Issues | LEARNING CURVE

What to expect when applying for college overseas

by Michael Hassett

Special To The Japan Times

In a few weeks, my daughter, an American-Japanese dual national born, raised and mostly educated in Japanese in Japan, will begin her first year of higher learning at her dream school — Middlebury College, one of America’s oldest liberal arts institutes.

Located in the midst of picturesque Vermont and recognized for its leadership in international and environmental studies, Middlebury accepts about 16 percent of total applicants each year. This year’s incoming class of 680 will come from 57 countries and 49 U.S. states. Never heard of the school? Don’t worry, many people haven’t. They’d probably be more excited to learn that the original Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream factory, which promotes itself as the “happiest place in Vermont,” is only an hour away.

As many students and parents who preceded us in this journey can attest, the university application process is exhausting. Like any committed athlete embarking on a meaningful challenge, the student truly benefits from having an engaged support team, often comprising parents, teachers, relatives and friends.

If you are on this journey for the first time, uncertainty rules the process. Should your child apply to universities both inside and outside Japan? How much is this going to cost? Which schools would best suit your child’s character, lifestyle and ambitions? How much is all this going to cost? What is the likelihood of acceptance? And, if I haven’t emphasized this enough, how much is all this going to cost?

After my daughter and I completed a truly ambitious but informative application process spanning about 18 months, and I saw that U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy was launching a project titled “A Broader View” to encourage studying at overseas universities, I started to wonder, “Was our rugged adventure indicative of the experiences of others?”

So with a little help from my daughter, I set out to answer this question by conducting what is possibly the most comprehensive survey ever done of graduates (Japanese, mixed nationality, and non-Japanese) matriculating to overseas universities from high schools across Japan.

I asked 20 questions, including “How knowledgeable were your high school teachers/administration about the application process to overseas colleges/universities?” In response to that particular question, nearly 40 percent indicated that their teachers/administration were either 1) “Complete beginners. They required a lot of assistance,” or 2) “Not very knowledgeable. I seemed to be more knowledgeable than them.”

Ninety-two percent of respondents indicated that they needed teacher recommendations for the applications. Did their teachers write those on their own? For half the students, yes. The other half had to provide sample drafts, translate recommendations their teachers had written in Japanese and even write the final submitted recommendations for their teachers. Does this even matter? Actually, the data shows that it does. Two-thirds of students accepted at extremely selective schools — those with acceptance rates below 8 percent, i.e., Harvard, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, etc. — reported that their recommendations came from teachers who wrote their own without any assistance.

Interestingly, although teacher and guidance counselor recommendations are often vital to overseas applications, most students did not feel as if their schools or teachers were that instrumental to their acceptance. When asked to allocate credit for their acceptance, students gave about half of it to themselves (i.e., their own research, study, preparation), 16.3 percent to their high school teachers and administration, 13.7 percent to their parents, 11 percent to cram schools and 6.6 percent to friends. Considering the marketing efforts made by cram schools to post photos with successful applicants, it’s particularly illuminating to see that students themselves are not giving those schools that much credit. Also enlightening is the fact that recognition given to cram schools fell as school selectivity increased. Students enrolling at very selective schools — those with acceptance rates of under 24 percent — gave 7.1 percent of the credit to cram schools, less than the 11 percent recorded for all respondents. Moreover, students matriculating to extremely selective schools gave cram schools only 5 percent of the credit.

Now, I know a lot of parents out there are thinking, “I’d love for my child to have this opportunity, but aren’t overseas schools terribly expensive?” The short answer is, “Yes, they are.”

Respondents to this survey are headed to schools in the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates. At the top 100 colleges and universities in the U.S., tuition usually runs between $40,000 and $50,000 (¥4 million to ¥5 million) a year. Housing, meals, books and health insurance will then set you back an additional $12,000 to $19,000 (¥1.2 million to ¥1.9 million) annually. International students often combat these exorbitant costs by applying to the few universities that are need-blind in admissions and will meet a family’s full demonstrated financial need — i.e., the school will charge only what it determines the family can afford. In the U.S., six schools currently offer this benefit to international students, those schools being Amherst College (14 percent acceptance rate), Harvard University (5.2 percent), MIT (7.8 percent), Princeton University (6.5 percent), Yale University (6.3 percent) and Soka University of America, California (44 percent). For those with U.S. citizenship, about 40 additional schools can be added to this list.

This transition to greater economic diversity on the campuses of many elite U.S. schools began about 15 years ago with Princeton’s landmark shift to a no-loan financial aid policy. That change led to a gradual transformation at universities across America as Princeton’s competitors — particularly “Little Ivies” such as Amherst, Williams and Middlebury colleges — began to offer much more aid to students from low- to middle-income families.

Outside the U.S., the National University of Singapore (NUS), New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi, and Yale-NUS College (5 percent acceptance rate) are need-blind and meet the full demonstrated need for all applicants. NYU Abu Dhabi has an acceptance rate of about 19 percent for primary applicants who list the Abu Dhabi campus as their first or only choice of campus, and most of the students there are on UAE-government scholarships that include full tuition, accommodation, meals, books, airfare and a stipend.

Nearly 32 percent of respondents to my survey reported receiving nothing in financial aid from their new university. However, nearly 45 percent received between ¥2 million and ¥5 million a year in grants or scholarships that would not need to be repaid, and about 8 percent received more than ¥5 million a year. The average for those receiving something was just under ¥3 million per year for those with only Japanese citizenship and just under ¥4 million annually for everyone else.

