The Old College Try: A Look at the International School College Application

By Shayla Sandoval and Tina Nguyen

For many high school students around the world, much of the motivation to achieve top grades, participate in a variety of extracurriculars, and spend hours studying for standardized tests all amount to one goal: college. In the second installment of a joint American School of Warsaw-Hong Kong International School series on international education, Shayla Sandoval (12) and Tina Nguyen (12) compare and contrast the culture of college applications at HKIS and ASW.

College Counselling: A Little Help from a Friend

At HKIS, the culture surrounding college is fairly competitive. “Families here expect their children to attend college” said Mrs. McGarrity, a counselor at HKIS for 17 years. “Often all academic and non-academic decisions are based with this goal in mind.”

Starting in Grade 9, all students take a seminar course led by a counselor. In 9th grade, Freshman Seminar focuses on adjusting to High School life. In 10th Grade, Sophomore Seminar centers around well-being, personality types, and career options. In 11th Grade, the full focus of the Junior Seminar is on the college search process, outlining how to approach writing essays, and going over application requirements. In 12th Grade, the Senior Transitions course aims to prepare students for the transition from living as a high school student to a more independent college student.

At ASW, the culture is similar to that of HKIS. “The culture around the college application process is [the counselors] want to help student achieve their best fit,” said Mr. Munnerlyn, a counselor at ASW for two years. “The process is time consuming, but should be fun and exciting.  [Counselors] work closely with students to make sure everything is done in a timely and efficient manner.”

A group of seniors working with Mrs. Raggio on the questions during junior seminar last year. (Photo courtesy of ASW HS Counseling Facebook page)

Mrs. Raggio, who has been a counselor at ASW for four years, says that students consider different factors such as global reputation, finances, location, and employment statistics while conducting the college research.

ASW also follows a similar counseling seminar system. In 9th Grade, the Freshmen seminars center on the topics of mindset, a character strengths inventory, the power of habit, course selection, career interests, and an introduction to Naviance, a popular college and career planning website. In 10th Grade, the Sophomore seminars focus on the topic of activities and strengths, procrastination and savoring, career inventory, and course selection. In 11th Grade, Junior seminars concentrate on the college application process: researching colleges, writing essay drafts, and meeting admission requirements. In 12th Grade, Senior seminars seeks to help the seniors with stress management, as well as the transition from high school to college.

Every student in HKIS is assigned to two counselors in their Freshman year, with whom they can make appointments to discuss class registration, academic and non-academic related issues, health and mental well-being, and more. In the second semester of the Junior year, the student selects one of the two counselors to become their college counselor. This counselor meets with the student regularly to discuss the college search, essay topics and writing, testing requirements and more, and is the counselor who writes a recommendation letter for the student.

At ASW, students are assigned to one of the two counselors based on their last names. Mr. Munnerlyn works with students whose last names fall between A and K, and Mrs. Raggio works with students whose last names fall between L and Z.

Mr. Keith Light of Yale University talking to ASW students about the US college application process (Photo courtesy of ASW HS Counseling Facebook page)

According to Mr. Munnerlyn, “This split was done to balance number between counselors.” This also allows the counselors to get to know the student better, as they will be the ones writing the student’s letter of recommendation. Students can also schedule appointments with their counselor to discuss class registration and schedule, academics and non-academic issues, summer opportunities, colleges, essay topics, testing requirements and many more.

The Reputation Game

Because of the immense differences in academic and extracurricular programs at high schools around the world, the reputation and relationships between high schools and colleges play an important role in admissions in terms of putting applications in perspective and context.

“HKIS has an excellent reputation with colleges and universities around the world, evidenced by the approximately 250 institutions that visit us annually on their student recruitment trips,” says McGarrity.

Throughout the year, students have the opportunity to meet with college representatives on the HKIS campus, to ask questions about the college’s programs, student life, admissions requirements, and more. “We make great efforts throughout the calendar year to educate admissions officers on our school and students by attending annual college counseling conferences, visiting campuses, and attending evening and weekend receptions in Hong Kong,” McGarrity notes.

HKIS counselors get to know the admissions officers of various schools on a more personal level, which strengthens the relationship and trust between schools and allows for quick responses to questions that arise regarding a student’s application.

According to its counsellors, ASW also has a great reputation with colleges and universities around the world. According to Mrs. Raggio, the school maintains good credibility based on accreditations as well as honesty. Having the accreditations gives the diplomas weight, which is necessary to all students applying to schools in other parts of world other than the US and the UK. The counselors are also optimistic and realistic with the students’ abilities. Mr. Munnerlyn further explains that “if they accept a student who excels there, then the school knows that ASW produces quality people.”

This is also reflected in the number of colleges and universities that visit ASW. Every year, about 80 to 100 universities come through fairs and individual visits. During those visits, the counselors introduce the admissions officers to the students at the school in order to build trust and relationships between the schools.

UK University Fair at ASW (Photo courtesy of ASW HS Counseling Facebook page)

Testing, requirements, resources:

The majority of HKIS students apply to universities in the United States, which generally require a standardized test (either the SAT or the ACT), SAT Subject Tests, teacher and counselor recommendation letters, and a Common Application or university-specific application with supplemental questions. In addition, students typically send Advanced Placement (AP) Test scores, sports achievements, art portfolios, and academic awards for consideration.

