Your Foot in the Door

By Luke Sheehan 2019-05-17 14:21:32

Navigating your way from Shanghai to your University of Choice

You’ve made a long list and a short list. You’ve checked them both twice, thrice. Now you want to zero in on the final decision: where do I want to apply to university? Having chosen your schools, how best to go about the process? Every year, thousands of international students depart from Shanghai to begin the next phase of their education. Let us help you weigh the options, for shaping your philosophy and your attitude, for crafting your list and for plotting a course through the final semesters of secondary school. The following is not an exhaustive guide to this complex process but an assembly of notes and pointers about the ideals and mundane details that need to be considered. We hope that this advice will assist you in crafting strategically smart applications to your chosen universities.

Let’s assume you are already on track to present a realistic candidacy upon graduation and have some idea, if not a fixed one, of the area of study that you would like to enter. To prepare a precise plan of action, it may be worth taking a step back. A big step back. What’s the purpose of a university education anyway? Whether your major is set to be technical, located in the artistic wing of the humanities, or in preparation for a business career, university ought to shape your whole person. Your skills for research, critical thinking and argument will all improve if your time there is used well.

You will and should encounter individuals with different priorities and opinions. While a laser-like focus on your major will aid you in the end, the quality of broad-mindedness and the sense of encounter with different minds is what puts the ‘universal’ into University. Likewise, a broadminded approach will help you with your selection. Take the following three considerations:

1. Prestige and History

2. Your Specialization and Future Steps

3. Location and Access

Which of these seems most important? Many candidates seem to see the benefit of attaching an Ivy-league institution’s name to one’s own as the primary goal. Although it is by no means necessary to attend an Ivy-league school, the resources and size of such schools and their high standards do make them more likely to provide a ‘universal’ training and access to a privileged network. Fair enough. But how to present the right profile for these prestigious academies? Some people enter such places only to feel overwhelmed or become distracted by the scale of the student body or the concomitant workload. Knowing more about the deeper history of the university as well as its reputation in the present will help. Not just how well reputed it is, but why.

If a visit to every campus isn’t possible, and going for a major name seems like the obvious way to proceed as you spend your precious time in the run up to graduation, remember: as well as the ‘narrow’ discipline you want to acquire – the ‘broad’ readiness for university life matters. It will matter to the admissions committee, who are responsible for selecting applicants who look most likely to thrive in a cross-pollinating knowledge ecosystem, while making a real contribution to a field of learning at the same time. One job of admissions departments is to lean towards learners who will fit in as a whole, over time.

When considering ‘2. Specialization and Future Steps’, use some of the skills that career gurus give to jobseekers, e.g. learn all you can about the organization, then consider carefully what you can bring to their table. In a learning context this means looking at faculty and the research background of your favorite department. Be ready to answer questions about the area of learning at hand and its most up-to-date breakthroughs and problems. A typical means of expressing this in interviews or personal statements is to center one’s narrative on a ’hero’ from the chosen area. Do this if that comes naturally – but to apply another common principle, be true to yourself as well presenting an aspirational outlook.

Interviewers and readers of statements look for depth, honesty and signs of personal growth. Variations of “I really love it here (or think I would)” or “my peer group friends/ compatriots are going to attend” are not going to inspire confidence as you present your personal case.

Finally, ‘3. Location and Access’ here means the setting of the schools and the relative likelihood of your gaining access to them. Aim as high as you can, but remember to ask yourself if you will be able to happily take on the social and cultural challenges of a properly ‘universal’ experience as well as the intellectual ones in the locations that have drawn your interest.

High school choices to support your strategy

We’ve noted how looking into a school’s history will help to engage with its faculty and staff when trying to secure an offer. Similarly, the school will be looking at you: how do your choices add up to a coherent storyline of learning and development?

