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Five Tips for Koreans Who Wish to Study in the U.S.A.

As an educational consultant assisting students who seek to study in America, I would like to present a few important observations that international students and families often do not realize.

American universities desire international students. Many people believe that American universities prefer American students over foreign students and are prejudiced against Asians. In truth, American universities want more and more international students for their schools.

We Americans see ourselves as world leaders, influencing nations everywhere. Because American universities are built upon this idea of global community, enrolling students from other countries brings pride and honor to a college. Diversity is one of the most important attributes of American institutions.

Korea is a significant part of America’s international student market, sending almost four times more students to America than does Japan. Yet few Koreans recognize how many American schools exist: there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., and most of them have admissions representatives assigned to international markets. Many schools hire professional agents to seek out international students. Bringing international students to America is big business. In Seoul, “college fairs” can attract over 10,000 people in just one weekend. Although some Koreans believe that only certain “feeder” schools can send students to the U.S., American universities seek students from every school and background.

American colleges use different methods for selecting students. Although universities outside of America typically select students based solely upon entrance examinations, American universities evaluate applicants in a broader way.

Two-year and lower-tier colleges worry about fluency in the English language, not just academic ability. It does no good to enroll a bright student who struggles in English. To find students, these schools often rely upon agents who are paid commissions based upon how long each student remains in school. Although everyone wants students to succeed, at many of these colleges only 10% of the international students will graduate on time, if they graduate at all.

America’s selective colleges – the ones with the best reputations – use either the “numbers” method or the “holistic” method to select students. Although they also require resumes and essays, America’s public universities primarily use test scores (numbers) to sift applicants. On the other hand, America’s private universities – for example, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the Ivy League – utilize a holistic evaluation that separately grades multiple attributes to come up with one overall admissions score.

The numbers and holistic methods are very different. In the holistic method, it is common for applicants with perfect test scores to be rejected in favor of applicants who do not have perfect academics but have strengths outside the classroom.

Few international applicants understand the holistic grading method. Having volunteered with Harvard admissions for three decades, I have seen that the key to admission to highly-selective colleges is understanding the holistic admissions method.

The holistic method considers several factors to evaluate the “whole” person. The three most common factors are: academic potential; activities, including leadership, athletics, and community service; and personal qualities. Asian applicants often are unaware that they will be graded not only on their academic performance, but also in other areas.

The one factor that commonly distinguishes successful applicants from those who are not selected is the human attribute. This evaluation is entirely subjective; there are no grades, scores, awards, or other objective identifiers to prove personal worth. Many applicants fail in their admissions efforts by doing a poor job of explaining their human sides.

Asian applicants often suffer because of cultural misunderstanding. In the Far East, concepts of humility, modesty, and personal responsibility are high virtues. Asian applicants often write essays describing their faults, using the words shame, disgrace, and defectiveness to express a high moral code. However, this is not the American moral code.

America adores the positive, not the negative. Although we acknowledge that accepting responsibility is virtuous, Americans believe that achievement is even more valuable. As a result, admissions representatives at American colleges often do not appreciate Asian sentiments in the way that they are intended.

International students with virtually perfect scores are often rejected because their essays raise red flags, at least from the American perspective. When an applicant writes essays with the wrong balance – too much problem, not enough solution – the grade given for human qualities is low. A top-quality counselor or college consultant who understands the American mindset can help students adjust their applications to avoid balance problems.

To succeed in an American college, Korean students must adjust to the American education method. Most students, whether American or international, struggle to adjust to the immense amount of freedom and free time in the American college environment. For Korean students, many of whom have studied diligently in hagwons, this can be especially difficult.

The biggest adjustment is learning how to manage one’s time. An Asian student at Rice University wrote to me: “Time management has been the biggest issue for me since there is just so much free time between classes.” Another said, “At first, I felt like I was lacking something. I no longer had a strict routine day to day. There was a lot more control over my own time, but I had a feeling of emptiness.” A Korean girl attending a major public university confided: “I stressed myself out beyond belief in my first semester when things did not go smoothly.”

The different environments at each American university can lead to success or failure. Selecting the right college, and preparing for living in a foreign place, includes much more than academic preparation and reading about college rankings. To identify the right college fit, seek the assistance of experts with deep knowledge and experience in American universities.

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