Thinking Outside the Harvard Box

Jessica Pan

December 10, 2008

Once upon a time, every prospective college student dreamed of attending either Oxford or Harvard. Fortunately, high school students are realizing that the ideal college experience is more about finding the right fit with a university – a place where individual interests and a school’s strengths overlap perfectly.

Throw in the added factor of applying from overseas, however, and things become even trickier. The students at the international schools in Beijing – generally either local students applying as international students to colleges overseas or expat students who return to their home countries for university – must pinpoint their personal and academic interests and sell their strengths as applicants. Of course, they also have to spin their experience in Beijing to their advantage.

Pinpointing your strengths
Self-knowledge is one of the most desirable traits that applicants can have, as it suggests they will be focused and dedicated in their academic studies. Ray Jiang, a Chinese senior at BCIS, at first found the International Baccalaureate curriculum difficult, as English was not her first language. But she soon discovered that she had exceptional artistic talents. She’s currently applying to the Corcoran art school in the US, but hopes to gain admission to Georgetown to major in studio art. Likewise, Lisa Goller, who graduated from the German School last year, always had a clear view of what she wanted to study: psychology. “I want to go into research or into therapy,” she says. “Everything surrounding the brain is just fascinating.”
Taiwanese American Jeff Chang, a senior at ISB, has always wanted to study engineering and aims to gain admission to the engineering programs at MIT and Stanford.

Expect the Unexpected
Sometimes, even though all seems to go as planned, the thick envelope never arrives. Jo Ranson, director of studies at Harrow, recalls a star student who failed to gain admission into Oxford. “She was an all-star all the way, very confident and phenomenal in literature. She spoke many different languages, and I’m sure she did well in her interview, but she didn’t get in,” Ranson says. “You never know.”

Goller also had to contend with unexpected disappointments, as her first round of applications to programs in Germany were rejected.

“I didn’t work hard enough to push up my Abitur,” (the German equivalent of grade point average and exam scores combined) says Goller. As an alternative, she is currently applying to a university outside of Amsterdam, and must learn Dutch to take courses there. Most students equip themselves with a safety school, sometimes applying to as many as 15 universities.

Timothy Xun, a senior at Yew Chung International School, hopes to defer all of his acceptances for two years, as he must enter the national service in Singapore. “I know the Singaporeans will allow me to defer, no questions asked, but I’m pretty sure the London School of Economics won’t,” Xun says.

Finding the Right Place
In addition to deciding whether they want their college experience to be an urban or rural one, international students also have to pick their countries. After two years in Beijing, Emily Cedargren is ready to return to the US. “I really miss home,” she says. “I have a huge sense of pride for the States; it’s just a feeling you get.”

Sometimes the choice is not so easy. For years Jiang has planned to attend university in the US, and although she likes the American college system and finds most Americans friendly, she’s still torn. “I don’t want to leave Beijing,” says Jiang. “I think it’s the most wonderful city in this world, and after four years, I will come back.”

Standing Out
It’s no secret that a number of colleges, especially in the US, receive thousands of strong applications from Chinese students. So how does a student impress an admissions committee?
“Highly selective colleges have a certain number of international students that they accept in a given year, so students from China compete against other students from China,” says Bev Taylor, president of Ivy Coach, a college admissions advisory service based in New York City.

Admission is particularly tough for Chinese students who apply from a pool of talented individuals; excelling in rigorous courses and earning high scores in standardized exams might not be enough.

“A student who is involved in math or science research, and has been playing the violin and/or piano since the age of 5 is just one example of the typical Chinese profile,” Taylor says. “On the other hand, if the student is an accomplished violinist, circling the globe to perform concerts and benefits, that student might be seen in a different light.”

One alternate route is to look beyond the Ivy League. Parents and students usually only consider the top ten or 20 colleges in the US News & World Report rankings. “Then they make gaining admission even more difficult by choosing colleges in urban settings and where there exists a preponderance of Asian students,” says Taylor. In other words, don’t apply where every other Chinese student wants to go.

As for students who are applying for admission back in their home countries, they can use their international experience to their advantage by writing about their unique perspectives in their personal statements.

The Aftermath
Even after the acceptance letters have arrived, students still have to deliver good grades in their final term. “Acceptance is often conditional on a student’s final scores,” says Alex Murchie, 6th form head at Harrow.

Although the admissions process can be tough, most students end up happy with their decisions, even if plans don’t go as expected. The star student from Harrow who didn’t get into Oxford? A gap year as an intern at a law firm rejuvenated her desire for knowledge, and she now attends University College London, which she loves. As for the German School’s Goller, she’s actually relieved she won’t be attending university in Germany. “I’m grateful I’ve had the chance to go to another country,” she says. “It’s not that I don’t like it, but I don’t feel like I can relate to Germans the same way anymore.”

So keep those heads up and keep at it. Don’t worry: Everything will work out in the end. “People tell you, ‘Do this now, take this test now, write this down now,'” says Cedargren. “Just take it step by step.”

Lisa Goller
Age: 19
Nationality: Germany
School: German Embassy School
Abitur: 2.5 out of 4 (1 is the highest)
Top choice: Enschede in the Netherlands
Expected major: Psychology

Top quality: Steadfast determination. Despite earlier setbacks, Goller is hopeful and excited about finally concentrating on her passion, psychology. “I would be such a great psychologist – this is really the one thing that I want to do. If I don’t get in, I’ll keep trying so hard to study this.”

