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US: application confusion could stymie admission for foreign students

Simple college application questions can lead to big headaches for international students applying to US universities and could ultimately affect their admission. Admissions counsellors have said its the US's job to change the process.
July 17 2015
3 Min Read

Entering information such as names, payment details and whether or not you are seeking financial aid can be a daunting challenge for international students applying to US colleges, admissions counsellors have said.

At the Overseas Association for College Admissions Counselling (OACAC) conference last week, delegates agreed that simple terminology, day/month order and name slots can often cause significant confusion among international applicants and could ultimately affect their admission to university.

Many universities have their own application process, but some 500 institutions are members of the Common Application, which was created after a call for a more standardised application form.

“There are many roadblocks which students will face trying to apply to United States colleges with the Common Application”

Ken Dunbar, associate director of admissions at Skidmore College in New York state, said that while the Common Application is a useful tool, is not always convenient for international students.

“There are many roadblocks which students will face trying to apply to United States colleges with the Common Application,” he told The PIE News.

“And it’s not their fault, it’s really a problem on our end, but if students don’t answer the questions appropriately, it’s going to negatively affect their application.”

He added that international students may not have English as their native language, have any mentors who went through the same process, or come from a place with no college counsellors, making the process “quite difficult”.

Problems arise when the application asks a student to enter their name as students can be confused by other terminology such as “full name”, “surname” or “family names” used on different documents like test results or passports. The terms could also mean different things in different countries.

“I was an admissions officer and I wasn’t able to complete the process”

Seminar panellist John Beck, director of college counselling at Due West Education, said he himself experienced difficulties with how his name appeared on different admission forms.

“I’m a Beck Jr and a couple of years ago I was applying to graduate schools. I saw an email from a school I applied to saying we don’t have your GRE score.” he said, explaining that his surname was saved as ‘Beckjr’, so it didn’t match up with his test results.

“I was an admissions officer and I wasn’t able to complete the process,” he quipped.

Other difficulties include students who may have chosen English names, but don’t have any legal confirmation.

Some delegates suggested adding text instructing students to enter their name on applications “as it appears on your passport” in order to keep everything consistent, as well as “other forms your name appears” allowing for cross-referencing if there are variations.

And to overcome discrepancies in how dates are written (day-month-year versus month-day-year in the US) admissions officers suggested providing a drop-down menu with the months spelled out for date of birth entries.

Selecting if you are “seeking financial aid” can also be ambiguous for students who are not aware of the correct terminology surrounding what it is.

“Financial aid to someone may mean you’re going to pay my full bill, not just a partial scholarship,” one delegate said, while another added that some countries “don’t have a concept of financial aid or they may actually not want to say that they do need financial aid”.

“Financial aid to someone may mean you’re going to pay my full bill, not just a partial scholarship”

The addition of an ‘uncertain’ checkbox to the application form could help students avoid selecting the wrong option.

Further terminology pitfalls include use of the term “counsellor”, commonly used in the US as a person providing information and guidance on higher education decisions, can have different definitions in different countries.

Entering payment details into the Common Application can also alienate students, as without a fee waiver, students can only select paying via a Mastercard or a Visa.

The Common Application was created in 1975 with the aim of reducing the number of separate applications to different US colleges. It is managed by the staff of a not-for-profit membership association and governed by a 13-member volunteer board of directors drawn from the ranks of college admission deans and secondary school college guidance counsellors.

Despite having over 500 member schools using the system from 47 states and 11 countries outside of the US, many international students’ applications will vary from one institution to another if they apply to other universities.

“When you go from applying from one school to ten, I think the difficulty increases exponentially for students,” said Beck at the session.

The list of proposed solutions will be put to the OACAC board to represent what members feel are useful changes to the application processes.

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