A Guide for African Students Considering Study in the USA
By Siyabulela Xusa, Harvard University 12'
We are often daunted by the thought of applying to colleges and universities in the United States. We are faced with endless paperwork, assessment tests, teacher recommendations, and so forth. College statistics reveal the ever increasing difficulty of 'getting in' to that dream college. Rest assured my friends and do not worry because the purpose of this short guide is to offer you invaluable advice that led to my successful college applications. This guide is focused on the skills and values that you need for a successful college application.
I spent the early years of life in a township in Umtata, Eastern Cape, a town with very limited opportunities. My background taught me to never take any opportunity for granted and I, like many of you, had a distant dream of applying to college in the US. However, had I not taken the steps in developing myself and broadening my knowledge, my distant dream would never have happened. In high school, I balanced my activities between sporting, cultural, and academics. I sometimes spent a few weeks during holidays doing community service. I also worked on a five year project on the development of a cheaper and safer rocket fuel that won numerous international awards. I do not expect you to follow my exact path when it comes to applying. However, I do expect you to realize that a successful college applicant needs to be a balanced, motivated, diligent and broad-minded individual. How you develop these values is entirely up to you.
Motivation, Perseverance and Independence are vital for applying to the US. You need to consistently motivate yourself as challenges will unexpectedly appear and distract you. Even your friends may doubt your ability to apply for college. This is where your motivation will be crucial. It also takes a lot of perseverance during the application process. Sometimes you feel like giving in. Persevere and you will prosper. You should also strive to show your independence. Independence is essentially taking responsibility of your application. It is not about complaining and blaming your application process on others. It is alright, if not necessary to get assistance, but the bottom line is that you have to do it at the end. This will not only be vital for your college application it will lead to a successful college career.
Critical Reading is a vital skill that you need to develop. Throughout school we were taught about the importance of reading. I cannot further stress how important it truly is. You should read to keep informed, broaden your mind, and for pleasure. The Sunday newspaper, The Economist or Mail and Guardian have excellent articles that will keep you informed and teach you to read critically. (You do not need to purchase these magazines or papers. Instead make a trip to your local EducationUSA Advising Office. They have all these magazines and newspapers on their shelves and more). Novels are another way to read for pleasure and to broaden your mind.
Computer Literacy is another important skill that you need. Ensure that you are comfortable with word processors, sending and receiving email. The better you are at this skill, the faster your application will be. I really encourage you to hone this skill, even if it means spending a few hours at the computer centre. An easier way of gaining computer literacy is to try and do more things on computer. So instead of reading a newspaper article try and find a similar one on the net. (The Johannesburg EduactionUSA Advising Center has free internet access for students and they can assist you with setting up an email address or with general research.) The important part to remember here is to have proficiency in using a computer and the internet.
Academic Strength is essential for applying for college. You should be studying for understanding. Your approach to learning should not be about memorizing formulas or facts in order to regurgitate them later. It should be about learning to understand the material in such a way that you can apply it in different situations or combine what you learn with other information when solving problems. Learning for understanding will require you to go beyond memorizing formulas or facts and will require you look at your material from multiple angles. When you use this technique you will begin to ask questions as you engage with the material and you will challenge some of the assumptions in the material as you consolidate your understanding.
Time Management: You should strive to develop a consistent and smart routine. Diligence is not about working 24-7. It is about working smart in order to maximize your learning in a given amount of time so that you may be free to pursue your other interests. Working smart is all about effectively planning and managing your time. A diary or a timetable can be a valuable tool with regards to this.
Your extracurricular is as important as your academics are in your college application. I had an academically gifted friend who did not do any extracurricular. He applied to prestigious colleges and was rejected by all of them. At first I was surprised at this but I soon realized that your application is not just about your academics achievements. Extra-curricular activities are highly regarded by US admissions officers. They provide the admissions officers with a clearer picture of your abilities and enable you to stand out from the thousands who apply. A college will always look at what you can bring to campus. So if say for instance you are a great praise singer or gumboot dancer (which I partake in), that will be a unique aspect in your application. Activities such as debating and drama, to name a few, demonstrate qualities that are not fully reflected by SATs. Sport is also important as it teaches you about team work and leadership. You should also do community service. Community service is not something that is done by affluent private school students. It is something that anyone can do. Often the smallest acts can make the biggest difference in community service. An activity like mentoring another student is a good example of this. Your extra curricular activities give you a lot of exposure and can often be the deciding factor in getting admitted.
Although applying to a US college can be a challenging task that requires you to be a motivated and persevering student, the rewards certainly make it worthwhile. Academically you should strive for consistent excellence. However, please remember that your extra curricular activities also play a highly significant role. In essence, you do these activities to gain the necessary exposure that will give your application a competitive edge. Remember to be independent and take responsibility because at the end of the day it is all up to you. I wish you all the best with your application. Go for it!