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Advance praise for The International Family Guide to US University Admissions

“The US university or ‘college’ application process is a period that affects not only the applicant, but the whole family as well as the high school. The process is complex with thousands of universities to choose from, each asking for different requirements—it is lengthy and often very stressful.

As Vice-Chairman of the Board of the largest IB School system in Turkey, I have witnessed this process every year and students, parents and school leaders try to find the best guide during this process. Even though our college counselors know the process very well and try to help our students, it is imperative that the whole process is understood by everyone. As an international educator, administrator, and someone with extensive valuable international experience, Jennifer Ann Aquino truly becomes our Northern Light and our guide during this wearing process.

In her book, The International Family Guide to US University Admissions, Jennifer sets the tone and the path for all of the stakeholders. Her background and easy-to-follow instructions help each stakeholder understand the extensive and complex information regarding the whole process. The perfectly prepared timeline prepares everyone involved in the process to what each will face during the process: advice for parents helps them feel knowledgeable and prepared and the worksheets enable the students to prepare for what is expected of them in the application. The last, but in my opinion the most important part of this book, is the numerous case studies—real stories that we can learn from.

Having graduated thousands of students and closely experienced the US university application process with them, I strongly recommend this book to every parent, student, college counselor and school. This is an invaluable gem that everyone should read and every library should get ahold of.”

—Cenk Eyüboğlu, Vice-Chairman of the Board, Eyüboğlu Educational Institutions,
İstanbul, Turkey; graduate of Harvard University Graduate School of Education,
Tufts University and Bentley University

“Our three boys went through the American university application system and I still find it daunting. Is it because we are foreigners? What are SAT's and ACT's? How do they differ and how do I prepare my kids for them? Do all universities ask for these standardized tests? Why do some universities ask for extra essays? What is Liberal Arts? What does it mean to apply as ‘undeclared’? What documents do I have to provide to the universities? Where do I get all the paperwork for the visas done? Deadlines? The university of what? Where is that? Will my child ‘fit in’ being a foreigner? And most of all, what will our kids gain by attending an American university that other academic institutions around the world can't offer?

Jennifer answered all these questions while implementing the only approach that works, following the timeline. She got to know my boys and empowered them to find the right fit and she does the same for all the users of this book—parents and students alike. It is a must-have for any parent and student going through this process.”

—Brigitte Roulet, parent

“I've had the good fortune of watching Jennifer Aquino work with students and families in person. I have observed, as she has enabled families to gain clarity, unpacking the necessary steps required to be successful in the increasingly complex process of university admissions. Within these pages, Jennifer has once again taken the complex and made it seem easy. The student advice and parent advice, case studies and words of wisdom contained in these pages, I know, will greatly assist students and families to shape their university admissions goals and understand what steps they need to take to achieve them. Quite simply, as an executive leader in schools for over 22 years, I've seen none better than Jennifer when it comes to university guidance and no text as comprehensive or beneficial as this.”

—Glen Radojkovich, Founding Head of School, Branksome Hall Asia, South Korea;
former Head of Secondary School, Canadian International School, Singapore;
Head of School/CEO GEMS Dubai; former National Chairman, Cambridge
University International Examinations (NZ) and IB Heads Association (Korea)

“In a landscape abound in myth and short on truth, Jennifer Aquino's book offers a step-by-step, comprehensive guide for international families as they begin the US university admissions process. It is no secret that college admissions should be about ‘fit.’ Rather than families manipulating their children's dossiers in the hope that select, name-brand universities will see the fit, Jennifer rightly challenges young people to first know themselves, embrace their interests, and then put their best selves forward in selecting from the dozens and dozens of excellent universities that would indeed be a good fit.

International students are uniquely poised to thrive in the university setting. In fact, they often carry the in tangibles that US universities seeking a diverse student body crave: perspective. This book gives access to students, offering a clear path to an informed application and selection decision-making. I will use this book with my own children.”

—Dr Paul Richards, Superintendent, American School of Dubai;
former Superintendent, International Schools Group, Saudi Arabia

“Throughout my career, I have felt enormous empathy for applicants and their families who just had no idea how competitive college admission is in the US. They simply did not have the experience to understand the importance of the ‘fit’ between the student and the school, and that a student who is self-aware and confident can help to make the case for admission.

Finally, Jennifer offers international families a guide that explains US college admissions and gives clear guidance through each step of the process. She identifies key milestones and provides clever worksheets and a writing handbook that will help the user to create a highly personalized and strong application for the student's best-fit universities. The case studies and strategic parent advice and student advice make this book a must for any US-bound student!”

