Youth Canada

American University Applications: Tips from a Princeton Student

5-08-2008 by Michael Gelbart

American University Applications: Tips from a Princeton Student

After working so hard to earn high scores in school and on the SAT and AP exams, students may be disheartened to realize that there is still quite a lot of work ahead of them. University applications themselves are extremely thorough and therefore time-consuming, not to speak of scholarship applications. This page is meant to describe and offer advice on the application process, specifically for American universities whose applications processes can be very complicated and also very important for admission.

Online or Paper?
When beginning to apply to universities, you will first have to decide whether or not to apply online. From our experience, it is by far more practical to apply online if possible, because it is easy to make changes, information can be filled in quickly, and once the application is sent the university receives it immediately. It is also less likely to be lost or delayed than a paper application. In addition, the universities much prefer online applications; when they receive a paper application, they then have to enter all the information into their computer system. The only noteworthy disadvantage of the online application system is the formatting of the essays. If your essay requires any special symbols, formatting, or images, the text boxes of the online applications will not allow it. Additionally, indents and paragraph spacing often do not work properly, and you may have to struggle with your essay for a time before it looks presentable. Note that some universities only accept online applications!

The Common App
Regardless of whether or not you are applying online, you may choose to use the Common Application, known as the "Common App", when applying to the American universities. This application is used by almost 300 universities in the U.S., a great asset when "recycling" applications. For a list of the schools that accept the Common App, click here. The participating schools pledge not to discriminate between their own application and the Common App, making it a very attractive option - especially for online use. The Common App Online, found at, only needs to be filled in once, and can then be sent to many universities. It is important to note that many schools require their own supplement to the Common App, but these additional sections can also be done easily through Common App Online. For most students, we strongly recommend the Common App, especially the Common App Online, as it is widely used, convenient, and reliable.

The Essays
Probably the most difficult part of the university application process is writing the essays. Many American schools require at least two essays, and some may require as many as five. There are many theories about how to write the perfect application essay, but realistically such a formula does not exist. The purpose of the essays is for universities to get a personal touch from the applicant, as opposed to just a list of courses and grades. Therefore, the most important thing to consider when writing an essay is just that: to be personal. Write something that will stand out and distinguish yourself from other applicants by relating to a personal aspect of your life. For example, if you plan to write about your beliefs, be sure to discuss how they have affected your life. Similarly, an essay about an important experience you have had should discuss what you learned from it and how you responded to it. Of course, be sure to edit your essay carefully, and don't be shy to have parents or friends look over it as well.

Reference Letters
One very important part of any application process (be it university or a job or a scholarship) is obtaining reference or recommendation letters. Most American universities require two teacher references and also a letter from your high school counselor. Canadian universities often do not require reference letters, but if you are applying for a scholarship then you will likely need them. Although this part of the application may seem out of your control, it is actually very important that it be handled properly.
The first task is to choose which teachers will write your letters. Be sure to pick teachers who know you well and like your personality - try to find someone who wants to write you a good letter. Of course, it is best to pick a teacher whose class you do well in, but this should not be the only consideration.
You may notice that some schools require one letter to be from a science teacher and the other from a humanities teacher. Although most universities do not have this requirement, one school of thought is that students should follow this rule when applying anywhere. In our opinion, however, this is not necessarily true; if your two best options both teach science (for example, your physics and math teachers), go for it. What really matters is that the letters be well-written and sincere.
When asking for a recommendation, it is crucial to be considerate to whoever is writing the letter. Be sure to ask well in advance (three weeks before the deadline is probably best), and always provide stamped and addressed envelopes for their convenience. And although this doesn't help your application, it is always nice to write thank-you notes to your teachers and counselor afterwards.
One final consideration is the option for additional reference letters. Most universities accept, but do not require, additional references. Do not feel like you must provide additional letters just because other applicants might have them. The universities do not want to read through redundant material, and therefore additional letters are only beneficial if they say something new, or if they are bound to really impress the admissions officers. If you can get a good letter from someone who attended the university you are applying to, however, it might help your case.

