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US universities for international students

  1. Dec 18, 2006 #1
    I’m currently enrolled in high-school in Denmark, a little Scandinavian country. Lately I have seriously considered going to the US to get a university degree, however I’m wondering what is required. My ultimate dream would be to go to MIT or a similar top university. Of course I know this will be very hard, and no matter what, I can’t be sure to get in. I would like to try though, and then if I’m not getting in any top universities, then I’ll hopefully be able to get into other universities. I still need 2.5 years of high-school, so I’ll have plenty of time to improve in whatever ways are required (I hope to improve significantly in English, I know I probably didn’t even get punctuation partially correct in this post).

    I was wondering what exactly is needed, if they are to consider you. Obviously I’d need a very good score on the SAT tests, higher than the average MIT student, because I’m international. I doubt this will be such a big problem, considering I have plenty of free time which I can devote to studying. At the same time many guides for the SAT is available, so if I really didn’t feel 100% prepared I could read some of those. So even though I might not get 2400 I hope to get close.

    I have done some reading and it seems two other things are going to make a big difference, the personal statement and extracurricular activities. As for the personal statements, are there any good personal statements publically available? That would give me a good idea of what to include. If not, then what would be the best way to prepare for that? Just improvise, or try to get hold of one through other means?

    The extracurricular activities are probably the ones I’ll have the most trouble with. This seems to be a big deal in the US, but here they aren’t considered important. So what qualifies for extracurricular activities? Extracurricular activities are completely separated from school here, so I hope other stuff still qualifies. There are two things besides mathematics and physics which I truly enjoy, electronics (maybe a subset of physics, I’m not sure) and programming. Would these qualify as extracurricular activities even though I’m not enrolled in an official club? Would I need other extracurricular activities to be considered attractive to universities?

    We don’t have honors, AP courses or similar “elite classes” here. Would that significantly lower my chances? I have physics and mathematics at the highest level possible, but honestly that isn’t all that spectacular here. How about grades? We use an entirely different system here (it resembles the ECTS), so I’m afraid I would have disadvantages if it will be converted to a US scale. Will my grades here even matter or will they only consider the SAT? I expect to get perfect (~6 % get perfect in a subject according to our ministry of education) in all scientific subjects (mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology) and English, but will other subjects be considered? There are other subjects which I don’t think I’ll get perfect in (I’m sure of one of them), but will these matter? As for the SAT, from what I have seen of sample questions I should be able to score quite well.

    Sorry for the long post (hope it isn't considered spam). I'm just making sure I didn’t miss anything. So anyone have any recommendations or comments? Or maybe someone want to share their personal story.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 18, 2006 #2
    check out mit's website fo more information on international applicants.

    As for your extra-curriculars, in the US this includes everything you do outside of school except for partying.

    Also here's a list of some very high level schools in physics/mathematics in the US

    Harvey mudd
    Harvard aka haarvaad

    there ar also a bunch of other state schools which are very good, but keep in mind that these schools usually choose the best from the best, and so it can be very difficult to get in even if you are a top student. UCLA and UCSB are a couple that are easier to get into.

    but hey if you want to come to the US thats awesome, I envy you for choosing to go to a different country, just don't turn on the news while your here and you'll be happy.
  4. Dec 18, 2006 #3
    Thanks for the reply, it's appreciated.

    I have checked their website (http://www.mitadmissions.org/), but I wasn't able to find answers to these questions. I was able to find numbers which told the admission rate compared to the SAT score, but I didn't really feel it answered how they chose their students.

    So how many and what kind of extra-curricular activities are "required" if you want a chance? I'm afraid they might want to see some sports activities or stuff like that, but I wouldn't enjoy it, if I signed if for such activities.

    I'm aware they don't just let anyone in, and I'm not in any way expecting to get in. However I felt that if I tried to prepare for these universities then I'd definitely be prepared for some less respected universities.

    Now I'll definitely have to turn on the news, just to see what is so awful.

    Also thanks for the list, I knew about most of them, but it's still nice to get it confirmed.
  5. Dec 18, 2006 #4


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    Don't sign up for sports or anything else that you don't enjoy--you must follow your heart. The elite schools here look to see if you (at least U.S. applicants) are passionate about something, show initiative, and get results.

