Finding the Right Fit in a Tough Time? Keystone College Counselors on This Year’s University Admission Trends

By Communications

College and university application and admission policies have remained fluid in the months since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, causing uncertainty that is rattling for high school students and their families who set their sights on a tertiary education abroad.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) has recently reported that the number of international students in the United States dropped by 15 percent in the academic year 2020-2021 compared to the year before. For new international student enrollees to the US in that period, the decline was more pronounced at 46 percent. The number of students coming from mainland China to the US was 14.8 percent lower than the year before. The Associated Press cited the reasons for the drop being due to a slowdown in visa processing, vaccination, and travel restrictions. Keystone Academy Office of College Counseling Director Mr. Percy Jiang says this trend may offer families and students an opportunity to reflect on the reasons to get an education abroad.

Mr. Jiang and his colleagues Ms. Liu Yanni and Mr. Bill Russo join us in this article to talk more about their observations in the current application season, as well as their advice to students and families for finding a clear direction for further studies.


Interview Guests

Keystone Academy Office of College Counseling (OCC)

OCC Director: Percy Jiang

College Counselor Liu Yanni

College Counselor Bill Russo


What are the changes in the applications for 2022? And tell us more about the early decision updates this year.

Percy Jiang (PJ): I feel that the Keystone Class of 2022 has followed the same trend as previous cohorts. Close to 70 percent of this year’s class sent out their applications in the early round, either to the United States or Oxbridge (Universities of Oxford and Cambridge) in the United Kingdom. Oxbridge applications happen much earlier than other schools. And speaking of students’ majors and programs, the interest in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field is similar to last year’s. We also have students eyeing a major in the performing arts, fine arts, and creative design.

Liu Yanni (LYN): The education industry is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Most universities continue last year’s admission strategies and still do not require standardized scores from applicants. However, it will help students if they prepare for tests. University applications of current Keystone seniors have become more sensible and varied. Our data suggests that Keystone seniors have applied to universities in two to three countries and regions at most. They have already had ideas about the pandemic, which have led to more adequate responses.


Choosing between an early action and a regular application is quite tricky for students and parents. When shall a student opt for an early decision? And what strategies can you give to early applicants?

PJ: Many parents and students are unclear about early action (EA) and early decision (ED) because of the notion that they will somehow increase the chances of admission. Admission is dependent on the needs and situations of different universities. Moreover, all universities that allow EA still conduct regular applications. So, it does not matter if you miss the EA deadline. Judging from past years’ early application situation, the admission rate for EA remains very close to regular applications, regardless of the number of applicants.

Bill Russo (BR): The difficult thing with ED is that many students think it would give them an advantage because it’s a “binding” situation. That’s a wrong way of looking at it. I would advise students to go for ED if they genuinely want to go to that university and not because they think, ‘Oh, I have a 5 percent higher possibility of being admitted.’

Early action is great because it’s not binding and you do get a decision earlier. We have always told students that there’s no significant difference between EA and regular applications other than you find out the result earlier for EA. I suggest students should have some universities for EA and some for regular decision to balance it out.

PJ: Having said that, not all children and families must apply early. We often tell our seniors to “be well prepared before applying early.” And sufficient preparation includes:

  • A satisfactory academic performance. The transcripts used in application stages are different. Some students still improve their grades until the end of the first semester of Grade 12. In such cases, there is no need for them to apply early.
  • A complete understanding of your target university. Admission officers can recognize those students passionate about getting into their institutions.
  • Recommendation letters from college counselors and teachers. This means that students must actively communicate with these people, providing them with more reference materials as necessary.
  • Conscientiously prepared application documents. An essay that took the applicants time to finish is different from an essay drafted just before deadline. A well-polished essay can represent oneself, thus impressing the admission officer.


Visiting prospective schools is still not possible, thus adding yet another challenge to families. What other ways can they try to get a feel of their future school?

LYN: Students can learn more about their prospective universities by asking these two questions:

  1. How much do I know about my prospective universities? First, it is crucial to understand the university to which you are applying. You can get that information from joining online introductions, attending virtual campus tours, and joining or browsing relevant forums and websites. These methods allow you to hear different voices, not just those filtered information from university websites.
  2. Have I participated in any activities organized by my target universities? Even in the pandemic, universities still organize offline gatherings and meet-and-greet for new arrivals together with recent students and professors from China. These events give newcomers a feel of the university atmosphere and a chance to meet classmates, teachers, and even future roommates.