Some universities (especially in the US) also require interviews, usually conducted by an alumnus/alumna in your area. Most universities will contact you by email with information about your interview within a few weeks of the application deadline.
Your first reaction to the interview may be to start getting nervous. However, most college interviews are actually very friendly: the interviewer will not drill you with academic questions or try to intimidate you in any way. On the contrary, the interview will probably be relaxed and conversational. The aim of the interviewer is just to get to know you and to try to establish a sense of your personality. So just be yourself, and there is really nothing else to worry about.

Early Admission programs

When applying to study in the U.S., you may notice an option that doesn't exist in Canada: early admissions. Most schools offer one of the three types of early admissions, all of which allow you to shift the entire application process a few months earlier. If you apply early, you can be accepted, deferred, or rejected. A deferral means that your application will automatically be considered through the regular application stream (known as Regular Decision or Regular Action), and a rejection means that you will not be considered again for that year. There are three types of early admission, all of which are explained on this page. If a school offers early admission, it may actually offer more than one of the three types. For some additional information on early applications, click here.
Note: some universities, such as M.I.T., only open their early admission programs to American students. Although this restriction is unfortunate, you may, of course, still apply to these schools through Regular Decision.

Early Decision (ED)
Early Decision (ED) is the type of early admission that requires you to be most sure of your university choice. When applying ED, you must commit to attend that university if you are accepted (unless their Financial Aid package is not sufficient to meet your needs). In addition, if you choose ED you may not apply to another school through any of the three types of early admission. Under the Early Decision Agreement, if you receive notification of acceptance, you are required to withdraw all other applications and cannot send any new ones. Of course, if you are not accepted through ED you are free to apply anywhere else you like.
The advantage of ED over other types of early applications is the higher admission rate. Because it is much more convenient for a university to know that you will accept their admission offer, it tends to be a bit easier to get in to a school through ED than through Regular Decision. However, you must be sure of yourself when applying ED, as you cannot change your mind later.

Early Action (EA)
Early Action is the early admission option that requires the least commitment. Like Early Decision, it shifts the application process ahead by a few months. However, students may apply to as many EA programs as they choose, and are not required to commit to any of them. Although students are usually notified of acceptance through EA in December, the response-date (i.e., the date by which you have to inform them if you will be attending or not) is the same as the Regular Decision response-date, sometime near the end of April. There is no strategic advantage to EA; it is no easier to be accepted than through Regular Decision. The advantage of this program is that you will be notified earlier, and that your grades and activities of your grade 12 year will carry less weight.

Single Choice Early Action (SCEA)
Also known as Restricted Early Action, Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) is a hybrid of ED and EA. Like Early Action, no commitment to attend is required, and the response-date is in the spring. However, as with Early Decision, if you apply through SCEA you cannot apply to any other school through any of the three types of early admission programs.

Should I apply early at all?
The advantages of applying through an early admission program depend on your personal situation and on which type of early admission you choose. All three early programs allow you to have an earlier notification of acceptance from at least one university, which can be convenient, although possibly disheartening if you are not accepted. Early Decision has an additional advantage in that it improves your chances of being accepted. However, it is not necessary to apply early at all, and, in fact, many students do not. You may hear someone tell you that by not applying early you are making a big mistake, but this statement is a generalization and is not necessarily true. If, for example, your grade 11 marks are not as strong as you expect your grade 12 marks to be, you may want to wait, as grade 12 carries much more weight with applications through the regular deadlines than the early ones.
You may choose to apply early using the logic that if you are deferred, you will always be considered again through the regular program. However, keep in mind that if you are deferred, you are not permitted to send in a new application; they will simply reconsidered what you have already sent them, plus any new grades or SAT scores that you have received since then. Therefore, if you do not feel you have enough time to write a good essay for early admission, it may not be worth the risk. Of course, all of this logic works in reverse as well. If your grade 11 performance was excellent and you do not feel you can reproduce those results in grade 12, an early application can be a big advantage. Remember that for semestered or trimestered high schools, your first set of grade 12 marks will not be available in time for early applications.

MICHAEL GELBART graduated from Point Grey Mini School in 2006 and is currently studying Physics at Princeton University. In 2004, Michael attended the Summer Institute for Mathematics at the University of Washington (SIMUW). He also participated in Shad Valley at McMaster University in July 2005, and undertook a Shad Valley work placement at Sierra Wireless Inc. afterwards. During high school, he was involved in tutoring other students in math and science, and volunteered at a community-based homework help program on a regular basis.

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