Learning

Top 9 Overseas University Application Tips for an International Student in Singapore

The most popular destinations for students in Singapore are the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia. In this article, we’ll briefly cover tips on finding your best fit university and applying overseas.

1. Build your profile around what you enjoy.

With a global outlook, there’s no need to walk one specific path to get to university. Some universities have score cut-offs and prerequisite courses, but some use holistic review, which considers your potential and cultural fit. 

Each US university releases a “Common Data Set” that reveals its weighting. Some schools value academic rigour, so they might be a good fit for students who enjoy taking challenging courses. Some schools value community service, so if you’ve been involved in the community, you’d fit in well with their other students. Talent might be ‘very important’ for some schools, so you can stand out with your experiences and portfolios in sports or the arts.

In secondary school, explore what you’re interested in and push yourself in what you’re strongest in. There’s a university out there for you.

2. Consider ‘best fit’ factors instead of one-dimensional rankings.

A best fit university that will meet you where you are and help you reach where you want to go. Think about what are your must-haves and what are your nice-to-haves:

Majors – Look for schools that are strong in the fields that interest you. Some universities you’ve never heard of may have one or two exceptional programs that are well-regarded by professionals and hiring managers. Conversely, a top-ranked university may not have a great program for your area of interest. 

If you’re not sure what subjects might suit you, try taking a major (15-20 mins) or career (5-10 mins) inventory test. 

Academic rigour – Look for schools where you’re challenged but not overwhelmed. Average incoming freshman GPA or test scores can indicate the level at which you would be expected to perform. These also give a rough indication of how likely you are to be accepted. 

Location – This includes snow, sun, rain, humidity levels, and urban vs. suburban campuses. Pick a place you’d be happy to call home for four years. Look at climate snapshots of the US. or the cost of living to see the range of possibilities. Also, consider where you may have relatives or friends to help support you. 

Student population – Larger schools usually maintain school spirit through large-scale events like sports and smaller schools through people-to-people ties. The size of the student population may also affect the availability of classes, prevalence of lecture halls, the size of the alumni network and facilities. 

Time and flexibility of degree – US universities allow you to stay undecided for your first two years and mix and match majors and minors. Students may also pursue the 2+2 path from community college to university. Australia and the UK usually offer a more streamlined path, with 3-year degrees and undergraduate degrees for law and medicine.

Work opportunities Many countries offer work authorization for students who study there. For example, the U.S. allows up to 3 years through practical training programs during and after your studies. If you already have a company or job in mind, you can check where employees studied via the LinkedIn website.

Cultural fit – This may be a bit more intangible. Check websites like Niche.com or Youtube for student reviews. Look at freshman retention rates. See what student clubs are available on campus. Follow universities’ social media or their campus newspapers. Attend virtual or in-person information sessions and college fairs to understand if this university/college is a good fit for you.

3. Consider the costs and sources of funding.

For some students, the undergraduate experience is invaluable. For others, a more affordable school opens up funds for graduate school or other pursuits. 

Either way, it’s good to understand the full costs.

Tuition, health insurance, room, board and mandatory food plans will all be on the university website, but may be on separate pages. Textbooks and equipment, lab fees and other miscellaneous costs may not be mentioned, but still significant.

Remember to consider sources of funding. 

If you’re from a lower income family, you may be able to receive financial aid. The College Board has a convenient overview of tuition costs and institutional financial aid for international students

There are also merit scholarships available on Fundingusstudy.org or iefa.org, and some US public universities can provide in-state tuition and even offer transfer scholarships. Singaporeans and PRs can apply for governmental or industry scholarships at brightsparks.com or scholarshipguide.com

If you decide to take a loan, you can roughly calculate the ROI based on the US Department of Education’s college scorecard comparing the average salary to debt after graduation for each US university.

4. Be mindful in the application process.

You might be tempted to approach college applications the same way as homework: check off the requirements, craft your essays for the grader, and submit. Maybe check what your friends are doing and copy that. 

But we’d recommend you take your time. 

The application process is a chance to pause and reflect on what may be your first real decision. 

Use each essay prompt and question as an opportunity to dig through your lifetime experiences, sift through all your studies, CCAs, volunteering, sports, family responsibilities, readings, vacations, hobbies, memorable moments, and words that you keep going back to.

Who are you? What do you want? That’s what this is all about.

5. Draft a school list early and use application portals to simplify the process.

You may have a high school counsellor to walk you through all the steps, but here’s a quick guide to help you understand the application processes.

Use your best-fit factors as filters on databases like bigfuture.collegeboard.org

From the list of universities that’s generated, jot down some schools that catch your eye. Aim for 6-10 schools total with a spread of 1-2 reaches, 3-4 targets, and 2-3 safeties. Feel free to mix and match among countries. You can revise this school list as you go through the application process.