    1. You mention electronics and programming. Examples of outstanding passion and achievement here might be: entering science fair and winning prizes or placing. Starting a club and serving as president. Tutoring school children. Starting a business. Volunteering in a university or industry lab. These may seem extreme, and are not needed for the next tier of universities, but you are talking about the very top institutions in the country!
    2. Many US students make the mistake of spreading themselves too thin--they are on the school choir and newspaper and chess club, volunteer at their church, play on a sports team, and so on. Obviously they can't spend much time at any one of these. Admissions offices advise that they'd rather see an applicant passionate and successful in one or two extracurriculars than spread superficially over many.
  6. Dec 18, 2006 #5


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    Yesterday I read in Physics Today magazine an article that mentioned the number of colleges and universities in the US that offer a bachelor's degree in physics. I don't have it handy so I can't quote the exact number, but I think it's over 700! Many of them can provide a very good education in physics, even if they're not at the level of Caltech, Berkeley, MIT, etc.

    In the Midwest alone, most of the large state universities have good physics programs: Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa... In the South there's Georgia Tech, Tennessee (Knoxville, near Oak Ridge National Laboratory), Texas, Florida State, Virginia... Even the smaller state universities can be good. I once worked on an experiment at Fermilab whose leading group of participants was from Northern Illinois University.

    And then there are the non-state (private) colleges and universities. They're usually more expensive than the state schools, but if you look, you can probably find some that offer generous financial aid for some international students, to increase the diversity of their student body.
  7. Dec 18, 2006 #6


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    As for personal statements, a) the most important thing is to let your own voice shine through the words. I think you will do well here because your posts are well written and we can get a sense of you just in a few paragraphs. You can ask your parents, counselors or teachers to read your essay and see if they hear you coming through! b) It is no place to be bashful about your accomplishments, it's your chance to sell yourself. c) Being a little creative or offbeat in your essay is okay if it helps give an impression of who you are (the admissions officers read hundreds or thousands of essays, so standing out is good if you are also well qualified).

    Last year many high school seniors posted their essays online. I don't know where, I'm not part of the young Internet generation, but try Facebook or other sites. Value may be limited since you won't know who successfully got into which school, and what their scores/grades were...
  8. Dec 18, 2006 #7
    Michigan State is a great university and is big into international students.

    If you have decent grades you should be able to get in.
  9. Dec 18, 2006 #8
    Thanks for the reply.

    I had actually considered starting a major programming project (this decision was independent of my educational goals, so pure passion), but I'm wondering what kind of thing they would prefer the most. I had some ideas for type systems with dependent typing, and would really like to implement these in a practical programming language. My problem however is that in case I do this, then the language won't have time to get known and therefore it might be seen as a little insignificant project. I won't have time to develop a standard library either, but will a project like this still be seen as a good activity or should I try something more practical.

    I'll also have to see what options I have when it comes to science fairs, tutoring, etc.

    SticksandStones: Thanks for the suggestion, I will try taking a look at their website.
  10. Dec 18, 2006 #9
    I know, and I would definitely also apply to some other colleges, there is no way I can be certain to get accepted into MIT. However I'd like to aim high, and then settle for middle if I don't get in.

    marcusl: Also thanks for the stuff about personal statements, it sure gave me a better idea of how a personal statement should look. You have been a great help.
  11. Dec 18, 2006 #10


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    See if you can tie your project in with something going on now. Is there a university in your town? Maybe there is a research group working on something similar, or if not, something else that you could get excited about. If you are a good programmer and are willing to work for free, you have a chance of doing something for them. It has multiple benefits: it shows initiative, gets you name recognition (that is, your work is part of Professor X's CS research), looks good on a college app, might get you on a publication (well that's a long shot), gives you visibility into research going on in nearby labs that also might be interesting, and might lead to a paid internship or job next summer or the next (another long shot but not as far out).

