Planning to apply to University and College

October 12, 2023 | Blog, Education

Planning to apply to a university close to home or overseas? Hyll College Consulting is a family business that can help. Hyll’s co-founders, Adam and Celeste, met while pursuing their PhDs and teaching Italian and Spanish, respectively, at Harvard University. They have many years of experience mentoring students: Adam as Dean of Adams House (no relation!), one of Harvard’s largest undergraduate residential communities, and Celeste as Preceptor of Spanish Language in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. In this exclusive article for MumAbroad, Adam and Celeste highlight what you need to consider for US College applications and European University applications

Supporting students with their college and university applications


At Hyll, we get a lot of inquiries from students entering their final year of high school looking for assistance with their college and university applications. While it is much harder for us to help students so late in their application process, one tenet of our organisational mission is to help everyone we can. We always do our best to find ways to accommodate everyone’s needs, and if we can answer all of a prospective client’s questions during the course of their free consultation, we do! But this leads to the inevitable question: when should families begin planning for their university applications?


For families beginning to contemplate this question we’ve assembled a few widely applicable—that is, relevant to students from different educational systems applying to universities in the US, the UK, and Europe—things to take into consideration. Please note we have made an effort to divide this information by country of application so that you can safely skip portions that do not apply to your situation.


Planning to apply to University and College

Essays and Personal Statements


The writing students are required to produce in support of their university applications is one of the most difficult tasks they will ever face. Almost no matter where you apply to university, you will be required to produce writing that addresses who you are, what you want to study, and why. This task, though it can seem quotidian, is anything but. Remember that personal statements must help you stand out in a pool of hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of other candidates. The stakes are thus much higher and the work much more daunting than anything a student has ever faced before, and we therefore recommend at least a few months of brainstorming, drafting, and revising.

      • Students applying in the UK and most European universities will be required to produce a personal statement or letter of motivation that addresses questions such as their academic interests, how they became interested in them, and why they want to study at the university to which they are applying. While these are somewhat more formulaic than their US counterparts, they still need to highlight the candidate’s strengths, personal qualities, and goals in ways that stand out in the crowd. Doing this really well requires students to edit and revise over the course of a few months. It’s also important that the student describe long-term activities that have helped them support their academic goals. More on these activities below.
      • Students applying to universities in the United States face a much more substantial challenge than those in other countries. The personal statement in the US is anything but formulaic (see these examples from John Hopkins University). Indeed, it must be a work of highly stimulating creative nonfiction that is lyrical, heartwarming, entertaining, profound, or some combination of the above. It’s the kind of thing that most seventeen-year-olds have never done. Add to this the many equally challenging supplemental essays that US universities require, and you will understand why we recommend that students begin working at least eight months before the deadline on the essays alone.

College or University Course Requirements


No matter where students apply to university, they will find there are certain course requirements that they are expected to meet.

  • Students in the IBDP or A-levels planning on applying in the Netherlands, which offers dozens of high-quality English-language degree programs, may be surprised to learn that Dutch universities will consider coursework completed prior to the final two years of university (that is, MYP and IGCSEs). Dutch universities can also be rather picky about which A-levels and IB courses they are willing to accept, so it is important to take this into consideration when choosing courses in the months before a student begins their IBDP or A-levels. The same goes for students in a US curriculum. This, in turn, puts students in the perhaps uncomfortable position of needing to examine potential careers and interests earlier than they are ready, but this work can pay off. Even if they do not identify specific careers, they may be able to rule out careers that help them zero in on course choices supportive of a multitude of options.
  • Similarly, students from a US curriculum applying in the UK, the Netherlands, and some other European countries, will need AP exam scores, and that means high school sophomores and juniors need to choose their AP courses according to universities’ requirements, needing between three and four AP exam scores before they begin their final year of high school.
  • Students from all educational systems applying to US institutions should know that everything they do during the four years prior to their university studies—courses and extracurricular activities—will be considered during the application process, so we advise students and their families to begin planning three or four years prior to application (that is, four or five years before starting university studies!).



