Harvard Outreach Newsletter

101st Issue, January 2022

In this issue:

Standardized tests – should I still take them?

The SAT and ACT – the two standardized tests that for many years have been an important component of US college applications – are now optional at many US colleges, and some do not require them at all.  The number of test optional colleges has been steadily increasing over the last decade or so, but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many test centres have been closed, the numbers have risen dramatically. 
According to FairTest, over 1,785 four-year colleges and universities (around 75% of the total) will not require standardized test scores for those applying in the autumn of 2022.  Many colleges have indicated they will extend their test-optional policies into 2023, and Harvard has announced that it will extend its optional policy until 2026. Click here for the announcement. 
Bearing in mind the large proportion of colleges that no longer require the tests, the question arises: should I take them at all?  There is no clear answer to this question, as it will depend on your own academic profile as well as the practicalities of finding a test centre within reasonable distance of your home town.  If you cannot reach a test centre, then the decision is made for you.  Also, if you have gained top grades in all your high school exams across all subjects, your academic credentials are already firmly established and you will gain little or no additional advantage by taking the tests.  You would be better off spending the time developing your interests outside the classroom to enhance your extracurricular profile.
But if your high schools grades are slightly lower than you would like, there may be advantage in taking the tests if you are able to get a ‘good’ score – defined as being at the top end of the range of scores typically achieved by admitted applicants, as stated on the websites of the colleges on your shortlist.  You may also find that practising for the tests improves your performance generally in maths, English comprehension and writing.  So, by all means take the tests if you think you can improve your academic profile by doing so.  

World University Rankings 2022

At US College Fairs we are sometimes asked: ‘Is there a US equivalent to the Russell Group universities in the UK?’  The short answer is ‘no’, but if you want a rough comparison between the Russell Group (the top 24 UK research universities) and other world universities, then you should find out where they sit in the world university rankings.  
Universities that appear in the same area of the tables are likely to be of a similar calibre – but you should be cautious about reading too much into this, because (1) the organisations that produce world rankings use different assessment criteria, so the ranking of a particular university can vary wildly between different tables; and (2) there are many other criteria besides world ranking (see article below on ‘Researching US Colleges’) that you should use to determine where you apply. 
If a particular US college satisfies all your requirements then you should still apply regardless of its world ranking.  Nevertheless, if you want to check where your US college shortlist sits in comparison to other universities both within and outside the UK, the main ranking sites are:
QS World University Rankings 2022

Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022

Academic Ranking of World Universities 2021 (2022 rankings not published until August)

Most, but not all, Russell Group universities come within the top 150 in the world rankings, so a very rough rule of thumb is that any university that comes within that range will be on a par with the Russell Group.  But do bear in mind that there are still many excellent colleges outside the top 150.  

Researching US Colleges

If you have recently submitted your applications to US colleges by the Regular Action deadline in early January, we wish you every success.  You will receive the results of your applications at the end of March, and will have until 1st May to accept or reject any offers that you receive.  
If you are not applying until the autumn of 2022, one of your essential tasks during this academic year is to research the US college system so that by the summer, you will have identified a shortlist of colleges to which you would like to apply.  To help you, Vicky Leung (Harvard Class of 1991) has written an article on Tips for Researching US Colleges, which includes comments on her own experiences when she was faced with the same task.  The main criteria that may influence your college choices are:  

  • Admissions requirements – how do your achievements compare with typical students who gain admission? 
  • Courses – what is your most likely major, and your desired balance between optional and required courses? 
  • Cost – which colleges provide financial aid for international students?
  • Location – which part of the US do you wish to be based, and do you want to be in a city, suburban or rural environment?
  • Size – do you prefer to be in a setting with just a few hundred students or a large campus with many thousands?
  • Diversity – What is the proportion of women to men?  International to American students?  Black and minority ethnic students to white students? 
  • Extracurricular interests – do you have an extracurricular interest that you cannot possibly do without?

Click here to read the full article, which includes links to some of the main search engines you can use to find colleges which fit your particular preferences. 

Parental support for students applying to university

Parents of students who will be applying to American universities next autumn will no doubt be wondering what kind of support they should be offering their offspring.  Students who make successful applications to top US colleges are nearly always self-starters – they are highly motivated individuals who undertake all the necessary research and preparation to put themselves in the best possible position to put together a high quality application.  Parental support is an important part of this endeavour – but you must be careful not to take over control of the process.  Admissions Officers (AOs) will expect applicants to take the lead when researching different colleges and preparing their applications, as students who are unable or unwilling to take the initiative in this respect are unlikely to have the personal qualities the AOs are looking for.  So what exactly is the best role for parents to take in the application process?
In 2017, Richard Weissbourd, Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), published a report entitled Turning the Tide as part of the HGSE’s Make Caring Common project.  In the report’s Executive Summary, he stated that:

“…today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good….and too often the college admissions process – a process that involves admissions offices, guidance counselors, parents and many other stakeholders – contributes to this problem.” (p.1)  

In March 2019 he published a follow-up report Turning the Tide II  that focused on: 

“…the critical role of high schools and parents in supporting teens in developing core ethical capacities, including a sense of responsibility for others and their communities and reducing achievement-related stress.” (p.1)

The report’s recommendations for parents are summarised in this article on the Make Caring Common website. 

How to be an ethical parent in the college admissions process

For each of the following headings, the article explains why you should consider taking the action they suggest and gives a list of things you might try in order to promote each action.   

  1. Keep the focus on your student 
  2. Follow your ethical GPS 
  3. Be authentic with your student 
  4. Encourage your teen to contribute to others 
  5. Be an advocate for ethical character in the college admissions experience 
  6. Use the college admissions experience as an opportunity for ethical education 
  7. Model and encourage gratitude 

Other useful articles for parents can be found on the Make Caring Common project’s Resources for Families page. 

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