ eligibility criteria?

These days most research for scholarships needs to be done online.  Two great worldwide search engines are www.internationalscholarships.com and www.iefa.com/scholarships.  There are also country specific ones such www.educationusa.state.gov/financial-aid for the US and www.educationuk.org/global/articles/scholarships-financial-support for the UK.   There are two different types of scholarship available, need-based which consider an applicants ability to pay the fees and merit based which offers rewards on academic achievement alone.  Most scholarships don’t cover the full cost of university and it’s important to budget for housing and living costs as well as fees.  Need based scholarships tend to be offered by American universities and are tied to the application process, so the key criteria is a good application made in the ‘early’ application round as this is when most money is available for allocation to international students.  Merit based scholarships are available worldwide but are very competitive.  Most require additional work such as essay or interview so it is important to prioritise applications so that students don’t get overwhelmed.  BVIS runs workshops for year 12 and 13 students on finding and applying for scholarships.  It’s very difficult to generalise about eligibility criteria as each scholarship body is different but they are all looking for very academically able students, sometimes the best in the world.

What international qualifications are most popular with leading world universities?

‘A’ levels are particularly valued by the worlds leading universities.  The reasons for this are nicely summed up by Stuart Schmill who is Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of technology, the world’s top ranking University.  Dr Schmill writes ‘One of the things we find with students who have studies Cambridge International AS and A levels is that they have a real depth of understating of the subject matter that they have had classes in, and a real engagement with it.  Those are some of the things that we find really help our students succeed once they get to our campus”.    This deeper understanding, combined with the appropriate specialisation that AS and A levels offer to year 12 and 13 students, gives them a real head start in university.  In some cases this includes advance standing or academic credit which shortens university study in the US by up to 12 months. 

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