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The Doha Family Guide to University Applications

by Lisa Gay

Expats are spoiled for choice when it comes to secondary school options in Qatar. But, with all that flexibility, it might be concerning for students and their parents that they will not have the proper qualifications to study at the university of their choice. So, Doha Family has put together this guide on applying to universities in some of the most popular destinations across the globe.

Qatar

Qatar University is the leading public university in the country and is listed among the top 500 universities in the world, according to Times Higher Education (THE). The medium of instruction is either Arabic or English, depending on the department. Generally, humanities programmes are in Arabic, with more science-focused departments in English.

The student body is incredibly diverse, with representation from 52 nationalities. It’s also very female-friendly, with women comprising roughly 70 percent of students. As you might expect with such a diverse student body, Qatar University considers several high school curricula. These include the local Qatari Secondary School Certificate, the American GPA system, IGSCEs, the IB (International Baccalaureate), and even the Saudi National Exam.

Another route to consider is the Qatar Foundation (QF) network. QF maintains partnerships with a handful of prestigious Western universities, along with one homegrown university, Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU). One undersold advantage of attending a private university through the QF network is that by gaining admission to one school, you can subsequently take courses from another university via joint courses or minors. It’s actually a huge advantage to be able to mix coursework from these well-regarded universities (which, in the US, would be thousands of miles apart instead of a few blocks) to boost academic credentials.

As the majority of the schools are American in origin, they have a few common elements:

  • Essays: personal essays are a typical application requirement. They’re an opportunity for potential students to highlight a unique aspect of their character or emphasise their reasons for choosing a specific university.
  • SAT/ACTS: strictly speaking, these tests are not entrance exams. However, they are usually required for entrance into any American-affiliated university. This requirement has temporarily been dropped because of Covid-19, but don’t be surprised if it pops back up.
  • TOEFL/IELTS: non-native English speakers will generally be required to take one of these exams to prove their proficiency in the language.
  • Recommendation letters: admissions committees will typically request one or two letters of recommendation from teachers or guidance counsellors.
  • Interviews: a less common requirement, some specialised or competitive programmes (particularly for early intakes) will request interviews.

Kuwait

Kuwait’s universities are a popular choice for GCC residents. Top-rated universities include Kuwait University, Gulf University for Science and Technology, American University of Kuwait, and the American University of the Middle East. They all have their own set of admission standards and generally do not require applicants to sit a standardised exam.

India

The English-speaking environment of Indian universities is a great plus for children of expats, especially if they are considering studying engineering or another hard science. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are particularly well-regarded in these fields, both domestically and overseas. They have nearly two dozen branches scattered across the subcontinent.

If a student intends to apply to multiple universities, then the Direct Admission of Students Abroad (DASA) will save some effort. This government-sponsored programme is only available to foreign nationals and children of Indians abroad. The scheme is limited to those intending to study a technical subject like engineering or architecture (see a full list of participating institutes at dasanit.org). One-third of the intakes for the DASA programme are reserved for the children of Indian workers in the Gulf, who also enjoy a 50 percent discount on the application fee and the first year’s tuition.

The downside is that the DASA scheme only allows entrance into NITs (National Institutes of Technology) but not the more prestigious IITs. Also, while DASA formerly used SAT 2 scores to assess students, it seems that in future rounds, applicants will be required to sit the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) Advanced—a national Indian entrance exam.

If a student is hoping to study at an IIT, then they can apply directly to the schools of their choice. Admittance to the undergraduate programme for the IITs is based upon the JEE Advanced. Both domestic and international students must take this exam to be considered for admission. However, some institutions may accept SAT 2 scores from foreign nationals. Please note that overseas Indian students who still retain their national passport will be considered under the same set of standards as domestic students. The same goes for holders of the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card. Only those holding foreign passports will be treated as international students.

United Kingdom

The school system in the United Kingdom encourages early specialisation. So, parents with children who are keen on attending British universities should consider enrolling them in international schools that understand or support the British curriculum. That said, the IB is increasingly recognised and valued by UK admissions committees.

Undergraduate programme applications are generally handled through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Unlike in the American system, you apply for a specific

programme within the university rather than the institution itself. This has some implications for secondary school students. For example, when choosing subjects for the IB Diploma, students should research potential university courses first to ensure they don’t miss out on required coursework. This is especially the case for competitive programmes in medicine and law.

Students can apply for up to five university courses. Keep in mind that it’s not easy to change majors once courses start, so this step in the application process is extremely important. Other required materials include a personal statement, which should highlight the student’s passion for the applied courses, and a reference letter from a teacher or another relevant person. Some of the more competitive programmes may also require an interview.

UCAS does an admirable job preparing university admissions teams with relevant information on international school systems and foreign qualifications. Still, a slightly annoying aspect is that you’ll likely have to provide documentation directly to the university to prove the qualifications listed on your initial application. The same goes for TOEFL/IELTS results. Fortunately, UCAS can send IB results.

The universities will then respond to students, usually in the spring, with unconditional or conditional offers, the latter of which is usually dependent on submitting exam scores. That said, universities will still be filling places into the summer, so late applicants can still be considered on a rolling basis.

United States

We’ve explored aspects of the American system in the first section, so we’ll just cover a few additional points. The first is that American university admissions committees have come a long way in recognising international qualifications—particularly those of the IB programme. Instead of worrying about the “right” curriculum, it’s better to focus on earning high scores on the SATs. Most American college-bound students will sit these exams multiple times in hopes of getting a good score. However, some will hire tutors who can teach them certain strategies to improve their scores. American universities also like to consider the “whole” student and are particularly keen to see applicants involved in both extracurricular and volunteer activities.

It’s a very good idea to check if your or your child’s school offers Advanced Placement (AP) programmes. Not only do these look great on a college application, but they can also earn college credit. This is no small thing when one year of college can cost upwards of USD 40,000/year (around QR 120,000).

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