Going to North America

When applying to North America there are a number of short essays to write. The recommended policy, I am told by Americans, is to write as you would speak, to communicate who you are and what you are like, by using the essay title to show some limited aspect of your life in a way which recommends you as a student at their university.

American applications are not centralised as the UK applications are. You may make as many applications as suits you, and those applying only in the States may do a dozen. This means that the failure rate is high (if you only need two offers, a 16% success would apply to 12 applications, so you might expect a quarter to be dismissed in the first sort-through of applications). Since we in China will make fewer applications, we need to find ways of making our applications stand out, we need to say how few applications we will make and here it is appropriate to say how special the university is, because you are applying to one at a time.

The essay is the primary focus of the application. You need to write in your own style, which means you need to have done enough writing to have a style. Better, to be able to write in different styles.

An application may well give you opportunity to explore or demonstrate these skills.

Questions providing opportunity to write might include: (this is a list to be extended as I gain experience and as students share with me).

We encourage students to share tables at mealtimes with people not on the same courses and to discuss matters of general interest. So what do you bring to our table?

Describe a situation that happened to you and included extreme embarrassment.

Describe a person who has had an extreme influence on your life, explaining how this influence affects you.

What is the best thing you have done? What is the worst? (This is a classic UK interview question).

Describe a dangerous situation that happened to you and what you learned from it.

Describe a situation where..... amazing then, the number of young Americans who apparently went for some sort of hike (tramp, ramble, walk on the wild side) and had a bad time (or thought they did), claiming to have discovered leadership, their inner selves, an unknown determination etc etc. Of course they did; going in the hills is, for most, a trip into the unfamiliar territory required for extreme learning to take place. Add in a dose of tiredness (relatively easy in the modern child, especially in groups, where the weakest will soon be found out) and you have a recipe for some sort of adventure.

This is why the same situation is used on so many of the longer management courses, or those courses where hard-working staff go to work on team-building exercises.

I don’t decry these in any way; I think they’re brilliant experiences. I’m qualified to take you on (much) more challenging walks. I am just a little disappointed at how very little excitement is required to be declared too much for some, how little physical exercise is declared way over the top and how terrifyingly little confidence modern people have. It doesn’t help that so many in the hills retreat into their own personal space c/o the MP3 player and thus reduce the whole experience to something that they are, in a sense, at one remove. These are the very same people who collapse at the onset of a little weather (it intrudes, you see). I also lament the groups in the hills with a shade more experience or get-up-and-go who travel further and faster, but haven’t discovered just how very very loud they are. A bit like so many Americans abroad, I’m afraid: too loud in all circumstances.

The principle applied by the Americans—in using the essay—runs along the lines that they know that their intake (of Americans, be they Canadian or in the States) is, by comparison to the British or Chinese, under-educated—about a year behind. They are much more developed socially, they are sexually aware (and probably experienced); they have spent far far more time working on this side of their lives than most Brits and any Chinese, both of whom, by comparison, work very hard. This means that as possible inclusions on any programme, you are adding something to the mix that is different, and therefore, by American standards, in demand.

However, in turn this means that you are at a disadvantage in your writing skills and in your ease with language—this may well prove your biggest problem. Few of our students have any difficulty at the academic level of intake, unless and until they want to go faster.

It would be wrong to assume that all Americans are under-educated; not so. Just because they have lots of time in their education system doesn’t mean that absolutely everyone does nothing with that time. Many have put that time to good use: maybe making money; picking up new skills; developing skills to a high level; having hobbies, not just a social life. All of these things put the average Chinese student at a disadvantage—what will you do with the ten hours per day (before the sleeping part) with no lessons, lectures or classes in it?

This is why we push so hard on getting you to put your hand up in class, to ask questions, to enquire and to take charge of your own learning. It is not because your foreign staff are basically lazy (most of us work as hard as you do. Every week, all year); it is because we want you to be able to survive in this atmosphere at university. You are ill-equipped unless and until you grasp this idea—and apply it yourself in class.

So, go practise writing those essays. Look on the net for examples of that standard of writing. Do not copy any of them; do try out some different styles of writing and use your English lessons to experiment with different sorts of writing. Take the opportunities for public speaking, for debate and argument, for applying research at the spur of the moment. It is stimulating, risky and exciting. You don’t have to go up a hill—fun though that is—for the same level of risk !!

DJS 20081005.

© David Scoins 2017