Most universities are on an application portal or have some sort of agent to guide applicants.  

  • UK universities use the UCAS
  • Australian universities have a centre at IDP
  • US universities are likely on the Common App or MyCoalition. 
  • State universities may have their own systems, such as ApplyTexas for Texas or the UC Application for California. 

Your cycle may not be open yet, but access the portal early to see what the essay questions will be, what documents they need, and plan around the different deadlines, such as Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), Regular Decision (RD) or Rolling Admissions.

6. Understand which exams you need to take and register early.

Once you have your school list, you should have an idea of which exams you need to take or if your schools are test optional. From there, register for your exams and allocate time to study so that you’re not writing essays and preparing for multiple exams at once. 

Here’s a brief overview of exams you may need to take.

AP/IB/A-levels: These are viewed as advanced-level classes, and you can get college credit for high scores. Check your university website for what credits you can claim for each score, and if there are any credit caps. 

For students taking the IB or A-levels, you would apply with your predicted scores – your counsellor will submit those, and update your application with your actual results as they come in. 

Some universities view polytechnic credits as equivalent to associate’s degrees, so you may be able to get college credit for those modules as well. 

Aptitude/Standardised Tests: These may be specific to your school and course. UK and medical schools require either the UKCAT or BMAT. Australian medical schools require the ISAT. Some selective programs may require the TSA. 

US schools may require the SAT or ACT. Take a practice test for the SAT and the ACT to see which one you feel comfortable with.

If your schools are test-optional, you don’t need an ACT or SAT test score. Your GPA should carry more weight as it reflects long-term academic performance, but a good test score can help place you among other international applicants.

TOEFL/IELTS/Duolingo: This is for your proof of language proficiency. Most will waive this for Singaporeans or students studying in Singapore for the past two years, as English is the language of instruction here. However, some universities have blanket requirements for all international students to submit a test score. Check your schools’ websites to make sure.

7. Get letters of recommendation from people who know you.

You want teachers who know you well, who have seen your academic and personal growth in class and who can tell stories about your character. 

Your Grade 11 teachers will be great options as they’ll have taught you for a full year before your college applications, and their impression of you is recent. Be sure to ask your teachers early, so they’re prepared to write the letters of recommendation. 

If you don’t feel very close to any of your teachers, you can also reach out to meet outside of class to talk about your goals and give them some material for the letter of recommendation. 

You’ll also need a letter from your counsellor, subject or department head. This letter explains your school system, grades, relative standing among the cohort, and backs up your involvement in activities outside of the classroom. Inform them that you’ll be applying to US universities early as well so they can prepare your documents.

8. Set aside a few months to revise your essays.

Your essay alone won’t get you in, but it can be the tie-breaker between two similar candidates. At highly selective schools, where most candidates have similar high stats, this becomes very important. 

This may be the first long piece of writing you’ll be doing that’s not graded and is being sent to a real audience with a real result. So get ready to revise, because it’ll take a few drafts to get your voice and message just right. 

First, understand the tone of these essays. Read some past pieces, like these essays with reflections by the admissions officers. You can also google your college name and “essays that worked” for more references.

To help with brainstorming, have your list of best-fit factors, activities and honours/awards, and maybe hobbies, in front of you. Read the essay prompts and think about what experiences you can use from your experiences to answer them.

Then start drafting. The early drafts don’t have to be good – they just need to exist so you can start the process of getting feedback, revising, re-reading, editing and repeating to reach a polished final version. This process can take months, so get started early.

9. It’s not over at the acceptance letter.

After months of preparing your applications and waiting on decisions, imagine you receive a letter of acceptance. Great! But, what now? 

At that point, you still need to confirm your enrollment, get your visa, and prepare to move abroad. 

Several universities will host pre-departure orientations in Singapore for accepted students, where you’ll meet alumni and school administrators who can prepare you for campus life. Keep in close contact with your university to find out when these events are happening.

If your parents want to accompany you overseas, they may need to apply for visas earlier as student visas may have priority processing depending on the embassy.

EducationUSA works with local and international schools in Singapore to provide visa webinars and a pre-departure orientation to share useful tips on how to tip, how to use non-metric measurements, set-up your bank account and phone lines, get a US driver’s licence (and converting it to international in Singapore), US classroom culture, safety tips and on-campus resources. 

Good luck with your applications! Our team at EducationUSA is always happy to answer questions. E-mail us at singapore@educationusa.org, or book an appointment with us.

All our services are completely free. We are part of the US department of state network, providing official, unbiased information on studying in the States.

In addition to that, our partner school, XCL World Academy, offers a comprehensive University and Career Guidance Program to help students prepare for their transition to tertiary education. Learn more about XCL World Academy and their unique programme here.

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