It is also important to note that financial aid offers can be appealed. A few years ago, a friend of mine appealed after he felt exchange-rate fluctuations had artificially inflated his income. His son was subsequently offered a few thousand dollars more in aid. I actually appealed all of my daughter’s financial aid awards, citing the cost of international airfare (the only justification I could dream up), and was turned down by every school except one — Boston College, which got back to me the very next day with an additional $1,400 a year (¥140,000).

How about scholarships from outside sources? Shockingly, almost 85 percent of respondents indicated nothing extra coming in. For those receiving something, the average was a little more than ¥1.4 million annually.

About 15 factors are considered by overseas schools in the holistic admissions process that is now common at many universities. Respondents considered their application strengths to be their essays (56 percent), high school grade point averages (46 percent), extracurricular activities (39 percent) and standardized test scores (36 percent). But curiously, students indicated their application weaknesses to be many of the same, i.e., standardized test scores (44 percent), high school grade point averages (36 percent), extracurricular activities (33 percent), SAT Subject Test scores (21 percent) and high school curriculum (21 percent).

How important are these factors? Very. The most recent State of College Admission Report published annually by the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that considerable to moderate importance is given to the following factors during admissions by the indicated percentage of universities: grades in college prep courses (92 percent), strength of curriculum (89 percent), grades in all courses (89 percent), SAT and ACT scores (88 percent), and essay or writing samples (60 percent).

Most overseas universities “superscore” standardized test scores, which basically means that only the highest scores submitted are considered when the admissions file is reviewed. So students will often take several TOEFLs, multiple ACTs or SATs, and a few administrations of SAT Subject Tests. Respondents to this survey took the TOEFL an average of three times. Those taking the ACT or SAT took it four times. And more than 56 percent of respondents submitted scores for SAT Subject Tests. Only 5 percent submitted AP Test scores. These tests are not cheap, though. Three TOEFLs plus four ACTs plus four administrations of SAT Subject Tests, all sent to a total of 10 schools, would cost more than ¥200,000. And actually applying to those 10 schools would cost an additional ¥60,000 to ¥100,000.

Now, when I was considering a university education for myself a good number of years ago, I applied to two schools — one “safety” and one “reach.” Today, acceptance rates are so low that 10 to 20 applications are not out of the ordinary. Respondents to this survey applied to an average of nine schools and were accepted at four. But nearly 44 percent applied to 10 or more schools — actually averaging 14! — and were accepted to six.

Safeguards were implemented to ensure the reliability of the survey. More than 50 responses were received, and the data was trimmed slightly to eliminate outliers and represent only respondents meeting two conditions: (1) applicants graduating from a high school in Japan and (2) applicants applying to an overseas college for admission in 2016. In Tokyo, these students reported graduating from Shibuya Senior High School, its sister Shibuya Makuhari Senior High School, Hiroo Gakuen, Senzoku Gakuen, International Christian University High School and the University of Tsukuba senior high schools, among others. Over in Kansai, feedback was received from graduates of Ritsumeikan Uji Senior High School, Doshisha International Senior High School, Senri International School of Kwansei Gakuin and Kansai Soka Gakuen. Responses also arrived from graduates of public schools from prefectures all over Japan, from Kumamoto to Ishikawa.

Now to the question I repeatedly posed to begin this article: “How much is all this going to cost?” Of course, aid varies by family, and in my daughter’s case I noticed that the amounts offered generally increased as acceptance rates decreased.

In Japan, she would most likely have attended International Christian University at a cost of ¥1.4 million a year in tuition, in addition to the ¥300,000 enrollment fee. So that was my gauge. Middlebury College offered to cover 94 percent of her nearly $50,000/year tuition through a generous college grant and a much smaller government one, leaving us with a charge of about $3,000 (¥300,000) a year.

Now, of course we will then be responsible for all the extras — such as room, meals, fees, books, health insurance and flights — at a significant expense exceeding ¥1.4 million a year. And I would be remiss not to mention that slightly better financial conditions were offered at two other schools, so this offer was not an anomaly.

In the end, however, my daughter fit Middlebury and Middlebury fit her. If you are a student so inclined, or the parent of that child, I’m here to tell you that this journey is not easy, but it is very doable with dedication and perseverance. And you never know. Perhaps one day you’ll find yourself only an hour away from the happiest place in Vermont.

An exchange rate of ¥100 per U.S. dollar was used for currency conversions. University selectivity is not a sole measure of quality. Many universities with higher admission rates nevertheless offer exceptional educational opportunities. The author can be contacted at mshassett@gol.com. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

Key scholarships

HLAB, in cooperation with the Yanai Tadashi Foundation

How much: $70,000/year for four years

How many: 10 students

Information: www.h-lab.co/scholarship

Grew Bancroft Foundation

(i) How much: ¥2.5 million/year for four years

How many: Two students

(ii) How much: ¥2 million/year for four years

How many: Four students

(iii) How much: Full tuition for those enrolling at Grinnell College (18 percent acceptance rate), Lake Forest College (55 percent), DePauw University (64 percent) or Knox College (65 percent)

How many: Four students

Information: www.grew-bancroft.or.jp

Note: The families of recipients are required to pay ¥10,000/month to the Grew Bancroft Foundation during the time the scholarship is being received.

Additional scholarship information can be found at info.japantimes.co.jp/u_times/pdf/vol_32/ut_vol_32_11.pdf