Cheat Sheet: Applying to American Universities

Cheat Sheet: Applying to American Universities

Step One – Get Ready for the SAT

The thought of mastering the SAT is enough to put you off applying altogether, but the truth is that it’s not that hard. Set aside about three hours a week, broken up into hour-long chunks. That’s just two episodes of your favourite Turkish soap opera or New Girl. Begin at the start of Junior year (11th Grade) and by November of Senior year (12th Grade) you’ll have 150 hours of practice under your belt.

The cost of tutoring is another barrier. However, The College Board (the organization that runs the SAT) says a tutor is not necessary. My SAT tutor says you need one, go figure. I found that I only really needed a tutor for ten hours, or five sessions, to teach me a few topics I wasn’t familiar with. After that, the tutoring sessions quickly went from somewhat beneficial to pointless conversations about the latest Di Caprio movie. Why were my parents paying for a tutor to test me on Hot Words (a nasty little book of words that frequently come up in the SAT, but never in real life), when my brother could test me for free? If you can, get a tutor to teach you the few things you aren’t familiar with, but the rest is all practice, practice, and more practice.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite end with the SAT 1; most schools ask for two subject tests, the SAT 2. In terms of SAT 2, if you are fluent in a language other than English, take the SAT 2 listening test, which is offered every November. SAT 2 tests are also offered in math, literature, the three sciences, U.S. History, World History, etc. Unfortunately, Arabic is not offered as an SAT subject test. But fortunately, SAT testing centers are available across the Arab world.

Step Two – The Super Curricular

Whether you’re a budding linguist, thespian or aspiring politician, pursue your passion like it’s the only thing in the world that matters. Try to score internships and voluntary work in organizations relevant to your interest. For example, I am interested in the visual arts and want to major in art history. I interned at an auction house and at an art institute, led the art history society at school, was an art director of the school language magazine, and volunteered and made art with refugees. I also helped organize my school fundraiser, an art auction. All these activities have something to do with the arts, and all these are activities — if taken out of school and into the real world — I'd love to pursue. I went beyond creating an extra-curricular profile for myself; I created a super curricular profile. Every one of my listed activities was relevant to my major and to my specific area of interest within it.

Step Three – Learn About Schools

Long before applying, I bought a copy of the Fiske Guide to Colleges and familiarized myself with College Prowler, a great and frank website where students post reviews about their university. When putting together my final list of colleges, I organized the schools I was interested in into three categories: top tier, reach, and safety. I then picked three from each. At first I didn’t even want to include safety schools, thinking, “why would I apply to a school you couldn’t pay me to go to?” But obviously, safety schools are necessary (if only to deliver guaranteed good news on results day), so I looked at ones in cities I’d love to live in like New York, D.C., Boston, and Los Angeles. That way, if push came to shove, at least I’d be in an exciting city surrounded by culture, diversity, life, and laughter.

When I finally settled on my first choice, I read as much as I could lay my hands on, talked to current students and alumni and even traveled 3000 miles to visit the campus.

Step Four – Applying Early

Most schools give applicants the opportunity to apply early (November as opposed to January). Here’s where it gets slightly complicated: there are two types of "early". There’s Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED), ED is binding (if you get in, you must accept the offer) and EA is not. The most obvious advantage of EA is that you can still apply to other universities in the regular decision round if you do get accepted. Another great thing about EA is that you can apply to several EA schools early. But here’s where it gets really complicated: there’s also single choice EA. Georgetown, for example, is EA but it asks you not to apply to other schools early.

Step Five – Make the Essay Personal

The majority of colleges use the Common Application, so get familiar with it as soon as it opens (the month of August before your Senior year). Most schools require a few supplements, often 200-word answers on why you want to go to the school, what you want to study and which of your extracurricular activities is the most important to you. The good news is that many of the universities recycle the supplemental questions.

For the main essay (the one that gets sent to every school on your list) you must answer one of five questions. I chose the broadest question, basically along the lines of "tell me about yourself". I was looking for a question that would allow me to speak freely and with ease. I didn’t want to write a stale and clichéd essay about being an Arab, because I figured most applicants with Arab roots applying did that. So I wrote freely, as though in conversation with an admission officer about my thoughts, my story, and my background. My essay ended up being an explanation on why I didn’t want to write what I thought was the typical Arab student essay.

Write your essay as if it’s a story you are telling yourself: Keep it honest, light, short, and sweet. If your topic is not easily relatable, then add phrases and anecdotes that will make it so. The best advice I can offer is to write about things you genuinely care about, and not things that you think an admissions officer will find impressive.

Finally, if you are applying to a school under an Early plan, don’t neglect the rest of your essays: Complete all your RD essays alongside the EA/D ones! I cannot stress enough how useful it was to have set aside the two last weeks of the summer to complete all my applications.

Cheat Sheet: Applying to American Universities