At HKIS, there are also many students who choose to apply to non-US colleges, the most common being schools in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. To assist in preparing students for applying to other systems, the Junior Seminar course and individual meetings with counselors outline the slight differences.

“Generally, there are no additional exams needed by other countries. An exception is students wishing to study medicine or law in the UK or intending to apply to certain subjects at Cambridge or Oxford, as they may have additional tests to take in greater Hong Kong or at school,” McGarrity says.

Many students at ASW apply to the universities in the US and in the UK. Since ASW is an IB world school, the majority of students take the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP).

Along with the IBDP, some who plan to study in the US go through the same process as most HKIS students.

For those who apply to the UK, the application process is slightly different. The universities require a personal statement regarding interest in the selected courses, IB predicted scores, and a referee statement that combines counselor and teacher recommendations as one document. The students need to apply through the UCAS system, and they can only choose up to five courses throughout the UK.

A group of seniors during one of the lunches free-writing their personal statements. (Photo courtesy of ASW HS Counseling Facebook page)

There are some ASW students who apply to countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Korea. “Counselors are well-versed in a variety of systems to smooth the process. If [the counselors] don’t know, they try to contact a person who knows,” says Mr. Munnerlyn. As at HKIS, the counselors have individual meetings with the student to ensure that the student meets all the requirements including the additional test examinations.

The Student Experience

Though HKIS has a strong counselling team, some students wish to hire counselors from outside of school to aid them in college admissions. Amar Bhardwaj, a member of the HKIS class of 2016 who is now studying at Columbia University in New York, says he “used a private counselor outside of school who played a major role in the application process,” but still felt that “the counselling office was open to helping and made themselves available if I ever wanted to meet with them.”

Still, Bhardwaj wishes that the college counselling offered at school would have been more comprehensive and action-specific. “The Junior seminar gave me a good idea of the different elements of the process I would encounter, but didn’t teach much about how I should encounter them. For example, they told us about college interviews but didn’t offer many strategies on how to approach them.”

The posh redoubt that is the HKIS Counseling Office.

Jenny Kim, a member of the HKIS class of 2016 who is now studying at Northwestern University in Illinois, felt “the senior transitions seminar did a fairly good job in preparing me for settling into college, though no lectures or class discussions could have prepared me for some aspects of college, because I just had to experience them and learn from them.”

Though Kim was satisfied overall by the course, she believes the senior transitions seminar “should have better stressed the importance of mental health,” saying that when it was mentioned it mainly revolved around depression. “I’ve seen in myself and my peers that being far away from home and family, taking difficult courses, and in most cases, living somewhere far colder than Hong Kong can affect your mental health in many ways, so discussing that before heading off to college could have been really helpful.”

This follows a trend of students feeling that HKIS currently does not offer strong support for mental health issues and wellbeing, though in recent months changes have been in the works to address this in the long term.

Juniors conducting college research during the junior seminar. (Photo courtesy of ASW HS Counseling Facebook page)

At ASW, many students had more positive feedback on the counseling team. Qingfeng Chai, a graduate of the ASW class of 2016 who is now studying at University of Chicago, says that the counseling program “provided a very individualized, personal experience, which made the nerve-wrecking application process less daunting.” She appreciated “the freedom that students had to form their own timeline,” but noted that “this freedom ran a huge risk of backfiring, especially since most of us naturally tend to procrastination.”

One area Chai pointed to for improvement was the approach to a college essay prompt. She felt “seminars were not as productive as planned, especially since the essay writing is not supposed to be done in half an hour.” She thinks that having more workshops focused on specific topics, such as finding your own identity and essay formats, would be more beneficial to the students.

Marta Kozlowska, a member of the ASW class of 2016 who is now studying at University of Edinburgh, shared a similar experience to that of Chai. She says “the counselor proved to be a vital component of my application process, as she provided me with very specific guidance on the most important part of the application: the personal statement.” She felt that she was never neglected by the counseling team. “Everyone seemed to be hands on deck and ready to provide feedback on my 100th personal statement draft at any moment.”

HKIS Counselor Ms. McGarrity hard at work.

In Kozlowska’s opinion, “the senior seminars were useful to an extent.” She explains that she already personally knew a lot of information about the process of applying to the UK. Kozlowska adds that the time to write out the applications was useful because “the deal [they] got was that if [they] finished applications, [they] didn’t need to come to seminar anymore, and that was also a great motivator, for [her] at least.”

Mariana Silva, a member of the ASW class of 2016 who is now studying at University of Warwick, had a different experience. “I chose to work on my college application alone, but I knew that the counselors were there to help me whenever I needed it. I came in once, I think, to get feedback on my personal statement.” Silva found the counselors to be helpful in finding universities that she could apply to and see herself studying in.

As for preparing her to transition into a new school, she noted that it is impossible for the counselors to provide specific advice to the students. “I mean there are always little ‘life lessons’ that could be mentioned during the seminars but they wouldn’t be absorbed by students as much as they should.”

Silva highlights that the senior seminars helped her the most. “I came into senior year not having a slight clue of where I wanted the next chapter of my life to be and that really stressed me out. But, the senior seminars helped me figure everything out: I realised where in the world I wanted to study, what aspects I wanted in my university and what sort of environment I wanted to put myself in. So, to me, it seems more reasonable that the senior seminars focus on helping students with their application process and giving advice on how to make senior year less stressful.”

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