American Experience | 体验美国

My Own Experience in Applying for U.S. Colleges

November 2, 2013 5:17 pm | By Xiyue

Before beginning the application process, one should finish the Standardized Tests, such as SAT, SAT 2, ACT and TOEFL. Though some students are still taking the tests in their senior year of high school, I completed all the tests by the end of my junior year of high school, thus I had more time for the applications. Since I went to a boarding school in China, my whole process of taking tests and applying to schools happened when I was taking classes at school. I did not ask for leave, as most applicants do, and it was extremely tough since I had to balance my courses at school and the tests/applications. Based on my experience, I suggest that if it is possible, students should ask for leave, extremely when they are only a few weeks from taking the tests.

The entire application process mainly includes the following steps:

1).      Choose schools

2).      Write the essays/fill the forms

3).      Prepare supplementary materials

4).      Submit the materials and update

5).      Interview

6).      Admissions & decision


Nowadays, many students go to a consulting agent for help. This might facilitate the whole process and enable the students to be more informed of the situation. However, this is very costly (in Tier 1/Tier 2 cities, a renowned agency costs often 100,000 RMB+) and the students must sign a contract with an agent, which might limit some choices. After full consideration, I did not go to any agencies and chose to complete all of my applications by myself.

1). The first step — choosing schools is a very important step and involves a lot of strategies. Applicants should not only include the rankings and their personal preference (reputation, location, costs, subjects, culture), but also realize the competitive nature of admission.  Thus, I suggest that students should all develop a strategy with some specific reach goals, some match/fit choices, and some safety schools. For example, if one is applying to 10 schools, there should be about 2 schools that she is sure that she would probably be admitted (e.g. some public schools with relatively lower rankings) and 2-3 schools she likes a lot but knows she is less likely to get in (e.g. top 5/10 schools or Ivy League colleges) and the rest would be the schools that she fits the range, and has some chance to be admitted. Obviously, the strategy should be based on the applicants’ record, such as scores (SAT, TOEFL, GPA) and extracurricular activities.

In my own case, I referred to U.S. News Rankings of universities and colleges and obtained information of schools from CUSS, Chinese Undergraduates in the United States, College Review/College Prowler, and the websites of schools. I did research on the schools in the order of the rankings. During my research, I looked at the colleges’ websites to get some basic idea of the colleges’ principle and mission, and College Review/Prowler, mainly focusing on the students’ review part in order to get some detailed information of the colleges’ culture. CUUS is a valuable resource where students can find info about what earlier Chinese students at specific colleges are saying about their colleges and students may find contact information of some upperclassmen or alumni. Therefore, they can communicate with those people who are willing to help, and get more detailed information. I finally chose 12 schools, with four reach schools, six match schools and two safety schools. Most of them are in the Northeast part of the U.S., where there is a long tradition of elite education, and are based in the suburbs. I felt these schools could enable me to be more focused on academics. Since I was a planning to major in Economics or International Relations, I chose some colleges which offer great programs in these academic areas. 

2). Writing essays is the most challenging and time-consuming process. There could be many essays, a personal statement (also known as the PS), “why” essays for almost every school, and supplementary essays depending on each school’s requirement. Luckily, since most of the colleges (except UC schools) are using the Common Application system, applicants only have to fill the forms once and a personal statement is used for all the colleges that they apply to. I believe the PS is most important because it reflects a student’s personality, strongest points and uniqueness. The most important purpose of the PS is to differentiate oneself from other applicants. I wrote three personal statements in total with countless edits because I was dissatisfied with my PS after a while. It was a lot of work and extremely time-consuming. Luckily, I had a lot of people (e.g. parents, friends, friends’ friends, preferably native English speakers, and English teachers) read through my each version of the personal statement.

In terms of other college-specific essays, the information one collects from CUUS, College Review, etc. should be in use. I felt the most difficult part is the “why” essays, since almost every schools requires a short “why” essay and I had to think a lot in order to present my sincere interest in the schools to the admissions.

3). While writing the essays, applicants should not forget to prepare or ask the relevant people to prepare the supporting materials. These materials include recommendation letters (from class dean/counselor, academic teachers, and other people which might contribute to the application), official transcripts (from Grade 9 to 12) and other certificates/materials which show their hobbies/strength. For example, an applicant to studio art might also need to provide his/her work in art. If one is applying for financial aid, then s/he also needs to fill out some application forms and provide with some relevant materials to state the financial condition.  

4). Don’t miss or misplace anything in your application package. Double-check before submitting online and sending the supporting materials to the colleges. Remember to send any updates to admissions; for example, once the mid-year report is available, send it to every college that you applied to that has not denied you.

5). Interviews are always optional since most schools do not provide in-person/telephone interviews in China. In my case, I only had one interview with the University of Virginia. He was a Chinese student. However, if an applicant has a chance to interview with an alumnus or a current student, it is an important opportunity to show his/her interest and knowledge of the college.

6). Finally, the last step. By that time, most applicants might have some offers/admissions at hand and they will choose one that best fits his/her interest. Among the 12 colleges that I applied to, 8 accepted me and I finally chose Middlebury College, as I found it novel to me and from my research I found that the students at Middlebury all speak highly of their college. I am glad that I chose Middlebury and I hope everyone will make the best choice. However, if one isn’t satisfied or happy with her choice of school, she will always have another chance in hre first or second year of college to transfer to another college. Indeed, there are a lot of opportunities and possibilities that one should explore.