Ask Test Masters: International Student Applying to the Ivy League

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Ask Test Masters is a free educational service offered by the college admission experts at Test Masters. College Compass readers Arman and Mandy have a question about applying to competitive US schools as an international student. They write,

“We are from Sydney Australia and my goal/dream is for my son to be accepted to a very good US university, preferably with a bit of scholarship if possible. My son is 16 turning 17 in October, and currently in Year 10 and will start Year 11 in Term 4. He will graduate in Year 12 in 2015 and we are hoping to go to university in the US in August 2016. He goes to a Government Selective School and is currently their number 1 player in Division 1 Tennis. I need some guidance, please, on how do I go about it for him to have a better chance? Thank you in advance.”


If you are serious about admission to a top 10 college, this is the perfect time to begin constructing your College Admissions Timeline! Many parents and students make the mistake of waiting until junior or even senior year to begin researching college admission. By beginning this process now (while your son is still in 10th grade), you can give your student a definite advantage.

One item of note is most, if not all, Ivy League schools will not take your son’s status as an international student into consideration when making an admission decision. International students are expected to meet the same application requirements as US students and their applications are given equal consideration. His international student status will not help or hurt him in the admission process. This means that all of the information you may have read in our popular “What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?” series pertains to your son as well.

The two most important admission criteria for any college are GPA/Class Rank and standardized test scores. Extracurricular activities also play an increasingly important role in the admission process for top tier colleges. In addition to maintaining a high GPA and class rank, and participating in a number of appropriate and impressive extracurriculars, it is equally important that your son take the most challenging classes available to him. For obvious reasons, admission officers prefer students who take honors and Advanced Placement classes; students who excel in advanced or honors classes at the high school level are more likely to succeed in the rigorous academic environment of an Ivy League classroom, and are thus more desirable as prospective students.  Note: AP exams are available to international students; even if your son is unable to register for AP classes (if they are not offered at the school he attends), you should consider having him take AP tests anyway. You can learn more about International AP testing here.

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In addition to registering for advanced or honors classes each year, and maintaining a competitive GPA,  your son will also have to take a number of standardized tests, such as the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests.ACT or SAT

Whether your son should take the ACT or SAT is relative to his own strengths and skills. This is a topic that has been covered extensively on this blog in the past (here and in many other posts as well), so we will not spend much time on it today, except to say that you should consider having your son take both exams. Admissions to the Ivy League are so competitive that anything you can put on paper to distinguish your son from other applicants, such as by taking and doing well on both the SAT and ACT (as opposed to only taking one or the other), can prove to be a valuable advantage.

In almost all cases, Ivy League schools require applicants to submit at least two SAT Subject Test scores to be even considered for admission, but we actually recommend that students take and submit three. Depending on the department or specific college you are applying to, you may be required to take specific subject tests (for example, applicants to the Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Science are required to submit Subject Test scores for Math and either Biology, Chemistry, or Physics). We generally recommend that students take the required tests, and then take one SAT Subject Test in an unrelated academic field (so, for example, a pre-med student might take the SAT Subject Test in English Language or Literature and an engineering applicant might take the SAT Subject Test in French or World History). Submitting high scores in a Subject Test for an academic discipline you are not planning on pursuing professionally or studying as an undergraduate demonstrates to admission officers that you are versatile and have varied academic interests.

Which Subject Tests your son should take depend on his own areas of interest and strength, and which colleges and departments he plans on applying to – the one additional piece of advice I might offer in this regard is to have your son take Subject Tests after completing the corresponding high school classroom courses. SAT Subject Tests, unlike the regular SAT, are tests of knowledge (whereas the SAT is a critical reasoning test). Your son is more likely to do well on such a test if he takes this test immediately after completing a formal classroom course on the subject. Many parents make the mistake of not registering their students to take Subject Tests until they are juniors or seniors, which in some cases may be a year or two removed from when they last studied the topic.

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The above is a general overview of the things your son should be doing to make himself a competitive applicant. The next step is to begin identifying and targeting specific test dates, and planning your preparation accordingly. Make sure to have your son take plenty of practice tests, and also be sure to utilize Score Choice effectively.

One last important item to note is that the SAT is changing in March of 2016. Your son will be a part of the class that first takes the revised SAT; for students his age, we are recommending that you begin taking the SAT in the fall of junior year, not the spring (so, he should begin taking the actual SAT around this time next year). This will give your son the opportunity to take both versions of the test. When he is going through the process of finalizing his college applications, he can always choose to use the exam score he does best on. You can learn more about the New SAT at the following web site:

Hope all this helps!

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