For most American students, the SAT takes three hours and 45 minutes out of a Saturday — painful, but not nearly as painful as the experience endured by some international students. For students living in a country where the SAT is not offered, traveling to the test requires more time and money — and that extra time is just one obstacle some foreign students face when applying to American colleges.
Try getting recommendations from teachers who do not speak or write English, transcripts from high schools that do not produce them, or SAT II preparation books from stores that do not sell them. Although the difficulties vary depending on each student’s background, international students not only have to worry about the quality of their college applications but also struggle to fulfill the applications’ most basic requirements.
Many international students acknowledge that, had they not attended a private school, they would not be at Yale today. Private school students said they received information about the American college application process from both counselors and alumni, while public school students said they were often left to research the application process on their own.
Ruth Botsio ’09, who attended the private SOS Children’s Villages school in Ghana, said she was fortunate to have had a guidance counselor who was knowledgeable about SATs and teacher recommendations. She said she saw many of her public school friends turn to officers of the understaffed United States Information Service — a part of the U.S. consulate — for college counseling, struggling to find SAT preparation books at the local public library and logging long hours at Internet cafes to do research on American colleges.
Wenjie Shen ’09, who went to a Chinese public high school, said not only did teachers at his school not have any knowledge about applying to colleges abroad, but students and families often received misinformation about the college application process. Because many Chinese students come to America for graduate school, Shen said, many families mistakenly assume that applying for graduate and undergraduate programs is the same, leading them to think that building a personal connection with professors is the key to undergraduate as well as graduate admission.
“It’s sort of just guessing. Some things that may be very easy to American students are a puzzle to us,” Shen said. “Like the school report — who are we going to look for to fill it out? American students go to a counselor. In China, the whole thing is different. We don’t have a guidance counselor.”
But Fahad Khan ’07, who grew up in Pakistan, said going to a private school does not guarantee an easier college application process. His school did not have a college counselor, and he had to ask his principal to fill out his school report.
International students also said the fact that their teachers were not used to writing recommendations added to the stress of the application process, since their teachers would often write dry, factual and testimonial-like letters.
“British applicants don’t know the extent to which British understatement in the teacher reference is going to be appreciated,” Frederick Mocatta ’10 said. “American teachers write flowery recommendations and British teachers don’t.”
Yale admissions officer Diana Cooke said the admissions committee puts teacher recommendations — along with all parts of a student’s application — in context. She said the committee understands that in some countries, recommenders are simply restrained in expressing their enthusiasm.
“In some regions of the world, recommenders put a high value on distinguishing individual merit; in others, the person writing a recommendation would see this as culturally inappropriate,” Cooke said in an e-mail.
Saned Raouf ’10, a student from Jordan, said he used examples from college application Web sites to help his teachers understand how to write good recommendations. In addition, Raouf said, he had to ask his English teacher to translate his math teacher’s recommendation since it was in Arabic.
International students also said the high cost of the college application process creates another obstacle for prospective applicants. Botsio said few Ghanaians can afford the more than $60 fee for the SAT, and that those who can often have a hard time transferring funds. Since few people have credit cards in Ghana, she said, many students have to get a check drawn from a U.S. bank.
“The means of payment are difficult — either you have a relative that lives in the States and has a U.S. bank account, or you go to a Ghanaian bank and go through a long process,” Botsio said. “If someone is not of the middle class, how likely are they to have relatives working outside of the country?”
The College Board Web site says SAT fee waivers are only available to U.S. citizens whose families meet income guidelines and to non-U.S. citizens testing within the U.S. or U.S. territories. Furthermore, the Web site says students are charged an additional $20 processing fee for taking the SAT overseas for service, shipping and security purposes.
The admissions office acknowledges that the cost of the college application process can be prohibitive to international students applying to Yale. But Cooke emphasized that standardized testing offers an important source of comparison for students’ abilities in admissions decisions.
“Fees can sometimes be a concern for lower income students in the application process, despite the fact that Yale itself now meets the full financial need for students who are accepted and decide to come,” Cooke said in an e-mail. “In my experience, though, students can generally find ways to fulfill the testing requirements. The cost causes us concern, but it is also important to be certain that an admitted student will meet with success once he or she arrives on campus.”
For students not familiar with American standardized tests, the costs and methods of test preparation can be an added challenge. Shen said in China, the cost of a 20- to 40-day SAT preparation course can cost up to 10,000 yuan, or nearly $3,000, often more than twice a lower-middle class family’s monthly income. In Pakistan, Khan said, most students use inexpensive pirated college preparation books to do their studying.
For international students who do not qualify for financial aid, the high cost of Yale’s $43,000 tuition may also discourage them from applying when they can receive a college education at a much lower price in their home country. For example, in Britain, undergraduate tuition for all public universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, is capped at 3,000 pounds a year — equal to $5,878.86. In Greece, public higher education is free for everyone.