The International Baccalaureate, the British A Levels, the French Baccalauréat and the North American Advanced Placement tests all contain options that reflect the basic distinction at work in universities, i.e. between sciences and humanities. The humanities are commonly subdivided into the ‘Human Sciences’ and ‘Arts’ faculties, the latter covering languages and areas with expressive cultural emphasis and the former applying scientific methods to human experience. This may seem obvious, but the distinction is there to hold different areas of human effort in harmony, not to force you to choose.

While showing that your skill and interest is biased towards either science or art can help to show readiness for entry, thanks to the ‘holistic’ (universal) ideals above, no school should be biased against you if your talent and enjoyment for them mean that you took on both chemistry and history in high school.

While still at high school, selecting courses because you are particularly inspired by a given teacher is a legitimate way to go forward. Having done your job as an inspired pupil, be ready to say why this particular teacher motivated you. Details will help you reconstruct this process in your evolution. Maybe you can quote this instructor directly or show how their high school lessons might apply to the grown-up setting you are about to enter.

Extra-curricular activities

Your passions and hobbies play a crucial supporting role here. Chances are your school will offer you more than one. Choosing according to your enthusiasm and skill is natural, but there is an added factor, namely that of personal growth and insight. An insightful interviewer will not simply look at your extra-curricular achievements in terms of the quantity completed or your success rate, but in the context of your development instead. If you tell them that you joined a chess club, they will be less interested in how many games you won than in why you joined, what you learned and how you grew as a result. Do any of your choices for extra curricular activities reflect an inclusive or sympathetic social attitude, or a willingness to step outside your comfort zone and be challenged?

How to choose your exam

The short list of schools that you make must take your current school into account – but your future and career should not be determined by a single test or an entrance system alone. Your interest and skills should take priority, after which you may prepare for tests with proper determination.


If you apply to a North American university, you may confront at least one of the standardized assessments used by ordinary universities to create comparative data in that system: the college board’s SAT or the ACT. These tests – the historical origin of which is actually connected to the Chinese Imperial Examinations of long ago – are nowadays taken by over two million people yearly. Connected to the Common Core curriculum of the U.S., they reflect American educational and institutional history over the previous century. The need to process large pools of applicants from different backgrounds in the growing multicultural society of the early 20th century led to the creation of ‘psychometric’ instruments and statistical tools to take a broad measure of the nation’s intelligence and ‘college readiness’. While they remain an important pillar in 3rd level admissions in the U.S., prestigious universities do not base admissions decisions on SAT or ACT results alone.

Because the requirement to take these tests is specific to the United States and Canada (with some exceptions, notably India) we will not discuss the dilemma of whether to take them – except to note that, as psychometric tests that aim to take a measure of your inherent abilities rather than your targeted study, it may be worth taking one of these tests while your mind is well adapted for the task, even if you do not currently plan to enter an American school. While challenging to excel within the comparative ‘percentile’ results that place your score within the roster of all test takers in a given year, the tests are not themselves time consuming, and the results might prove useful later on.

IB or AP?

The Anglophone curricula typically presented by international schools in Shanghai consists of an optional IB or AP course, or a nation-centered curriculum based on what students in Britain, the U.S. or Australia would face at an equivalent stage. The special role of the IB in international admissions continues to expand, and the IB diploma is accepted in 75 countries and over 2000 universities. A well-rounded philosophy governs the two years of the course, with students obliged to choose one subject within a thorough categorical arrangement covering arts, social studies, language and science:

• Studies in language and literature

• Language acquisition

• Individuals and societies

• Sciences

• Mathematics

• The arts

The acceptance criteria applied by the thousands of colleges accepting IB graduates vary considerably. For instance, some colleges state a minimal score for entry for everyone, while others consider applicants’ scores on an individual basis. As each country’s system integrates IB results into their own national system of college entry, different priorities emerge around the world – some countries, such as the U.S., assess the applicant’s precise score in each IB subject, while others (e.g. Australia) tend to consider the aggregate score achieved. The IB’s Swiss headquarters supply detailed information on schools that recognize the test. The table entry for Harvard University states:

“Students who have earned the International Baccalaureate diploma with a grade of 7 on at least three higher level examinations may qualify for advanced standing. Students wishing to use IB exams for Advanced Standing should request that the IB Americas office send an official IB transcript directly to Harvard.”