    Then to round out your extra-curriculars, pick something non-technical. Volunteering regularly is great, as a tutor or feeding the homeless. Get involved in local politics (ie., town council). See earlier list, too. Whatever it is, cultivate one or two technical and one or two non-technical activities, put in time and effort over the coming two years, and see where they lead. You'll know it's right if it feels rewarding, fun, or both.

    Best of luck to you!
  12. Dec 19, 2006 #11
    It would be nice, but I don't really think this is possible. All the CS research is done by experienced computer scientists who already have their PhD. I have no way to compete against that. Programming is a minor part of all the research areas and the little programming there is can easily be caried out by the scientists. Also I doubt these people would even consider a high-school student.
  13. Dec 19, 2006 #12
    you'd be surprised, alot of labs hire highschool students because their cheap :p
  14. Dec 19, 2006 #13


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    That's ok, pursue your programming on your own. Just don't overlook the chance for valuable experience, even if it's just data tabulation or something mundane at first.
  15. Dec 19, 2006 #14
    also one thing thats very different between most europian countries and the US is shear size, so while in a country like the UK for instance there may only be 3 top notch physics programs, in a country like the US there are dozens of top notch programs.

    EDIT: about the news, do you follow international politics at all? if you look at the US relation to it, you will get a taste of why its not a good idea to turn on the news.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2006
  16. Dec 19, 2006 #15
  17. Dec 19, 2006 #16
    Thanks for the advice everyone. You have all been very helpful.

    CPL.Luke, well we have two universities in my area (less than 20 miles away, other universities are like 200 miles away), but wouldn't they mention it anywhere if they offered positions for high-school students? I have never heard of this happening here, it might be common in the US, but I doubt it is here. Well I guess it won't hurt to check.

    physicist (I won't try to do the smiley): Thanks for the link. They were different than what I thought successful essays would look like. I would expect them to be a little more formal, but I'll try to search for some other essays to compare them. I also see they have a "What to say" page which might prove helpful, even though it's quite short and superficial.

    One thing I considered was participating in the IMO (well trying), it's quite a bit easier to get in here compared to the US because our best high-school mathematicians score significantly lower than countries like the US (the US scored almost five times as much last time). At the same time it would prove an interesting challenge, and it would show that I do have a passion for math, even do I don't take AP courses, honours or other courses like that. Now I just have to get my math teacher to sign me up for the preliminary local contests (hope he'll let me), and of course to practice.
  18. Dec 19, 2006 #17
    yeah one thing to consider though is that US students are probably not better on average (quite possibly worse), but because the US is 60 times larger than denmark, there are roughly 60 times more math people (probably less I think fewer people like math in the US than other countries) and so the likelyhood of having some very good math competitors goes up.

    So like I said don't worry about getting into places like MIT (although certainly try your hardest) there are several dozen other places that have just as good of a program but are less selective.
  19. Dec 19, 2006 #18
    gunch: Speaking of research at a local university, if you can't get any at first you could always try to get ahold of a professor that is nearing retirement. They tend to have nothing really at risk of losing, and they tend not to want to take graduate students as researchers because they don't want to hold them back from working with someone else. It is common in my area, at least, to see a couple high schoolers working with one of them.

    Just another suggestion (sorry in advanced if it doesn't work out).
  20. Dec 19, 2006 #19
    Hi this is a really interesting thread for me bnecause i am in much of a similar situation.. I am an Australian possibly trying to get into top U.S universities aswell.

    I have a great passion for math and physics and am thinking about getting a Ph.D in physics... I am currently about to start my final year of high school and am undertaking: math methods, English, Chemistry, Physics and specialist maths (this includes topics like vector calculus, integration, complex numbers etc.)

    I, like Gunch, dont really have any extra-curricular activities but i do compete in math and science competitions when the chance occurs through my school. Would it be too late now to join/volunteer for extra-curricular as it may seem quite obvious that i am doing it only to look good on papaer...?

    I am curious about these personal statements, what are they and how important are they towards being accepted to a university?

    Thanks guys.

  21. Dec 19, 2006 #20
    Sorry, i forgot to mention, i dont know any programming as such but would there be any other type of work to do, that is not uncommon for high school students, to assist in the research projects of a local uiversity?

    Thanks again in advance
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