—Ellen M. Sullivan, former Admissions Officer, Harvard College;
Executive Director of International Advancement, Boston College

“I have been helping students with their university planning and applications for more than 20 years, as a high school counselor in international high schools and as an independent university advisor. During each of those 20+ years, I have looked for a comprehensive, intelligent, and ethical guide to help families understand this process and how to approach it, and that I could feel comfortable recommending. This book is all of that. I will use it myself, and will ask each of the families I work with to purchase one for our work together.”

—Mark Gathercole, Education Advisor and Consultant, Independent University Advising;
Certified Educational Professional (CEP); former Director of University Guidance
at international schools in Norway, the Czech Republic, and Indonesia;

“Choosing the right university to attend is arguably one of life's greatest decisions. Jennifer Ann Aquino's book is an insider's guide, helping international students and their families find the right institution by navigating the complex and often overwhelming admissions process. As an internationally recognized expert in US university admissions, Jennifer shares critical information, insights, tips, tools and case studies that make the application process easier.

As a former international student myself, who applied to and graduated from a university in the US, and given my role as Dean of International Education, I understand well the value this book provides to international students. It is an important resource and reference for anyone interested in attending a college or university in the US.”

—Warren Jaferian, Dean, International Education, Endicott College

The International Family Guide to US University Admissions

Jennifer Ann Aquino

Wiley Logo

To Mom and Dad, the most committed lifelong educators I know.

To my students, for teaching me and inspiring me.

To David, mi mellizo.


If you grow up in the US, you are constantly surrounded by and influenced by “college” culture. Colleges are represented everywhere in American culture—the university that is located in everyone's home town, references made in the media, the sweatshirts Americans wear to sports events on the weekends, flags of alma maters displayed outside houses to support college sports teams. Yet for the hundreds of thousands of international applicants, they have experienced none of this. For as complex as the admissions process is to someone brought up in the US, this becomes one of the most complicated events at this stage of an international applicant's life.

However, there is no shortage of information out there. Often this information treats the international family and applicant as a less-than-sophisticated consumer, using platitudes, fear or outright incorrect information (“You must ‘ace’ the SAT to get into any good university!”) to “guide” the very unique cohort of which you are a part. It is hard to find a trusted resource to guide you honestly and effectively through the process based on how the process actually works.

Daily experiences and encounters, both with my own private clients and also with friends and acquaintances living for years in Europe, Asia and Pacific regions, rather quickly convinced me that there was a critical need for this guide. Admissions in the US are based on fit: this means that the student/applicant must know who they are in order to determine which universities they will apply to. And it also means that the family of the applicant must also understand—and support—this. No one can bury their heads in the sand in this process (“My child is made for the Ivy League!”) and it is too late to understand the day decisions are made by universities. Being enlightened, educated, and informed as an international family is critical to the applicant finding success in his or her applications and in the rest of his or her life.

When my first international homeschooled student, Matthew—you'll see his Case Study in Chapter 11—was rejected by all the Ivy League schools, it was the reaction by him and his family to these rejections that made me realize the need to educate the international family on US university admissions. Even as prepared as they were for the rejections, I realized society places an absurd amount of praise and worthiness on just two handfuls of universities. It bothered me greatly and I wondered how I might be able to help international families and students better understand how this process works, while trying to make sense of it in the greater whole. (Matthew is thriving and excelling right now, as you'll soon see.)

At every fair or event I attend I get asked the same questions. During a single event I attended in Southeast Asia, I had about 200 families come by and ask me questions, the most common one being: “What's the best college in the US for my son/daughter?” This is the absolute opposite way to approach it; you first need to start with the student. The question should be, “What's the right university for me and how do I best present myself in the application?”

As you'll see from the experiences and people that gave me the impetus to write this book, this is a process that has to be taken on actively by both the parents/guardian and the applicant. It is meant to be read and used by both. In the best of circumstances, each party has their own copy—there are things both parties need to do, sometimes together, sometimes separately. The idea here is that it is a process to go through together but also that each person has their own role.

How to use this book

Read this book linearly. There is no jumping around—not in the book and not in the process. This is critical to understand if you're going to go through this process properly. It is critical for the applicant and the family to follow a very detailed timeline from start to finish, which maps onto the US application timeline. Each chapter consists of active Milestones for the student and parents, each one building on the next, to be accomplished in order.

There are 12 chapters with each chapter beginning with an overview of the period it covers in the timeline. This gives you an idea of what to expect and why you're doing what you have to do.

The Milestones are those critical pieces in each chapter that you are expected to accomplish before moving on to the next chapter. Throughout the book Milestones will sometimes be accompanied by a Worksheet, indicated by this icon.

A great deal of work needs to be done in order to get the answer to the question, “What's the right university for me and how do I best present myself in the application?” Many students who attend university in the US will change their minds about what they want to study once at university. The system is set up to encourage exploration and the undecided applicant!

Worksheets are included at the end of each chapter unless otherwise indicated (in the case where a Worksheet will be utilized by more than one chapter). All are properly positioned and easy to find. It is expected you will complete all Worksheets throughout the process.

