How should NCEA students prepare/fight for a place in US/UK universities?

Like what are the steps we need to take to successfully gain admission to US/UK University

Being an NCEA student doesn’t place you very differently from being a student of any other curriculum. Admissions officers for the region understand NCEA and if you’re successful, they know you’re a bright, hard working student.

Like any other curriculum, you will want to stand out, impress the admissions team and differentiate yourself. The ways to do this in NCEA are:

  1. Take Level 3 subjects as a Year 12 student
  2. Take more Level 3 subjects than normal
  3. Excel in scholarship exams
  4. Pursue other forms of academic rigor

No two cases are alike and there are no guarantees nor benchmarks to meet. I took Level 3 Accounting, Chemistry, Calculus and Physics as a Year 12 (with straight excellence credits and got scholarships in the former two). As a Year 13 I took Level 3 Economics and Agricultural and Horticultural Science and Scholarship exams in the six subjects I took at Level 3. I missed out on the Premier Scholar award (2 Outstanding and 3 Regular). Those results helped me into Harvard and Stanford and awarded the Robertson, but I sense that most other admits (Jamie Beaton, Soumil Singh and a lot of students from Auckland - a more challenging and well-developed academic region that offer curriculum other than NCEA) pursue a more rigorous academic pathway in order to make their case to admissions officers.

Obviously Harvard and Stanford and the Robertson are a bit hit-and-miss - it takes some luck to get in and to some extent it’s about who you happen to be and what they happen to be looking for. I think the important thing to remember is that admissions teams understand NCEA and they will know if you have pushed the envelope, challenged yourself (the four steps above) and have shown the potential to achieve great things at their university.

Hey Duncan, Which school did you attend and were you an NCEA student? DId you do any APs/CIE/IB exams? 2O and 3S is amazing! Congrats on that :slight_smile:

Hi @anonymous68

I studied NCEA at Lindisfarne College in Hawke’s Bay. I actually did AS Mathematics in Year 11 but aside from that didn’t studying anything but NCEA.


That gives me hope! You did so well in your NCEAs - super impressive.

Do you have any idea what made you stand out as an applicant? On top of being an amazing athlete and dux - what a combo! What were you main ECs and awards?

Harvard and Stanford are like the ivy of the ivies so that’s a stellar achievement.

I come from a rural background, my father is an apple orchardist and I went to a boarding school in Hawke’s Bay for high school. Prior to applying, I had never met anyone that had studied at a university in the U.S. I think these two facts gave me a big point of difference when compared to many students that live in cities that are strong feeders to top universities abroad.

Aside from that, I had a well-rounded lifestyle throughout school. This included playing a lot of soccer, tennis and squash for my school and region, playing instruments in my younger years, getting a public speaking diploma and the Duke of Edinburgh awards. I also started a couple of small retail businesses while I was at school and I think this showed ingenuity and an entrepreneurial nature.

I didn’t have aspiration or intention to study overseas until very late in in Year 13 so my main focuses throughout school were on NCEA scholarships and pursuing success in the thing I was interested in. This helped me develop a very personal style and I was fortunate that who I was and who I presented myself as to the universities matched what they were looking for.

I believe that it’s important that people apply to and attend the universities that are a best fit them them - taking into consideration location, academic interests, career goals and university culture. It’s interesting that I was waitlisted to Yale and Princeton and these are schools that I think weren’t as good of a fit as schools that I was accepted to. This to say that developing your personal interests, exploring new things and expressing yourself accurately in your application will result in you attending a university at which you will excel and be very happy. I couldn’t be happier with my time at Duke and I am looking forward to my next two years here!


Thanks for answering my questions, and congrats on your success. If you only thought about applying late Y13, did you have pressure for the SATs? I’m currently in Y13, and having pressure for SATs because I don’t have many chances…

Also with NCEA, which SAT subject tests did you do? And would you happen to know what’s best for a ncea student - physics or chemistry?

Did you end up getting accepted to Yale and Princeton?


No, I wasn’t admitted to either schools!

I sat my SAT Reasoning just once, in January (after the application deadline). This was my only (and the last) opportunity to do so and while I don’t suggest leaving it this late, it is possible to take them in January.

I sat SAT Subjects in Chemistry, Physics and Math II in December. These all aligned fairly well with NCEA. I can’t say for sure which I think matched the NCEA curriculum best! But the best thing to do is get your hands on a practice test and see what you already know.

I self-studied in the weeks leading up to the exams and found that by structuring my study and being a perfectionist when it came to the answers (given that it’s multiplied choice) that it wasn’t a stressful experience.

Their loss! Duke is absolutely amazing!

Oh wow! Yes I’m planning to sit the Maths II and either the Physics/Chemistry since I need 2 subject tests, but I might prepare for all three! Which one did you excel in? Planning to self study too, going to get some prep books - any recommendations?

And any tips for the Robertson scholarship? Apart from stellar academic and sport achievements, what else do you think made yourself stand out?

Thanks Duncan!

If you’ve got time then I would study for all three. If you’re doing well at Level 3, then you’re most of the way there for each of the subjects, so you might as well show that. If you only do submit two scores, then you can pick your best two.

I used the Barron’s SAT II Prep books. I think these are of slightly greater difficulty than alternative prep books, so they should help you prepare well.

As for the Robertson - the scholarship has a focus on leadership, service and personal development. Ask yourself if those things are evident in your life and whether you want to develop those skills. If the answer is yes, then this scholarship could be a good fit for you.