It’s never too early to start laying the groundwork for the path to higher education
Heading off to university is an exciting but daunting prospect: after graduation, the big bad world awaits. While most young adults will be revelling at the thought of freedom and independence, first comes the overwhelming idea of choosing what you will do for the rest of your life.
But it’s not only older students who should be thinking about their higher education. In fact, the more you do at a younger age, the more you set yourself up for success as graduation approaches.
In many cases, students should start thinking about their options as early as 12 or 13 years old, particularly if you are preparing to select your GCSE and IB subjects.
“It does start quite early,” acknowledges Anna Howell, careers advisor at Al Yasmina School. “Parents get very anxious that at age 13 their child doesn’t know what they want to be. Well, nobody does – even at 56 you don’t know what you’re doing!”
At this stage, parents and school advisors should broach the subject with students – because graduation is the last thing on a 13-year-old’s mind – to help guide them. The subjects students choose at this age could affect them when they begin applying to universities.
“You have to have that conversation, because they will then start to realise, ‘Oh right, I need to sort out what subjects I’m going to do and where they will take me’,” Anna notes. “I always ask them: What do you want to do? What subjects are you going to take? Are they going to match? It’s like a continuous stream of ‘What next?’”
Computer programmes may be useful at this stage to help students see if their skills match up with potential jobs they are interested in and analysing whether they are doing enough extra-curricular activities outside of school that universities will be interested in when they do reach that stage.
Making an impact
Compared to when most parents were applying to university, it’s harder for students today to stand out from the crowd.
“The whole process has changed a lot for various reasons,” explains Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of US-based educational consulting company IvyWise. “There are more applicants than when we applied, and the gap between girls and boys has widened – right now it’s about 60 percent girls to 40 percent boys applying to and attending US schools.
“Technology has made it easier for students to learn about and apply to schools, and for colleges to recruit students from around the globe.
“There is a bigger diversity of applicants and it’s become more competitive at the most selective schools,” Kat continues. “That being said, there are over 3,000 colleges in the US and if you go about this process right and do your research, you’re going to find many schools that are great for you and where you can be successful and happy.”
Contrary to popular opinion, setting yourself up for university doesn’t mean getting straight As. To stand out from the crowd, Kat advises students to follow their strengths, pursue extra-curricular activities and strive to make an impact throughout their school years.
“US colleges do a holistic review so it’s not just, ‘Can you get the A?’ or ‘Are you taking a rigorous course load?’” she says. “What are you doing with your interests, both academic and extracurricular? How are you spending your time outside the classroom? How much time a day are you spending on social media instead of doing the things that you could be doing to make an impact?”
Kat continues, “We are always preparing our kids for the jobs of future and if you look at what is coming up with things like virtual reality, AI and advances in biomedical technology, [universities] are definitely looking for students who have the critical thinking skills and perhaps the quantitative skills to be solving the problems of the future.
“But that doesn’t mean that there’s one thing a student should or shouldn’t be doing because they should know who they are and pursue their core interests.
“[Universities] also want to know that a student has taken a deep dive into their core interests and have made an impact in their classrooms, high school and in their greater community through those interests.
“It almost doesn’t matter what you do. You could be selling pillows – that might not seem like a job of the future but then maybe you recruit friends to help you and next thing you know you have a pillow business and you’re supplying pillows to homeless people. That’s solving a problem right now.”
Aside from seeking out extra-curricular activities, Anna stresses the importance of seeking part-time jobs or internships as a way of experiencing the workplace, whether that’s to improve certain skills like communication and professionalism or discover what your chosen industry or profession is really like.
The application process
One area that many students place a lot of emphasis is on the actual application process. After lengthy research and devising a list of universities you’re interested in, it might seem straightforward to begin the application process. But that’s not always the case.
It may seem like a good idea to apply to as many universities as you can to increase your chances of being accepted. But remember that with each application comes a mountain of work, so be selective. Anna and Kat recommend selecting ten to 15 schools that are balanced in terms of ones you’re most likely to get into, ones that are ‘reach’ schools and a safe option.
One of the biggest challenges students face is writing the essays and personal statement. Make sure to set aside time to work on these; they may require re-writing several times before you get it right.
When it comes to the personal statement, avoid writing about yourself as an eight-year-old and instead focus on who you are today as an applicant and what sets you apart, particularly as an international student. Use spelling and grammar check, and ask teachers, parents and school mentors to read it as well.
Before actually sitting down to write an essay, it’s important to research the style of essay that will fit your chosen university and research what other elements you will need – What are the timelines and deadlines? Do you need a transcript or letter of recommendation? Do you need teacher references?
Be sure to follow directions: Read the essay questions carefully and be sure you’ve answered them, stick to the word count and only send in the required number of materials. Take time to personalise your essays for each college and balance your time between the personal statements and supplementary essays.
Most importantly, have a plan B. If after all of your hard work, you don’t get accepted to your chosen universities, don’t panic. Reassess your situation, speak with your school advisor and decide the best course of action for your future.