Some Milestones will have this icon located next to it. While I expect all Milestones will take you some time to accomplish, those with this icon will require an amount of time to accomplish, ranging from several hours to several days. These are not Milestones that can be accomplished quickly.

As you get further into the process and you begin to write, you will be referred to the Writing Handbook, located at the end of the book. The Milestones associated with the Writing Handbook will have this icon. It will guide you through all of your writing requirements and options. I'm a stickler for writing as it will be one of the most important parts of your US application. Your essays will be given enormous weight and importance by the Admissions committee and will be your opportunity to show Admissions who you really are. . .and how you really fit into the institution. This will be the basis for your eventual acceptance.

Other features you'll see throughout the book include:

  1. Resources: When a college guidebook or standardized test prep book is needed, I will tell you by name which I recommend based on my students' experiences and my own.
  2. Student Advice! and Parent Advice! Found throughout the book and from my students and their parents. I think this advice will be extremely helpful to you.
  3. Case Studies: In each of Chapters 2–12 I give you a case study of one of my dear students. This gives you an idea of the myriad types of applicants out there and just how arbitrary the selection process can be (results are found in the Conclusion) and focuses on the person, which is ultimately how this process works. Are you a fit for where you're applying? That's the key.
  4. Important! These will be interspersed throughout and relevant to the Milestone at hand.
  5. Words of Wisdom: Usually an incident related to the topic or Milestone at hand that is a first-hand account and will help you gain perspective and further understanding of the process and Milestone you are working on.

In this book, I will also use the words “college” and “school” and “university” interchangeably. “High school”, “secondary school” and “junior college” may also be used interchangeably. I will at times reference the Northern Hemisphere calendar vs. the Southern Hemisphere calendar as I know users will be from both. At the end of the day, the timeline will stay the same for all users, however. While I will initially explain the application options, I may then use terms such as “EA” (Early Action) or “RD” (Regular Decision) thereafter. Of course, there is also “ED” (Early Decision) 1 and 2 and “SCEA” (Single Choice Early Action) and “REA” (Restricted Early Action). Don't worry! I will cover all of these at the appropriate time.

If you trust and follow the advice given in this book, it will help you become a more enlightened, educated, thoughtful and therefore successful applicant through the US university admissions process.

Thank you for using this book and I look forward to hearing about your journey through the process!


This happens to be the last page I write after finishing this book. For me it's the most difficult. One page to acknowledge all those who supported me, helped me, encouraged me, and inspired me to write this book? If only I could convince my editor to add another 20 pages... I have so many people to acknowledge and thank, and for so much.

Jeremy Chia at Wiley Singapore, my patient and adroit editor, helped me immensely to make this book read more fluidly and clearly. Thank you for your calmness and experience to make this book become what it has. Thank you, Syd Ganaden, for listening to my ideas for design and for offering your own. I am indebted to Thomas Hyrkiel, Publisher, for recognizing the potential this book had from the beginning and for signing me with such a world-renowned publisher. Thank you, Ben Hall, Marketing Manager at Wiley, for your support and ideas to get this book into the hands of users around the globe. It would have been impossible to have this book published by such a reputable and recognizable publishing house without the belief in my initial proposal, and subsequent work to get this book published globally by my hard-working, connected and outstandingly effective agents: Jay Vasudevan, Helen Mangham and Andrea Pasion-Flores, at Jacaranda Press.

Without my parents—truly the greatest (and smartest) educators I know on this planet—I would never have written this book. Mom and Dad, thank you for teaching me how to teach, to value the profession and vocation of teaching, and for never ceasing to teach me. You are the epitome of educators and I wish every student could have had the opportunity to be taught by you.

My students and my families! You've made me love my work and without you this book would not be able to show just how unpredictable, crazy, fun, and individual this process is, helping so many other families along the way. I would like to thank specifically those who contributed to this book and whose quotes and Case Studies you'll be reading about shortly: Veena McCoole, Mani Gupta, Pakhi Gupta, Caroline Liew, Matthew Liew, Adit Sharma, Shefali Agarwal, Mei Masuyama, Jacquie Weber, Sterling Gunn, Maya Schoucair, Michelle Layanto, Serene Layanto, Sacha Aymond, Asli Sagnak, Susanne Grimm, Asya Sagnak, Lori Gunn, Ariane Roulet Magides, Claire DePlanck, Zurah DePlanck, and Raj Raiyani. Thank you for inspiring me and for teaching me so much.

How I would love to name all of my incredible friends who have supported me throughout the writing of this book! I do believe without a doubt that I have the most amazing friends in the world and I love you dearly and thank you so much for always supporting me. Thank you to my colleagues at IECA who have taught me so much about this profession.