PJ: In addition, students can also reach out to our Parent and Alumni Relations Office to find Keystone alumni, or even talk to our faculty members and staff who have studied or have taught at universities abroad.

BR: There are many webinars and online fairs where students can interact with university representatives. But it might be difficult to ask questions during these sessions because there are so many participants. If that’s the case, I encourage students to follow up with an email. I can tell you from my experience that getting an email from a student who participated in an online session I led makes them more memorable. I made an effort to help that person with whatever questions they have. This method requires parents and students to be more proactive, which gives them a chance to receive a personalized response or help.

A great way to reach out and get unfiltered information is by checking the list of student organizations on university websites. Many of them have a Chinese student association, which can help with matters such as airport pickups or finding groups to look out for fellow Chinese.

Grade 10

  • Improve and maintain good grades
  • Prepare for Diploma Programme (DP) courses
  • Prepare to take the PSAT in the spring
  • Take a language test (TOEFL/IELTS)
  • Understand and explore your prospective major and career direction
  • Participate in extracurricular activities and community service projects
  • Attend sessions or workshops conducted by college counselors
  • Make thoughtful use of your summer holiday

Grade 11

  • Improve and maintain good grades
  • Obtain excellent language scores (TOEFL/IELTS, etc.)
  • Prepare for SAT (College Board, Khan Academy)
  • Ensure having one-on-one meetings with the college counselor
  • Build a school list
  • Draft application essays
  • Talk and provide reference materials to your application referee
  • Make thoughtful use of your summer holiday

Grade 12

  • Improve and maintain good grades
  • Continue to improve TOEFL, IELTS, and SAT scores (if necessary)
  • Complete the final draft of application documents
  • Participate in an admission interview or a third-party interview (InitialView-Preliminary Review, Vericant, etc.)


What aspects of Diploma Programme (DP) course selection should students and parents focus on? And should they also consider their prospective university majors and careers when making a DP course choice?

LYN: The selection of DP courses depends on the situation of different students. Some might have already identified their interest or career path very early, so it is easier to link their course selections to their intended majors. However, many students are still finding their ways or discovering their passions in high school. So, the DP course selection can help them assess their interests.

But tenth-grade students and parents need to be decisive, especially if they plan to study in the UK. Most universities there require students to be clear about their major—and most of these programs have specific DP courses or subject requirements. But if students are more inclined to American colleges and still thinking about their path while in the tenth grade, they don’t need to worry about their course selections from the college perspective. Most American colleges do not have many restrictions on majors. Even if a student is enrolled in a major in which they are not interested during the first year, they can switch to a more preferable major in the sophomore year.

The Office of College Counseling conducts lectures and one-on-one consultations for Grade 10 students every year. We also guide and help them, and their upper-level peers, to explore different fields of interest and find career directions.


What are the activities the Office of College Counseling and other community members do to help students and their families regarding college applications?

LYN: We send weekly updates to high school students and parents, including online seminars and mock consultations. We also conduct regular activities that include:

  • Essay writing training and counseling
  • Systematic training for application in select schools
  • Lectures to explore various university majors and career paths
  • Research learning opportunities, expansive and summer project introductions
  • Visits to universities and participation in university admission fairs (online and offline)
  • Mock interviews with admissions officers
  • Sharing of additional resources and support for specific majors and university applications
  • Meetings and chats with Keystone alumni, university professors, and industry professionals.

For students applying for STEM majors this year, we have invited experts to communicate with them. For example, we invited admission officers from American colleges and British universities to our second training camp for mock interviews. About 20 senior students participated in these sessions. For students who want to apply to Oxbridge, we have given them extra support in the application and organized individual counseling.


What tips do you give to students in finding application referees? And are there any specific strategies that they should consider early on?

LYN: First of all, there are two types of recommendation letters (from subject teachers and college counselors) and they have different functions and different angles. Those given by teachers are an objective evaluation of the student’s academic performance, ability, and potential in a subject. These also cover other observations, such as the student’s thirst for knowledge, self-motivation, resilience, leadership and cooperation skills, independence, and communication ability. If the referee knows the student in those aspects, they will come up with a strong recommendation letter. Of course, a good letter does not always come from the subject in which the student excels.  The recommendation coming from the college counselor evaluates students from a broader perspective: it goes beyond a student’s academic level and professional interests and looks at their experience and the entire growth process. It should show their personality. We have always encouraged students to take the initiative and communicate with college counselors so they can better understand and help them.