Extracurricular Activities


No matter where you apply, how you spend your time outside of your classes matters! We recommend to all of our students to journal about these experiences, because they will later become great sources of inspiration for application essays.

  • For students applying to US universities, extracurricular activities are indispensable, and those completed throughout high school will constitute a critical part of each candidate’s evaluation and thus the extent to which they are competitive. Because such activities, when pursued with the dedication that universities want to see, are carried out over the course of years, choosing them early and with university admission in mind is essential. This is why we love working with students from their first year of high school (or according to the equivalent MYP/IGCSE timeline). Of course, a student’s innate passions and abilities should be the first priority in such decisions, but keeping their university and professional careers in mind is in everyone’s best interest.
  • Students applying to UK and European universities should also consider how they spend their time outside of their studies because they give students strong material about which to write in their personal statements. Indeed, universities expect to hear about them. Ideally, these activities will take place over the course of years, allowing students to demonstrate a consistent, long-term engagement in the subjects about which they are most passionate.


Early Application Deadlines


  • Students may also wish to consider the benefits of applying early to university. While the final deadlines for most programs worldwide are in the first half of the year in which students will begin their university studies, many universities offer early deadlines that help increase students’ chances of admission. We recommend that families deciding when to begin their application preparations count backwards from the earlier deadlines. In fact, we guide our students to apply to as many of these deadlines as possible.
  • In the US, that means Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, and Early Decision deadlines, the majority of which fall each year on November 1st (though there are exceptions).
    At some schools, students’ chances of admission when applying Early Decision are double their chances when applying later, making it crucial to prepare every part of the application meticulously, including a compelling scholarship letter of accommodation if financial assistance is needed.
  • Many Dutch universities have similar priority deadlines occurring before the new year.
  • Although UK universities (with some important exceptions, below) share a single deadline in late January, many will respond to applicants within weeks of application—which can alleviate a lot of stress! Students applying to Oxford, Cambridge, or medicine programs must take note, however, that their deadlines fall each year in mid-October (that is, nearly a year before their program would begin).




Finally, consider the question of college readiness. For students who have no idea what they want to study nor what they might one day wish to do professionally, it’s valuable to begin exploring their aptitudes and interests early so that they are prepared to make some of the decisions above when the time comes. Most teenagers won’t soul search unless directed to do so and guided through the process, and yet it is an exceptionally enriching (and necessary) activity on the road to self-realisation.

Students unprepared to make such difficult decisions by their final year of high school have options, of course: they can take a gap year in which they engage in substantive work or volunteer experience that gives them time to ponder these questions and can even make them more competitive applicants. They can also consider applying in the US, where students can spend their first year exploring their interests, since they are not required to choose their major field of study until their second year of university and can, with relative ease, change their mind later. Indeed, these are among the great advantages of studying in the US.

So when is the right time to begin preparing for university applications? The answer is pretty simple: the earlier the better. (That is, within reason of course: we recently read of an expecting father who, upon learning his wife was pregnant, was already making inquiries to secure a spot with a college consultant. Believe it or not, it wasn’t the first time we’ve heard stories like that!)

The bottom line is that we recommend families begin planning for university studies and application during the equivalent of the US ninth grade (that is, Year 10 in the British system or the fourth year of MYP). This is particularly important for students applying in the US, where their activities both in and out of the classroom will be evaluated as part of their applications for admissions. Yet it can also be important for students applying elsewhere because although these years will not be directly evaluated, they lead into the years that will. For students certain that they will only be applying to UK and European universities, it’s easy enough to begin working during the Spring or Summer before they begin the IBDP or A-levels (when they can identify potential university paths and, consequently, courses to support them), but we always prefer beginning sooner.

Do you have questions about college and university applications? We’re here to help—let us answer them for you. Contact us for a free consultation! There’s no further obligation on your part and we promise to answer any questions you might have to set you on the right path.

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