Notes from a Workshop


From the 23rd to the 24th of May, Kristin Green, Dean of Admissions for Yale-NUS College, Daniel Edeza, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for Yale University, and Kevin Sim, College Counsellor for Raffles Institution, conducted a two-day college admissions workshop in Ho Chi Minh City for more than thirty kids who came from different parts of Vietnam. The workshop demystified various topics regarding the complex and intricate process of college admissions, be it finding the best college fit or planning for financial aid. Here are the six essential questions that the speakers tackled.

  1. What exactly is a liberal arts education and why should you pursue it?
  2. How do you find a good fit in choosing colleges?
  3. What should I do if I require financial aid?
  4. How should I showcase my achievements in the CommonApp?
  5. How should I prepare for the interview?
  6. What are some common misconceptions about the college application process?

The value of a liberal arts education

Kristin Green explained how the liberal arts is not a topic that one studies but a mode of inquiry characterised by its breadth and depth. Choosing a faculty in a university and being able to take courses outside of that faculty is not a liberal arts system. Instead, a liberal arts system enables you to explore a wide variety of different subjects for two years without fixing your major, an important process by which you determine what you truly want to study, after which you decide the major that you wish to concentrate in.

This process of exploration is important as it often opens up possibilities students might not even have considered before they entered the university; Kristin mentioned that by the time of graduation, 65% of students actually majored in a different subject from what they initially indicated before they matriculated in college. This shows the value of having the freedom to explore different options.

Liberal arts is not vocational, but you can still get a job!

Kevin Sim added that a liberal arts system is not vocational – it does not prepare you for a specific job – but the various skills gained from delving into different disciplines prepares you for life. That, however, does not mean that students that study in a liberal arts system have problems getting jobs. Kristin spoke from her own previous experience in business that major banks in the United States do their own training inside the company. As such, an economics or finance major is not required for a job in finance. Employers are really looking at your abilities, such as critical thinking, communication skills and ‘soft skills’ which are precisely what a liberal arts education fosters.

Liberal arts colleges vs. research universities: Which is better?

Daniel Edeza noted that it is important not to confuse the term ‘liberal arts’ with ‘liberal arts college’. A ‘liberal arts college’ is a type of college with a small student body and an almost exclusive emphasis on undergraduate teaching. While there is some research that goes on, it tends to be on a smaller scale. Liberal arts colleges rarely have masters programs and do not have PhD programs. In contrast, research universities tend to have larger student bodies. In addition to an undergraduate college, they will have graduate schools for degrees in law, medicine, and so on. A lot of their faculty will spend their time in research.

‘College’ vs. ‘University’: Which is better?

Kevin also warned the students no to commit the mistake of falling into an Asian mindset and thinking that a school that is called a ‘university’ is better than a ‘college’. The term ‘university’ denotes the entire school system including both the undergraduate college and the graduate programs. Hence, Harvard, Yale and Princeton are called ‘universities’ even though as an undergraduate at these schools you would be studying in a liberal arts college, that is, Harvard College, Yale College or Princeton College. Kevin also cautioned students not to think that going to a liberal arts college would make one unemployable: subject-wise, you learn the same material as other universities. He named an example of a former student of his who had graduated from Kalamazoo with numerous job offers from several investment banks as well as Google – as easily as a Harvard graduate could have.

Finding a good fit in choosing colleges

Daniel Edeza talked about the importance of finding a good fit in applying for colleges. While everyone may have heard of universities such as Yale, Princeton, or Harvard, international students may not have heard of Swarthmore, Occidental, or Bowdoin, all of which are excellent liberal arts colleges that almost everybody in the United States would know.

Doing your research and finding out more about the different colleges in the United States would increase your chances of finding one that is a better fit for you. Here are some things to keep in mind as you consider different options:

  • Your academic profile relative to students in the college: Does your performance match theirs, or do you fare better or worse?
  • Majors the college has: Is the school a good academic fit? Does it actually offer the subjects you are interested in? Most liberal arts colleges will not have business, engineering, architecture degrees, though some do.
  • Costs of attending the college: Are you able to afford it? If you require financial aid, does the college offer needs-based or merit-based aid? How many (international) students receive financial aid every year?
  • Location: Is it in an urban, suburban, or rural environment? What is the weather like?
  • Class size: Is it relatively small or large? Would you prefer a liberal arts college where you have small class sizes and close supervision by your tutors or a big comprehensive public university with more autonomous and self-directed learning?
  • General atmosphere and school culture: Will you feel at home in the college?
  • Chances of gaining admissions: Are you realistically likely to get in?

