The path to university is not all about your grades, as your school’s college counsellor should advise you. Yes, universities will want to see your grades (passes as well as fails) from the start of Grade 9 (US) and Year 10 (UK) and these will all appear on your school transcript, but universities are interested in the whole student. They will want to see all the extracurricular activities you have taken part in, in the last four years of school, including community service, volunteer work, clubs you have joined, internships, work shadowing and any leadership training opportunities.
Having said that, the vast majority of universities will have minimum academic entry requirements and these vary according to the university. The good news is that regardless of which country you studied in, and whether you took A Levels, the IB, SATs, APs or some other High School Diploma, universities understand the various scoring systems and will consider you if you have the grades they want. Please read on for a list of the various entry exams to university.
Most American colleges and universities require students to take one of two standardised aptitude tests: the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) or the ACT (American College Test). SATs are geared more towards testing critical thinking and problem solving skills, while the ACT tests what you have learned in High School.
These tests are an easy way for colleges to compare all applications, and admissions officers will review your SAT or ACT scores alongside your High School GPA, recommendation letters from your teachers, your own personal statement – which should list, amongst other things, your extracurricular activities, work experience and charity work – and any other details including the classes you took in high school.
Most High School students are encouraged to take the SAT twice. The first time in May of Grade 11 (their second to last year of High School) and the second time either in August or early October of Year 12. This will give you enough time to study over the summer holidays and take the test again, before early university applications are due on October 15th of Year 13 (UK system) and Grade 12 (US system).
Students in Cayman can take the SAT at Cayman International School, even if this is not the school they are enrolled at. The test is offered in August, October, November, December, March, May and June, although you need to be registered 5 weeks before. The test is 3 hours long and includes a Maths portion and an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section. You can also take an optional essay section, which is reported separately and takes an additional 50 minutes. Each section of the SAT is scored on a 200 to 800 point scale. The highest possible score is 1600, but 1200 is considered to be a very solid score.
In 2018, a reported 2.1 million students took the SAT exam and 1.9 million students took the ACT exam. It is unclear how many students took both, but experts say it is now common practice for students to tackle both exams. The ACT exam includes four sections: English, Reading, Maths and Science and it also includes an optional 40 minute writing test. Each section of the ACT is scored on a scale from 1 – 36. Your final score is the average of your four-section scores. The maximum score you can receive is 36 and the average score is 21.
Note: You can take free full-length practice tests online for both the SAT and ACT.
In the British school system, A Levels are the 2-year Advanced Level qualifications which universities use to gauge the academic level of a potential student. Students usually take 3 to 4 subjects and are graded A*, A, B, C, D and E.
It is worth noting that in Cayman, AS Levels are still taken in Year 12, although they have been phased out in the UK. This gives Cayman students an advantage, as their AS Level results give both the school and the university a benchmark to predict how the student will do at A Level in Year 13. AS Levels also contribute towards half of the marks of a full A Level. Students then have the chance of retaking their AS Levels in January of Year 13 if they need to.
Some US and Canadian universities offer students credits for their first year if they have taken certain subjects at A Level, and these credits are applied when you get to the university. You often have a choice of whether you want to apply the credits at the beginning of the course, and skip a few semesters, or apply the credits at the end and completely blow your final result out of the water! The policy varies from university to university, so make sure to investigate what they offer.
The benefit of delaying taking the credits is that you will ace your first years’ worth of courses (some of it might seem very easy after A Levels). This will potentially put you on the Dean’s List and line you up to get a scholarship or get access to better courses. Your university counsellor will advise you on your options.
If the university does not want to give you credit for your A Level course, it is often because they don’t understand the depth of the course you took. In such cases, your Cayman school is always very willing to send the US or Canadian university the syllabus of the course you took. Once they see this they will be far more likely to understand the depth and breadth of your A Level and be willing to give you credit for it.
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Advanced Placement is a programme that allows students to take college-level courses whilst still in High School. About 40 courses are offered and these are scored 1 to 5 (5 being the highest). Students who score 3, 4 or 5, can request college credits for the class. Many colleges accept AP classes as additional points to your GPA. For highly selective schools, such as Ivy League schools, it’s common for accepted applicants to have taken between 7 and 12 AP classes throughout high school. The average student will take about 5 AP courses.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme is accepted by universities around the world and is highly regarded. It is a rigorous programme that focuses not only on academic performance, but also on students’ personal, ethical and emotional development. The programme is studied in Grades 11 and 12 and prepares students very well for the challenges of university.
The curriculum is made up of three core components a) Theory of Knowledge (TOK); b) Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) and c) the Extended Essay – plus six subject groups. Students must participate in all three core subjects and also choose one course from each of the six subject groups. The six subject groups are: language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, maths and the arts. Three or four of these are taken at Higher Level, and the rest at Standard Level.
Students sit exams for the Diploma Programme in May. They are graded from 1 to 7 (7 being the highest) for each of their six subjects. Additionally, the Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay are also graded, and together can add up to an additional 3 points. The maximum score one can therefore achieve is 45. The pass rate is 24, and anything over 34 is considered very solid. When you start researching the subject you want to study, you will see what scores at IB that university want. For example, if someone wants to read medicine at university, they need to get an IB score in the 40s. Architecture would be in the high 30s.
Because admission to US universities is decided in December or January and the IB examinations do not take place until the following May, places for IB students are often based on their predicted scores.
The advanced nature of the IB curriculum is such that some US universities will allow IB students to go directly into the second year, thus shortening their degree course significantly.
For the difference between UK, US and Canadian Universities go to Part II.
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