Australia’s Central Queensland University states that:

“...the University welcomes applications from students who have successfully completed the full IB Diploma Programme with a minimum aggregate score of 24.”

In common with many high quality schools around the globe, Central Queensland stipulates that students who have not completed the full diploma may in fact gain entry on the basis of completing a number of subjects.

“However, students with an incomplete diploma and who have passed 3 relevant subjects in the Higher Level may also be considered.”

In the United Kingdom, while the IB also has a rising profile, the standards applied by different colleges do not follow a single pattern. Some universities state a standard overall minimum score, while others examine scores by subject. Examples:

• Liverpool Hope University: “General offers will ask for the award of the Diploma with a minimum of 25 points however, [sic] individual subjects may request specific requirements.”

• London School of Economics and Political Science: “Candidates who are made an offer of admission must obtain the full Diploma and in addition are often asked to achieve 6,6,6 or in some circumstances 7,6,6 in the Higher Level Papers.

• Oxford University: “Oxford University welcomes applications from International Baccalaureate students. Admission is however, extremely competitive and in general IB candidates should have, or expect to achieve, a total of 38 points or better, with 6s and 7s in subjects offered at the Higher Level.”

The long list of accepting schools around the world, and the sizeable number that accept candidates even with only partially completed diplomas shows the high standing that the IB has achieved. If, two years before graduation, your choice of destination country, college or major is not yet fixed, the IB is a solid choice.

Advanced Placement (AP) and U.S. standards of entry

In an American context, the College Board AP test offers significant advantages. Covering a wide range of college-level disciplines (as opposed to the SAT and ACT, which target only English and Mathematics) the AP is gaining popularity as an instrument for identifying and placing the most gifted students. Major ivy-league schools like Harvard apply AP results to their course-credit system, so that high scoring applicants can actually carry over results from the test into their undergraduate degree. Notes on international testing from Harvard state that:

“Credit toward the bachelor’s degree for new students not admitted as transfer students is offered only on the basis of AP or examinations (or other reviewed international credentials)… students wishing to be eligible to Advanced Standing are advised to sit for the AP examinations in fields they have already studied, whether or not they participated in a formal AP course in secondary school. Students may learn about AP examinations by writing to the Program Director…”

While a high school is unlikely to offer all of the 38 courses on the full AP list, taking the course in some form is a good option for students determined to study in the United States.

How you Stand Out

The importance of balancing honesty and aspiration should be recalled in every context where a personal encounter is involved. Cardinal Newman (1801–1890), the English cleric and author of The Idea of a University, one of the best-known essays in English about the meaning of university education, once made this statement:

“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society.”

No matter the country or the school you wish to apply to, the final stage of the process will be an assessment of character as well as raw intellectual ability. This does not mean there is one personality which all prominent schools want to attract – precisely not, otherwise the inclusive, universal character of the academy would be impoverished.

It suffices to say that at some point the social import of your choices should be thought about, and as a candidate you should be able to articulate something higher than just personal interest, something that brought you to the doors of the admissions office with the aspiration to contribute to society. This does not mean presenting a saint-like picture, but it could mean having the maturity to reveal exactly where your knowledge and insight need to grow.

Cambridge and Oxford interviewers famously state that they do not simply seek the smartest people; they want students whom they are convinced can be taught - those who show potential that the school can hone in time. They want people who seem appealing to spend time with. The critical thinking and research skills, and the capacity to debate go along with social growth, so the effects of great universities extend into society in myriad ways. In Newman’s words, a university education ought to produce a man (or woman, we must add, as Newman sadly didn’t) able “to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.”