US University Applications: How Decisions Are Made

Article contributed by: Dr Jon Tabbert, US university admissions educational consultant. 

While it is difficult to generalise about the decision making process used by British and American universities - universities, regardless of location, give priority and weight to different factors- it is fair comment to say that there are significant differences between the two systems. At the end of the day, of course, both systems are trying to admit students who will be able to thrive and prosper in their particular educational setting. The American system, however, takes a broader, more holistic approach to the admission process.

US Admissions Officers often talk about “The Match”.  By this they mean that, while not seeking to accept “identi-kit” applicants or clones, they are seeking to accept students who will be able to take full advantage of the educational experience on offer and who will be in a position to make a contribution back to the institution. To accomplish this, American universities, again, endeavour to look at the “whole person”, not simply the “academic person”.  Though universities are, of course, clearly about academics, “learning” can be experienced in many areas, not just sitting in a classroom. 

To obtain a sense of the “Whole Person” American universities will generally look at, review and factor-in the following items:

1.  School Grades/ Examination Results.

The starting point for any American university is “How have you done at school?” To ensure that a student is in a position to “make the match”, US universities want to know how well a student has performed in his/her own educational system over a significant period of time. US universities, thus, start the review process by examining GCSE results, if a student is in the British school system. These become the bedrock upon which an application will be based. Moving on, however, the universities will then look at the next, more advanced, stage: AS results, A Level predictions, IB predictions or Pre-U predictions. If, of course, the student is in the American secondary school system, they will then look at the Grade Point Average (GPA).

2.  Pre-entry Tests

To obtain a neutral piece of information about a student – given that grade inflation is not unheard of, certainly in the United States -  universities, in the main, require the results from a pre-entry test – either the SAT or the ACT. Though not really intended for international students, American universities nonetheless ask to see the results of these exams from all applicants. (There are, of course, some universities that will waive this requirement for international applicants. Generally speaking, however, the more selective a university is, the less likely it is to waive the SAT or ACT as the institution is trying to gather as much information about an applicant as possible.)

3.  References 

To learn more about an applicant – as a student, as an athlete, as an actor, as an artist, as a musician, as a boarder and so forth – universities will ask people at school to write references in support of an application. Unlike the British universities/UCAS application, which has one letter of reference, US universities will ask for up to three letters/documents of support.  

4.  Extra-curricular activities

 Though seemingly the most unimportant and frivolous of these factors, American universities are interested in the extra-curricular/co-curricular/out-of school activities that a student engages in. Part of this, of course, is down to the belief that “extra-curricular type activities” are good and healthy for a student: running up and down the pitch, playing in the school orchestra, being on the debate team. However, what many universities are interested in is the interface/the link between academics and extra-curricular activities. It is the relationship between (a) playing football, having the lead role in the school play, or taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and (b) getting great school grades, that universities are interested in - as it reveals important things about the student, such as time management skills. 

5.  Essays

  As interviews are not - (in the main), an admissions requirement, universities will set'application for admission' essay questions to learn more about an applicant: how they think, what is important to them, and what has helped to shape their life. Unlike the British/UCAS Personal Statement - which is essentially “Why do you want to study, What you want to study and How have you prepared to study it?” – the US university essay questions are, again, an attempt to learn more about you as a person. They may or may not be about academic matters, but could be about a particular life experience, a person who has had an influence on you or your passion for a certain extra-curricular activity. In addition, of course, the essays give the institutions the opportunity to see exactly how well you handle the English language.  

The Gatekeeper - While American universities will review all facets of an applicant’s background, some universities – due to the sheer volume of applications – will use a pre-screening mechanism to weed out applications that are clearly going to be unsuccessful. Traditionally, universities use a combination of school grades/ exam results and the SAT/ACT as a “gatekeeper” mechanism.  If, in the eyes of the university, the school grade profile and SAT/ACT profile match up with the normal expectation levels of the institution, the gatekeeper lowers the drawbridge and the applicant moves forward; at that point the other factors kick in. If, however, the profiles are not an appropriate match for the university, the drawbridge is raised and the application basically comes to a halt. Having said this, most universities do accept the fact that these pre-entry tests were never intended for the international student and they will, therefore, factor this in when evaluating the results submitted by international students.      

The key to obtaining a place at an American university of one’s choosing is to ensure that your profile matches up with the profile of the particular university. Though there is never a guarantee that a “perfect match” will result in the offer of a place – some universities are just too heavily over-subscribed- it will ensure that you will be viewed as a viable candidate and certainly in with a shout.  

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