Goller first applied to psychology programs in Germany, and although her Abitur score, 2.5, falls in the middle of the spectrum, she has had to abandon hopes of studying in Germany. “My Chinese classmates work the hardest, and they really earn their grades. The irony of life – my Chinese classmates get accepted into German universities immediately, but I am German and I have to go abroad to study.” She is studying Dutch so she can take classes in the Netherlands.

Samantha Hu
Age: 17
Nationality: China
School: Harrow
A-Level grades: Chinese(A), Music(C), Math(B), Geography(A), Economics(B), Performing Arts(C)
Top choice: Cambridge or Harvard
Safety schools: Boston University and Nottingham
Expected major: International Relations
Extracurriculars: Hu had the lead role in two school productions and is lead soprano for the school choir
Top quality: Hu wrote a novel. She channeled the emotional turmoil of her transition to international schools and the death of her cousin into a Chinese book, Bury the Flowers (?? Hua Ji), due out this month from China She Hui Publications. “My primary motivation was to write something that would record me and my cousin’s life,” says Hu. “Our life is really different from that of other Chinese students. I wrote as myself and as my cousin, because I really remember how he was.”

Although Hu is applying to dozens of schools, including New York University, Stanford, UCLA, Warwick, and Durham, she prefers Cambridge or the Ivy League schools. “If everybody at university is really good, then I’m the kind of person that will be motivated to catch up. I want to get into a good university to be pushed,” says Hu.

Simon Frank
Age: 17
Nationality: Canada
School: International School of Beijing
GPA: 3.9 out of 4.8 (estimate in the ISB system)
Top choice: McGill University, University of Toronto
Safety school: Carlton College
Expected major: Geography or Urban Studies
Extracurriculars: Managing editor of school newspaper; cross country running; competes in forensics, a type of public speaking competition
Top quality: Frank’s music. He sings and plays keyboard in two bands: Hot and Cold with his brother in Canada, and Speak Chinese or Die, a Beijing band that includes Zhang Shouwang, the Carsick Cars guitarist. “Taking things out of context and applying them to music – I think that’s when exciting stuff happens in music and art,” says Frank.

After living in Manila, Beijing, Hong Kong and New Delhi, Frank wants to head back to his native Canada for university since he lived there when he was 9 to 11 years old. “My goal in life isn’t to make tons of money,” says Frank. “I can’t identify when my friends tell me they’re going into management or business.”

Timothy Ng Rui Xun
Age: 17
Nationality: Singapore
School: Yew Chung International School
GPA: 6 out of 7 (IB program)
Top choice: London School of Economics, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, or Hong Kong University
Safety school: National University of Singapore
Expected major: Economics and Finance
Extracurriculars: Badminton, volleyball, basketball, soccer; student leadership team; plays cello for the school orchestra.
Top Quality: Leadership experience. “I was a prefect in my previous school and we were basically playing the role of the student council, helping to maintain discipline and doing administration in the school that had 2,500 students,” he says. “That gives me a unique experience that other international students wouldn’t have.”

Timothy Xun hopes to defer college because he has two years of mandatory national service in Singapore. But because he’s always wanted to study in the UK, Xun may apply to the London School of Economics, which does not allow deferrals, after his national service.

Emily Cedargren
Age: 17
Nationality: US
School: Western Academy of Beijing
GPA: 6 out of 7 (IB program)
SAT: 1850 out of 2400
Top choice: University of Kentucky
Safety school: Ball State University
Expected major: Journalism
Extracurriculars: Varsity rugby, basketball and soccer; plays French horn in the school band.
Top quality: “I have a real passion for history,” says Cedargren. “I’m not into wars and dates but I’m into how life was lived and what was used and why, and I have experience working in a museum.”

With an interest in sports journalism and history, Cedargren chose the University of Kentucky because it’s close to her home. It’s also close to many living history museums; she spent one summer volunteering at one where she reenacted life from the 1800s.

Jeffrey Chang
Age: 17
Nationality: US
School: International School of Beijing
GPA: 4.43 out of 4.8 (ISB’s system)
SATs: 2250 out of 2400
SATIIs: Math IIC, 800; Physics, 800; Chemistry, 760
Top choice: MIT, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley
Safety schools: University of Michigan and University of California at San Diego
Expected major: Engineering
Extracurriculars: School newspaper, Model United Nations, treasurer for Habitat for Humanity
Top Quality: His scores. He received near-perfect scores on his SAT IIs, and he skipped a grade in math.

Even with stellar grades, Jeffrey Chang describes himself as a nonconformist who tries to enjoy non-mainstream films and books. “I tell universities who I am, not trying to over-embellish my records with countless extracurricular activities and such,” says Chang.

Ray Jiang
Age: 17
Nationality: China
School: Beijing City International School
GPA: 5.5 out of 7 (IB program)
Top choice: Georgetown University
Safety school: Corcoran College of Art and Design
Expected major: Studio Art, Photography
Top quality: Her talent for art. “It’s interesting to see how people change and cope with this world,” says Jiang. “I love how photography is deliberate; you might not know why someone took a photo, but you know it’s beautiful.”

Jiang knew she had to find a way to stand out as an applicant from China, so she decided to change her life. She quit school at Grade 9 to pursue golfing professionally, although she was a novice. Upon realizing the sport was not for her, she returned to school a year later, this time attending an international school. She looks forward to attending school in the US. “American colleges are quite different,” says Jiang, “because even if you don’t have good scores, they still give you a chance to show your talent.”