Kevin elaborated on the issue of academic profile and college admissions. First, even if your academic profile matches that of universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and so on, your chances will be uncertain because the competitive pool is very strong. Next, if you are thinking of merit-based aid, then you might wish to consider applying to a college where your academic profile is stronger than the average applicant. This would make the possibility of obtaining merit-based aid slightly higher.

What financial aid actually means

Kevin discussed the process of applying for financial aid. Needs-based financial aid does not mean “give me as much money as I want”. Instead, colleges will look at your financial details and determine how much you need according to their methods of calculation, which differs from college to college. In other words, if you need $25,000 and one school gives it to you, it does not automatically mean that other schools that offer needs-based financial aid will give you $25,000. Unless your family really cannot afford it, for most needs-based financial aid, your family will still be expected to contribute to the extent that they are able to.

Most people also mistake what “needs-blind” means: it simply refers to admissions that does not consider financial need, but it does not ensure that the school would necessarily fully meet your need for financial aid.

Financial aid – the hard truth!

The ease of obtaining financial aid will vary from country to country and from college to college. Remember that colleges that are not needs-blind aim to recruit as much diversity as possible with their limited financial aid budgets. If they have many strong applicants, unless your application stands well above the crowd, they would tend to accept those who can pay full fees first. Hence, do not ask for financial aid if you do not need it, and do not ask for too much financial aid if you do not need so much.

If you are applying for merit-based aid, check carefully what the limits to the amount of merit-based aid are, how many merit-based packages the college gives per year, and whether there are any grade cut-offs for qualifying for merit-based aid.

The painful reality is that the college application process will be significantly more difficult if you require a substantial amount of financial aid than if you do not. If this is the case, you should seriously consider colleges that may not be top-tier but are nonetheless very decent, such that you get into at least one college with sufficient financial aid for you to study overseas.

Showcasing your achievements in the CommonApp

Each of the speakers offered some advice when it came to showcasing your achievements in the CommonApp. All of them noted that the word limit on the online form where you can list your achievements was very short, and thus, being concise was of the essence.

Kristin emphasised that there is no single activity that will make a college automatically accept you. Colleges try to recruit as diversely as possible and are searching for authenticity. If you are not doing something you believe in, it will come through in the application. The admissions officers will be able to find out if you are overselling yourself for they will try to verify the information on the CommonApp independently from logs and records as well as teacher recommendations. A list of 25 activities would probably evoke some incredulity.

Kevin chipped in to say that it would also not be very believable if you conveniently decided to save the world just one year before university. The admissions officers are not looking for supermen. A list of extremely unusual or impressive things does not necessarily mean a college would want you on campus; instead, it is what these activities tell the admission officer about you as person that adds value to your application. Even if you had ten gold medals, you don’t need to list all of them out for you might miss a chance to tell the admissions officer something else about you that might be very important.

Daniel reminded the audience that admissions officers are generally only interested in the extra-curricular activities you have participated in for the past four years before graduation. There may be a few exceptions where you might have done something outstanding at a national or international level, but that is usually very rare. Try not to list a lot of activities from middle school for it tends to add a lot of white noise.

While acknowledging that there is an option to add supplementary material for some schools, both Kristin and Daniel heavily discouraged students from doing so. Daniel stated that Yale does not read résumés and Kristin made it clear that admissions officers would not even read through it.

Preparing for the interview

Daniel started off by saying that if you do get a request for an interview, it is important to respond to your contact promptly. Make sure that the email address you provide on the CommonApp is one that you check regularly – if not every single day, then at least for every two to three days. You should remain professional in all your interactions with your interviewer and use proper punctuation as well as capital letters. Do not use smileys.

Kevin added that if you do not get an interview, it does not necessarily mean you were not admitted. It could simply be because the college does not conduct interviews in this country. Some schools will interview, some do not always interview, and some never interview.

Daniel said that the interviewers are trained to ask questions that will highlight your intellectual curiosity and help them figure out if you a person can socially engage with some else. Do practise beforehand. Although the interviewer will get the ball rolling with questions, you should come prepared to be an engaged conversationalist. Rather than answer with one-word, approach each question as an opportunity to elaborate on various aspects of who you are. Tell your story, ask questions, and raise any concerns you may have. Interviewers can learn as much about candidates by the interesting, thoughtful questions they bring to the table as they can from the answers they give.