Finally, how could I have written this book, physically and mentally, without the unwavering support, humor, and dedication to me, my interests and my goals in life without you, Mellizo mío? You make life an incredible experience every day for me.

About the Author

Jennifer Ann Aquino was born into a family of educators and started her own career after university teaching AP Biology as a dorm parent at a US boarding school, The Gunnery, in Connecticut. She moved on to educational publishing as an editor for secondary and university-level foreign language and science textbooks before working in management roles as an administrator in universities in the US and Europe.

Living in Singapore, Jennifer launched her own private educational consultancy, guiding secondary students and their families through the next stage of the student's life. Having followed her own interests and passions at university—majoring in Biology and Spanish Literature as a pre-medical student—she strives to show and encourage her students and readers to follow their own true interests, desires, and passions, guiding them to their best-fit university by putting forth a winning application that highlights their genuine and unique interests.

Jennifer double-majored in Biology and Spanish Literature with a Pre-Medical concentration from Boston College (US) and earned a Master of Arts degree in Spanish Literature from Middlebury College (US). She was accepted by and enrolled in Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Romance Languages and Literature.

Jennifer has worked as Director of Education Abroad (Bentley University, USA); Managing Director, International MBA Program (IE Business School, Spain); Director of International Advancement (Bentley University, USA); and Lead Recruiter, Undergraduate Admissions, Asia & India (Bentley University, USA). She has visited over 100 university campuses in a professional context and is a Professional Member of IECA and Member of International ACAC.

Her website is


“Where do I even start?!”

“What are the best engineering schools in the US?”

“We're very interested in Harvard.”

“Will SAT scores matter most?”

“If I arrange my son's interviews with the universities will that be OK? He's got so much work on his plate.”

“I will only pay for my daughter's education in the US if she goes to a university that is prestigious.”

“Should my son pick up something less ‘typical’ as a hobby to make him stand out?”

I come from a family of educators: my mom, dad, aunt, uncle, cousins, and even my nieces! We are all educators. I started as a teacher—like my parents—and moved into educational publishing and then into various director roles in universities in the US and Europe. I've also worked and lived on four continents, and all whilst working in the field of international education. I believe I do have something to share.

Working exclusively with international families to guide them through the admissions process, my passion lies in imparting the truth in education and building the individual confidence of my students and families—and this comes from experience and knowledge. All too often, families come to me asking for black-and-white answers. What they do not know is that within this process are the answers to the questions they don't know yet, and will not know until they go through it correctly. There's no online-matchmaker equivalent to US university admissions. Why? Because there is no logarithm that allows applicants to find their fit and present themselves uniquely based on their educated understanding of why they are a fit for their chosen universities. Instead, this process requires every applicant to reach inside themselves and figure out what they need, want, or dream of, will be amazing at doing, and thus what they will succeed in, and then matching all of that to the specific universities that will offer that to them.

Most families come to me with a list of names of universities before we even begin. Early “researching” is great and I commend the student who's already begun. But this happens all too often, creating the situation we have now in society, where elitism in higher education causes students to learn in a one- or two-dimensional environment instead of a multi-dimensional melting pot of education.

The Rules of Enlightenment

In this process, nothing is general: everything works on a case-by-case basis. You thought it would be easy? Consider this process as part of your last two years of high school curriculum. This process should challenge what you think you know about universities and where you want to attend, should challenge you to think about who you are and what you really want, and should challenge you to be bold and brave enough to take a risk at applying to and attending the university that is, deep down, truly the right fit for you—not for your mom, not for your friend, and certainly not for your pride. This is the first opportunity for you to begin to understand yourself, your needs, dreams, strengths, passions and true interests, and to pursue them by finding those universities that will support, challenge and be true to you as an individual.

So, I ask of you—family and student—to commit. Commit to taking months to dedicate to this process. Commit to being true to who you are. Commit to not succumbing to the draw of Ivy League schools, like the H-word.1 Commit to understanding that when you find a fit, you are on the road to finding happiness and success in what you do throughout life. Commit to that freedom of choice. Commit to the awesome opportunity that you have before you.

If you want to do this correctly—and you should, it's a process that takes months of dedication and an open mind—follow these rules as you go through the process. As a rule of thumb, you should commit by reading through this together as a family and initialing each of the following points:

Some of my students choose to apply to and are admitted to attend the Ivy League schools. They have found happiness and success—just like every one of my other students. However, my point is that their being accepted was like finding a needle in a haystack. If,

as you go through this process, you realize that Yale is a fit for you, or Princeton is truly everything you want in a college—and you truly “fit”—go for it! I am the first to say follow your dreams. I am also the first to say one needs to be realistic, and by not attending one of these institutions you are no less, or setting yourself up for any less success. It's an absurdity to think otherwise.

Ready to begin? Let's start with how so that you can get a timeline in place and start to see progress and understanding in this process from day one.