My 16-year-old son, Sam, recently came home from school and said he needed my assistance choosing his courses for next year. I was intrigued, given that most of my advice is unsolicited and met with resistance, and also because he wanted to talk before he even made his giant bowl of ramen or cereal for his after school snack. It seems that the counselor spoke to his class about the college admissions process and course registration for next year and Sam had fallen victim to some of the fear mongering. He began asking me if he should take certain classes (that he had no interest in) because they would look good on his applications. Since he will be completing the European college admissions process, his path will be different.
If Sam were applying to schools in the US, these would be valid concerns. I recently read “Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College” by Andrew Ferguson, which chronicles his family’s experiences as his son applies to college. Let me tell you, this is an enjoyable and readable book, particularly if you know that you are not going to have to jump through these hoops. Instead of stressing out about the upcoming process, I was able to read it feeling grateful that we would bypass these struggles. He learned that the typical college admissions counselor spends an average of just five minutes reading each application. With so many highly qualified applicants, admissions counselors often have to look for reasons not to admit an applicant, whether it’s that the applicant doesn’t have enough AP classes, their class ranking is not high enough, their SATs/ACTs are mediocre, there aren’t enough extracurricular activities (with leadership roles preferably), or their summers aren’t filled with sufficient enrichment. But wait! Too many extracurriculars may indicate that the applicant lacks focus. Also, the applicant shouldn’t focus on just one type of extracurricular or it might look he doesn’t have a diversity of interest. The list of reasons not to admit an applicant goes on and on…I can’t even imagine how I would cope if we had to navigate that system. I was able to confidently reassure Sam that his experience would be very different. You see, European college admissions decisions are based on the amount of space in the program, whether or not the applicant has the requirements needed to succeed in the program, and whether or not the program and applicant are a “good fit”. Some programs at very reputable and highly ranked schools are non-selective. These programs don’t have an enrollment cap so, if you meet the objective admissions requirements (be that GPA, a set number of AP test scores, etc.), you’re in. Is this the “holistic” approach taken by US schools? No, but it’s certainly less subjective and more transparent. Not only is the holistic approach highly subjective, but it also has led to the highly competitive admissions process. This competition is not just at the Ivies and their counterparts. Even schools that many haven’t heard of, like College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Jarvis Christian College in Texas and Rust College in Mississippi accept less than 16%! It is virtually impossible to excel in every category colleges are looking at so students (or their parents) almost always feel inadequate and vulnerable to rejection. Here’s the advice I have given Sam about how to prepare for European college admissions process:
There are a few countries that require American students to have either an IB diploma of a certain number of AP scores of 3+. Sam knew that he was interested in one of these countries last year, so he is spreading out the 4 AP courses he will need through his sophomore, junior, and senior year and will not take more than two in a single year. He’s not interested in Germany, which has requirements that pertain to GPA, SAT scores, and courses were taken, so we aren’t focusing too much on the SATs. One of the programs Sam likes has a math requirement which can be met through an AP or a SAT/ACT score. Math is not Sam’s strongest subject, so he would rather not take an AP math. We will see how he does on the ACT and then if it’s not high enough, we will determine whether he is close enough to raise the math score through some self-study (or a tutor) or not.
After assessing whether an applicant meets the admissions requirements (which are the indicator of whether or not there are the needed skills/knowledge to succeed in the program) the other thing schools in Europe look at is whether or not the student is a good fit for the program and the program is a good fit for the student. Fit is usually evaluated through a motivation letter. Sam is interested in international relations and area studies, particularly pertaining to the Middle East. Arabic was only offered for one year at his high school, which he took, and then has continued with self-study. After the counselor visit, he was concerned about Arabic only showing on his transcript for one year. I assured him that this is something he could address in his motivation letter. If you are applying to a program that is a good fit, not only in terms of subject matter but also in terms of city and country, you will be able to speak to it in your motivation letter. Choosing to apply to schools in Europe is not the status quo, so you likely have reasons behind it. Talk about that in the motivation letter. Talk about why that particular city or country interests you whether it’s the history of the area, different outdoor activities it offers that are aligned with your past interests and activities, your own heritage, etc. Relating these interests to your future goals will be of much greater interest to these programs than an endless list of clubs you were involved in.
And let me mention for a minute how much I prefer this to the essay requirement in the US. Ferguson talked about the US college essay questions that force emotional catharsis on the applicants with intrusive questions. His son, like most 17-18-year-old boys I know, struggled greatly with this. Further, how does being in touch with one’s emotional side and willingly expressing innermost thoughts to strangers relate to future success in college?
I know many kids who take the calculus route because they think it looks better to colleges. Most schools in Europe aren’t looking at your course selection, except those courses that pertain to their admissions requirements. They don’t care if you took earth science over chemistry (unless it’s a requirement of their program). Certainly, there are fields of study for which calculus would be more valuable. For students studying business or social sciences, I highly recommend taking statistics. It is often a required course for the first year and is less of a struggle with a little background.
I recently spoke with a father whose son is particularly interested in a school that requires 4 AP scores. The father noted that since they don’t know if he will have the required scores needed for European college admissions until late in his senior year, they will also be applying to American schools as backup. He wasn’t happy about this due to the cost and admissions process here. I assured him that there were other programs at schools without the AP requirements that would also be a good fit and encouraged him to explore some of the options. As a matter of a fact, most of the programs in Europe don’t have the AP requirements. With over 1,700 English conducted options throughout continental Europe, there really is something for everyone’s interests, strengths, and qualifications.
Sam is not planning on applying to any schools in the US. Of course, now that we know about these affordable high-quality options it would be hard to justify the expense of US schools. Just as important, though, Sam is super excited about going to Europe and the benefits it will provide not only from an academic perspective but also for the travel and life experience opportunities. Of course, the immediate benefit is that he does not have to jump through the ever moving admissions hoops in the US. Opting out allows him to pursue his interests in and out of the classroom and still have a tremendous number of excellent academic options at the end of the road. And it allows all of us to relax.