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Studying Neuroscience at Sewanee, Seif Selim

Hometown: Cairo, Egypt

Undergraduate: Rising sophomore at Sewanee: the University of the South

Major: Neuroscience

Minors: Psychology and film studies

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a rising sophomore, a prospective neuroscience major at Sewanee, and an international student from Egypt. I am interested in new experiences, cultures, and people. I have a weak spot for mint chocolate chip ice-cream. I like running in the morning, dancing, and kayaking in addition to being a life-long cinephile.

Reflecting back on your experience, what do you think are the main advantages of studying in the U.S.?

I think liberal arts colleges are one of the main advantages of higher education in the U.S. You get to study different fields before committing to a specific one. Even if you are already decided on what you are going to study, a liberal arts education can provide you with a rich background in many areas that usually prove to be useful later in professional life. And it is also the most flexible way to study things that don’t seem necessarily closely related to each other like neuroscience and film studies for example. In addition, I think the relatively diverse student body in many U.S. schools is an awesome experience!

Let’s go back in time a little. When did you first consider applying to universities abroad?

Since I was in middle school I guess I had some thoughts about studying in a different country. I just liked the idea of not only studying abroad but also experiencing life in other countries and interacting with people from different cultures. I think it allows an individual to reflect back on their experiences and be able to see a bigger picture. I got to travel a lot inside of Egypt and I have seen a lot of amazing places but I wanted to explore things beyond the Mediterranean (or maybe the Atlantic in this case!) I also thought that studying in the U.S. can improve many of my skills that will be important later whether in work or in graduate school such as the hands-on experience in laboratory work and research.

When did you first start preparing for the application process? How did you prepare for the application process?

I think it wasn’t till the end of grade 10 that I have really started to plan and have some steps in mind. My high school had a lot of graduates studying abroad whether in Europe, the U.S., or other places. I learned a great deal about studying abroad from them and for that, I am super grateful for being in such a community. I think the best start is to do some general background research before narrowing it down to know what kind of college would better suit you. Is it a liberal arts college or a research institution? Are you more into a rural setting or more of a big city or urban kind of person? Knowing such things about your preferences is extremely important! I started trying different kinds of standardized tests to figure out which is the best fit for me and my skills. Conformity bias can influence your opinion while ordering food but believe it or not it can also influence your decision when you are trying to choose a standardized test to take. I know a couple of people who have let the majority influence their choices and learned this lesson the hard way so I always think it is better to try out different kinds of tests before committing to register for one.

How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?

Another important element that factors into the decision-making process is financial aid and funding. After assessing your own financial status, you should have some sort of a record or a spreadsheet to categorize schools that you consider according to their financial aid ability, percentage of aid coverage and whether they are need-based or merit-based. That is how I did it! I find this to be so important in order to exclude schools that may not seem suitable for your financial ability. It is equally important to know where to find such information about aid and scholarships that may be offered by the university itself or other foundations. If you don’t know or couldn’t find what you are looking for, you can simply email whoever can help (like an admission officer!)

Seeking other sources of funding can be useful. I would say considering them early on even before you know what kind of offer you will get is the right thing to do. This helped me even after I was admitted.You simply may not have the time when you have been awarded partial financial aid and racing with a deadline to confirm and accept the offer. You might need an additional source of funding to cover other elements of the total cost of attendance other than tuition fees.

Is there anything that you wish someone had told you to consider when applying to universities abroad?

I think I may have appreciated more advice about how to best utilize my early decision shot. When you are applying ED, I think it is a common misconception that you have higher chances of getting admitted. The admission rates are higher simply because more highly qualified students apply. However, this should be no discouragement, it should be a reason to be more motivated to do your very best working on your ED application. I just think that I should have been more realistic and calculating when I applied ED.

Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?

I was lucky enough to be in an amazing high school (A shout out to STEM Egypt High School!) that helped me a lot through the application process. Also, I received huge support and mentorship from Amideast-Egypt, Education-USA, and the Competitive College Club - Cairo. At least one of these services and resources might be available in your area. Seek it out! I am incredibly grateful for the assistance as I was finding my way to college and I encourage everyone to find help and people to share this journey with. It will make it easier and much more exciting!

What do you think students often get “wrong” about the US application process?

I think some people miss the point of holistic admission. Yes, test scores are important and maybe even superior to other aspects but it is not the only one! You may have a spike in athleticism but not academics, or huge achievements in science fairs but not on the extracurricular level. That’s fine! We are different from each other and so should be our applications. Students should focus on identifying their points of strength and weakness and plan accordingly. This would save a lot of time and energy.

What tips do you have about how to write a compelling recommendation letter?

Choose your recommenders carefully! Make sure that they know you well and not just everyone’s favorite teachers who write letters for all students. Make your application truly yours and expressive of your identity. A nice tip can be to provide the recommender with a list of your activities and relevant achievements so they can have a better idea of what to write. If possible, a list of major points to consider may be useful for a recommender when they write a letter on your behalf. This can help them to remember things about you or to focus on certain things more than others. For example, if a teacher includes certain personal characteristics while another teacher focuses on other traits of yours, this can eventually create a complementary image of you.

While a personal essay is your voice, a recommendation is the way to communicate how others see you.

How can a candidate assess whether they are a “strong” candidate?

Connecting with current students at your college of interest is a good way for self-assessment. They can help you identify what a school is looking for in an applicant and where do you stand in the applicant pool. Because you should always try to stand out, I think another way to assess your application is by seeking advice from high school counselors or advising centers as well as peers who are interested in studying abroad. Their opinions can be so valuable because they usually view things from a different angle. One final tip for self-assessment is looking at college reviews websites such as college confidential. While I don’t highly recommend that you count on these reviews, they remain a source of information about what to expect.

What advice do you have for writing a strong personal statement?

Start early! The earlier you start the more time you have to develop several ideas and choose. This also gives you more time to consult more people and make changes whether subtle or dramatic. Dramatic changes in your college essays or personal statement, even in the last moments, are not necessarily bad. They should just be justified and based on something solid ( and consultation here can be even more useful.) What is true the most about personal statements is that they should be sincere, truly self-expressive, and not a product of projecting a false image or one that simply doesn’t exist. Pick up something meaningful that encapsulates a value or a personal belief and do your best to express it in the most creative way possible!

What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?

Start the process early. Plan wisely and be realistic. Surround yourself with people motivated by the same goal. Don’t shy away from facts and statistics. Don’t be discouraged to seek help. I think that through the college application process I got to know many amazing people and so should you! Enjoy the journey, maybe that is the way to reach the destination!

Any other pieces of advice?

I think I can go on for days talking about this experience as it was truly transformative for me and full of self-exploration but I think that should do it for now. I hope this was helpful. Thank you!

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