BR: Indeed, finding application referees is a significant factor. A great starting point is reaching out to a teacher who knows you well, with whom you have a good relationship. If you’re applying to a competitive institution, you want a referee who taught a course related to your major. Say your intended major is engineering, your reference should be from your physics teacher or mathematics teacher, at least. Some students balance it out and will have a reference from an English teacher and a science teacher. That’s also good. If the teacher happens to also double as a dorm parent or as an advisor, which we have plenty of that here at Keystone, that’s great because the referee knows that student in two different roles.


Some college counselors mention that a “university application starts from the moment a student enters a school.” What do you tell students to make better use of their time and school resources in preparation for college? And what is the parents’ role in this?

BR: Just as Percy mentioned earlier, getting good grades is essential. However, in my opinion, where some Chinese students make a mistake is they approach applying to university in America as if it’s a checklist. “Competition? Got that, check. Playing violin for ten years? Check. And let’s move on to that list”. It doesn’t really work that way. Many admission people have been doing it long enough to know applicants who are sincere and doing things they love to do. I tell students to begin focusing on things they are generally interested in, and then pursue them outside of school. If it connects with what you want to study as a major, great! If not, it’s still valuable because it shows that you have time management skills and other interests besides studying.

I also tell students to keep an open mind. Many students see the big three: Canada, America, and the UK. That’s fine. But there are lots of institutions in Europe and Asia whose programs in English are just as good and fulfilling.

PJ: Another important aspect aside from what Bill mentioned is psychological preparation for university applications, which can start very early. Parents need to be clear about their goals for their children’s education. Every parent hopes their children will live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. But parents should also learn to let go at the right time and allow their children to become independent.

From entering Keystone on Day 1, students are required and expected to do things independently. Parents should cooperate and allow their children to take responsibility early. Children will gradually develop good habits and have their own lives. That’s the goal, so they will be more self-reliant and more relaxed when they apply for universities. It will be easier for them to choose; they will be more proactive and not give up on every opportunity easily.

Parents cannot hold their children’s hands forever. College application is indeed a crucial point, but in the bigger picture, it is one of the many moments in one’s life. What is more important is what your child contributes to society.

LYN: Some parents think there must be a recipe for a successful college application. As the cliché goes: everyone is unique. Following the bandwagon by participating in the same activities—summer school, competitions, academic events, and whatnot—makes it tiring for the child. So, the better way is to let your child do what they like and are willing to do. University admission officers consider students who spend time and energy to develop their interests and hobbies and transform them into community activities and service projects.

That being said, parents should actively support their children as they begin exploring their interests, rather than letting them learn and do things from a practical perspective to “tick off a list,” just like Bill said. Moreover, the time we live in develops rapidly: what is popular now may not be popular in the future. Today’s professions and industries may completely disappear in the coming years. Your children's future career is very likely to be different from the major they chose. So, the freeing thought is that everything does not have to be settled entirely at this stage. Parents should focus on letting their children grow from experiences and discover their abilities and talents in the process.


Succeeding in a college application is but one step in a student’s university life; surviving and thriving in their new community is another. What are the things that students need to consider to have an enjoyable and memorable college life?

BR: Universities and colleges, regardless of size, offer so many opportunities for students to do things outside a class. They should take those opportunities because that’s how you get experience. Take advantage of these; you’re paying a lot of money, so get the most out of it. Of course, having good grades should be a given. But there’s so much more to getting into a university—whether it’s the chance to study abroad, find an internship, join a club, become more socially active in volunteering—that is so fulfilling and can lead to opportunities that you couldn’t even imagine. That’s what I would say: if you want to be happy, take part in things like that.

And surround yourself with other students who are motivated and show care. Try to be in a group that impacts and influences your performance and the things you do positively. I got my master’s degree in the UK, and I made friends with a British guy who crashed on my couch a couple of years later. I want to say that these experiences give you that chance to make these connections that can last for a lifetime. That same person I talked about got promoted and will be working closely with people in China. So when this pandemic passes, and it will, I’m sure to see him at some point in Beijing. Again, you just never know, right?

In the end, I want to say that the application process is just the beginning of great things. And who knows where you can go from there? I tell people all the time to focus on what you can control. People say, ‘If ten other kids from Keystone are also applying to the school for early decision, does that make it harder on me?’ I tell them: ‘You can’t control that. What you can control is your essay, your extracurricular activities, the teachers you pick for your letter recommendation, how well you get to know your college counselor,’ and things like that. Focus on what you can control—and there’s a lot, right?

Realize that once you’re admitted, that’s the end of a particular point in your life. But it’s also the beginning of something completely new and different that will be most exciting.