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Congratulations to Sanzhar on his successful acceptance to the University of Toronto. He has been selected to receive the University of Toronto International Scholar Award - Faculty of Arts and Science as an incoming international student. He shared with us his success story.
I chose my universities based on three factors, location, realism and fit. In terms of location, I only really wanted to go to Canada, the US or the UK, thus narrowing my list to those regions. With realism, I made sure the universities I chose were appropriate in terms of my predicted grades. For fit (the most important factor in my opinion), I made sure to do extensive research on all the universities on my shortlist to make sure they suited my personality. This did lead to me cutting out a number of universities from my list, but it was ultimately the right thing to do.
With my exams, it was just a simple case of revising the content to make sure I was up to speed in terms of memorization and ability to apply concepts (e.g., making sure I knew my definitions for economics and making sure I knew how to apply the necessary formulas in my physics exams). Afterwards, I just made sure to do as many past papers as I could for each subject.
With the essays (I presume you mean the college essays), I used samples essays, online guides and researched my universities to great depth to write the best possible responses for my applications. Making sure I knew as much as possible about the universities was probably the most important part as it helped me identify what I could write about in my essays that would make sure the universities knew I was a great fit (plus it gave me more motivation to write the responses knowing how much of a match we were).
I received lots of help from all of them. My teachers all provided me with references for my UCAS application and two of them provided me with more in-depth letters of recommendation for my American universities. This made sure my applications were even stronger than before and made me that much more confident. I am incredibly grateful to all my teachers, especially Mr Griffiths and Mr James, for writing these recommendations!
The university counsellor, Mrs Lopera, provided me with immense support and guidance. For example, she was there every step of the way with my Canadian and US applications, making sure I put in the right information. She also checked every single one of my essays (and I wrote a lot of essays). I do not know where I would be without Mrs Lopera, I seriously cannot thank her enough!
The head of the Sixth form, Mrs Fraser, was a lot of help when it came to my UCAS application. Mrs Fraser stepping in at such a crucial time was incredibly important as her support (submitting the necessary documents and editing my personal statement, for example) made sure I, and for many of my other peers, submitted the best possible application to my UK universities before the deadline. I only have kind things to say about Mrs Fraser and her support during those last 18 days where I started worrying and panicking. She is an amazing human being!
Most likely, I will be studying economics (if I go to the UK or Canada). However, if I go to the US, this may change as in the US, they let you experiment with different subjects, but I will likely stick with economics.
Create a shortlist and then start researching, researching and researching. This includes everything about the universities on your shortlist, your passion(s) (stuff about your intended course would be a good idea), and yourself (what is unique about you, what do you like, what makes you a strong candidate, etc.). This will provide an incredibly strong foundation for your essays, increasing the probability that they end up as strong as possible.
Your grades, extra-curricular and achievements cannot really be changed much by the time you start your application process in Year 13, which is why I am stressing the importance of these essays as you have total control over them. Plus, doing this research saves you a lot of time writing your responses (time is worth more than gold when you're in Year 13).