Some interview practice questions

Some possible questions to consider might include:

  • Tell me about your high school experience?
  • Tell me about a club you are involved in and why you joined?
  • What is something outside of the classroom that challenges you? Why?
  • If you had unlimited resources for a week, where in the world would you go and what would you do?
  • Tell me about the last book you read?
  • How would your friends describe you? Why?

A question that would always come out in an interview is “Why are you interested in going to X College?” – make sure you are prepared to answer this and that it does not seem as if you are interested in the college merely because of its great reputation. Try not to get your facts about the school egregiously wrong for it suggests that you did not do your research regarding the school and that your interest in it is merely superficial.

During the interview: what should you do?

For the interview, do show up on time and dress appropriately. While interviewers do not expect you to show up in your fanciest attire, it would be inappropriate to show up in shorts and flip-flops. Semi-professional or business smart would be suitable for it will make the interviewer see you in a positive light and take you seriously. Watch your body language. Ensure that you have eye contact with the interviewer, and that you do not slouch or rest your cheek on your hand which would make you look apathetic. If it is a Skype interview, do ensure that there is nobody else in your room and that you are properly seated and dressed. Do not sit on your bed.

Finally, you should not give a long and rambling answer and end up forgetting the question. It is perfectly fine to tell the interviewer that you need some time to collect your thoughts. Do avoid giving vague and general answers. Specificity will leave a deeper impression on the interviewer.

Debunking misconceptions: Kevin Sim’s ‘Frank Talk’

As Kristin and Daniel left to prepare for a public information talk in the evening for Yale-NUS and Yale respectively, Kevin ended off the workshop with a segment that he dubbed the ‘frank talk’, busting common myths about the college application process.

He started off by saying that most students present would not be able to name thirty schools in the U.S., and that it is crucial to look beyond top-ranked schools. In a country with three thousand colleges, attending one that is ranked forty really is not that bad. Moreover, rankings do not really matter – there are great schools that have strengths in themselves where you could have a very meaningful undergraduate experience regardless of the ranking. Just because you go to a lower-ranking school does not mean that you will necessarily be less successful. A college should allow you to develop at your own pace and speed. It is also a myth that you would not be able to find a job because your friends and relatives do not know the school you are enrolling in; your friends and relatives are not the human resources managers that big businesses use to hire their employees.

Being discerning with your sources of information

In an environment where there is an information overload regarding college admissions, it pays to be discerning regarding your sources. Consider this: Who knows what? Do they have an agenda in telling you what you want to hear? While college websites may lure applicants by advertising their admit rates, the range of SAT scores (25th-75th percentile) and their offers of financial aid and merit scholarship, the truth is that these averages are weighted towards U.S. students who form the bulk of the student population. International students are often required to score in the top 25th percentile because there are simply far fewer places for international students compared to U.S. students.

Some college websites will look more polished than others, but this does not necessarily mean that they are better colleges – it means they just invested more in website design. We also tend to display confirmation bias in processing information about college admissions. While we take note of the number of people each university accepts, we usually ignore the number of rejects. The hard truth is that colleges choose you more than you choose them: way more people get rejected than admitted; all you hear about are the admits.

It pays to be skeptical

Kevin noted that books on college admissions of the “20 Ivy League Essays” variety are also unreliable because we do not know the other factors that explain why the applicant was accepted into the university. It could be that the student was admitted despite his personal statement rather than because of it. If a book really could get you into Harvard, would it only cost fifty dollars? Since everybody would read the same book, there would also be a high chance that if you imitate the way the student writes, you would sound just like everyone else. Just because a student was admitted into Harvard does not mean that they know why they were admitted, even though they might think they do. When it comes to family, friends and acquaintances, everybody is going to know somebody who knows somebody else, but never directly. It is prudent to be skeptical about all advice that you get, particularly if you pay for the advice. Rumours run faster than truths because they are more sensational.

Overseas education beyond the U.S.

To round off, Kevin noted that it would be wiser to apply to a good selection of ten colleges instead of sending of applications en masse to forty or more; the quality of essays and write-ups usually decline when kids apply to too many schools. If your priority is having an education overseas, and if you are willing to consider schools outside of the U.S., then there are also very good universities in Japan and Europe that give both financial aid and scholarships. These are especially feasible alternatives if you speak a foreign language, but even if you do not, some of these universities have programs in English. For example, Waseda University has a Liberal Arts program while Tokyo University also has programs in English. You could consider broadening your options.