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Common Questions about Colleges and Universities

When I ask questions about the application process in the U.S., people always respond by saying, "It depends on each college." That is really frustrating.

I'm not surprised you have gotten that response, because there is no "standard" procedure that U.S. colleges follow in the admissions process. You should study web sites and talk to representatives at each institution to which you are applying.

What kinds of documents do I need to send with my application?

Most colleges are going to need your school transcripts or mark sheets showing the grades you earned in each subject each year. Students living in a country such as the United Kingdom or India, where national exams (GCSE, HSC, etc.) are administered should also send those results. Admissions officers often focus heavily on those national exam results, since they provide a standard of comparison between many students from the same educational system. If your native language is not English, most colleges will ask you to submit the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or another approved English exam score. You may be asked to submit the SAT or ACT, two standardized exams used in the admissions process. You should submit everything in your native language, but please include English translations of all documents. Finally, an application fee is usually required, and if you are not a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S., you will have to submit an affidavit of financial support.

Do I have to write an essay?

The application form for each college will indicate what is required, or you can check the web sites. Beyond the basic credentials mentioned earlier, you might be asked to submit an essay, a resume detailing your activities and honors, recommendation letters from teachers and school administrators, and other information about yourself. It is common for private colleges to require these types of documents, since admissions decisions might take into account personal characteristics, leadership, or special talents. This might be due to the college's specific recruitment goals or the desire to look beyond the quantitative measures to distinguish between students. Essays, resumes and recommendations can be especially helpful if an applicant's grades or test scores are slightly low or if the applicant is being considered for merit scholarships. Some private colleges will allow applicants to submit videos and tapes, but please be careful about sending bulky items because admissions offices have limited storage space!

Public institutions often focus primarily on the school transcripts, national exam results and test scores. These are the "quantitative" items, according to Bill Smart, Assistant Director of Admission at Oregon State University. For instance, they might be looking for a specific grade average from students in each country. He pointed out that Oregon State does require the SAT from students attending American style schools, while the test is waived for other international applicants. You will find many variations of testing requirements at different colleges (both public and private). My advice is that you take two standardized tests: the TOEFL (or other English test) and either the SAT or ACT. In doing this, you will be prepared for whatever the different colleges might require. This is important because at the time you begin preparing for college you probably haven't decided to which institutions you will apply.

Are personal interviews required if I'm living outside the U.S.?

Very few universities will formally require international students to have an admissions interview. However, many private universities will offer optional interviews. Duke University, a highly competitive private university, allows students to have personal interviews with their alumni living around the world. Phyllis Supple, Coordinator of International Admissions at Duke, recommends that you take advantage of this opportunity. Even though it's not a formal part of the process, it shows staff members another dimension of a student, and a thorough report of the interview is written by someone who understands your community and your situation. This can bring to life your unique qualities. "Whether it is required or not," Supple advises, "Be prepared to talk about yourself and to ask probing questions. Don't just ask questions that can be answered by reading admissions materials. This is a two-way process. Admissions officers will learn about you, but more importantly, you will learn about the institution, so that you can make the best decision." If you are able to visit a college in the U.S., we recommend that you request a campus tour and personal interview if it is available.

With the currency exchange rate between the U.S. and my country, it is going to be difficult for my parents to send me to the U.S. Do you think I should even consider a private education?

Absolutely! Private colleges and universities often cost more, but they typically offer more generous financial assistance. They receive less funding from the government than public institutions do, but they receive many private donations. Do not eliminate a private university from your list of choices until you have investigated its financial aid and scholarship offerings for international students. I also recommend that you check with local organizations in your home country regarding scholarship opportunities. Before you start applying to U.S. universities, you should sit down and discuss finances with your parents. Discuss how much they can contribute to your education each year. For instance, let's assume that your family and other sponsors can afford to contribute at least $10,000 per year. You are considering a college that costs $20,000, and its literature indicates that scholarships of at least $10,000 per year might be available to top students. Since you are one of the strongest students in your class, it would be realistic for you to apply to that institution. There are two basic types of awards typically offered. Merit-based awards are the most common and are based on extraordinary achievements (academic, athletic, fine arts, etc.). Need-based awards are based on your family's financial situation.

Do public universities ever offer financial aid and scholarships?

Yes, some do. Some may offer similar awards to those offered by private colleges. Others will offer non-resident fee waivers, such as the University of Missouri - Kansas City, according to Keith Grafing, Assistant Director of International Student Affairs. UMKC offers in-state tuition rates for academically strong F-1 visa students who meet the criteria. Judy Young, Director of the International Office at the University of Texas at Arlington indicates that students who receive one of their academic scholarships will also pay "in-state" tuition rates at UTA. First year international students are eligible to apply for scholarships, but the number of recipients is extremely low, because of the high SAT score and very early acceptance required. University of Wisconsin - Superior has a similar policy for a limited number of students living outside the state of Wisconsin. Imran Mandviwalla, Sr. International Admissions Advisor at the University of North Texas, indicated that UNT has limited scholarships for incoming students (athletes, musicians, Mexican citizens, and Texas community college transfer students who qualify). Most of UNT's scholarships go to strong continuing students. Continuing students who receive at least a $1,000 scholarship will have their out-of-state tuition rate waived and pay the same rate as state residents do. Oregon State offers competitive academic scholarships and some other awards to international students for cultural service. All of the awards mentioned above cover only a portion of a student's funding, as is the case with most awards from private universities.

What are some of the other differences between a public and private university?

Tracy Williams, Study Abroad Coordinator at TCU, has worked at both types of institutions. "Because of the number of students, public institutions are regulated by rules that are applied to the masses, and there is less flexibility for individual circumstances. Whereas at a private institution, we make more case-by-case decisions. This applies to situations in the classroom as well as outside the classroom. A professor might know a student personally and support his application for an internship or spend more time with him during the academic advising process. Professors might even invite students to their homes. Faculty and staff are advocates of the students in every way, and we want them to succeed." However, Williams adds that "larger institutions may offer a more diverse international environment, with large numbers of students from all over the world." It is a personal choice. Some students want the cultural support group and familiarity of having 100 others from their country. Others prefer to be in an environment where there are only a few students from their country, so that they will learn more about different cultures and languages. Young from UTA adds that "larger universities may have a wider range of majors and more classes within each major from which to choose. The range of academic fields available at the college you choose is important, since the U.S. educational system makes it possible for students to change their majors. There are more choices at a large public university."

I understand that private colleges generally have smaller class sizes. But do state schools always have large classes?

Many students choose private universities because of the small class sizes, availability of personal interaction with faculty and classmates in the classroom, and opportunities for leadership outside the classroom. However, even the largest universities have smaller classes in the more advanced levels (the last two years, typically). Young at UTA indicates that "first and second-year students have to make the effort to make themselves known to whomever they are working with, but it is definitely possible." Finally, there are some public institutions that are actually quite small, such as the University of Wisconsin - Superior, with an enrollment of 2800. Steven Houghton, International Student Services Specialist, talks about being able to walk into the chancellor's office and say "Hi," which would be unusual at a large university. He has extensive contact with students during the admissions process and often picks them up at the airport when they arrive.

So...which do you think is better, public or private?

Both. That is a very personal choice, depending on your needs and interests. In my case, I didn't want to attend a large state school, but I didn't want to attend a very small school either. I chose a mid-size private university that could offer some of the features of both large public and small private colleges. You might look for completely different qualities. This is going to be an exciting process for you. You are asking good questions and researching the opportunities available at various U.S. institutions, so I am confident that you will make a good decision.

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