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3 Must-Know Admission Essay Strategies for International Students

by Komel Caruso, on Jun 23, 2016 5:00:00 AM


Michel was a strong student in his bilingual high school in Geneva. He wrote his final paper on the melting European glaciers, which he had first seen while skiing with his family. He was only 16 when he applied to US colleges, and he knew nothing about the US college process. He landed at a college that was strong in tennis (which he’d played all his life), but not academically challenging for him. He took the college’s study abroad program in Shanghai his sophomore year, and from Shanghai applied to transfer to the most selective US colleges. He wrote his essays about everyday life in China: playing dice games with homeless people at a McDonald’s near the Great Wall; teaching English to neighborhood children; hanging out with students from all around the world. In the end, he had many transfer options, including the University of Chicago, where he’s studying international development and economics and started a socially responsible investment group with his friends.

International students face an uphill climb in the US college admissions process. In addition to usual demands, like SAT or ACT scores, being an international student also means additional assessments like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System), and often different financial aid guidelines.

Gaining admission to US colleges has become even more difficult with the rising number of applicants and the often bleak admission rate for international students. In 2012, for instance, MIT had an overalladmit rate of 8.9 percent; however, the admission rate for international students was 3 percent, much lower than the domestic student admission rate of 10.8 percent.

What’s unique about US college admissions and the admission essay—and something that often confuses international students—is that US admissions officers don’t focus solely on hard numbers, such as grades and test scores. Most US colleges and universities use a “holistic” approach to assessing candidates, including not only extracurricular activities but attributes of character and integrity. With discussions around the new Coalition Application we are seeing a shift to a portfolio model of admissions, where students curate materials that demonstrate their learning throughout high school.

In applying to US colleges, students need to advocate for themselves in their essays. Personal essays are the most important factor for US college admissions after grades and test scores, most important at the most selective colleges. For international students, personal essays are the biggest opportunity in the admissions process to demonstrate your character and show that you understand and are a good fit for US colleges.

“U.S. admissions officers want to get a full picture of an applicant inside and outside of the classroom,” says Dr. Katherine Cohen, Founder of IvyWise, in her advice to international applicants on Noodle. Cohen goes on to say that:

“When it comes to the essay, use the space to reveal something about you that can’t be found anywhere else in the application—let the admissions office get to know you as a person by writing about something that reveals a slice of your life or your personality.”

The best way to show admissions officers your character is through storytelling, which brings you to life in the admissions process. When you tell a story from your unique point of view, you draw the reader not only into but also your values and morals.

Here are three strategies for international students to use storytelling in their personal essays to US colleges:  

Don’t write about your grades. Most universities in Europe and Asia focus first on grades and test scores. At US universities grades aren’t enough, and successful essays are never about achievements. So don’t write about your grades, test scores or awards. These will show up in other parts of your application. Even if there is a moment about the hard work it took to study and get the grade—this shouldn’t be in your essay. Try focusing instead on a moment of growth or change, or share a challenge you faced and how that challenge changed your beliefs, or perhaps explore what it means for you to attend a university in the US.

Build a bridge. The best essays make a connection between your past accomplishments, where you find yourself in the present and the vision you have for the future. In your essay, use a story about a specific moment and choice you made or action you took to show colleges who you will be and what they can count on you to do in the future.

Tell your story, not someone else’s. Share a story about a moment in your own life, not your parent’s or grandparent’s, or an international figure that an admissions officer might know. The essay needs to reveal things about you. Share how you made a difference in your school or your community. Your essay doesn’t need to be fancy, but it needs to be about you and something that you experienced.

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Topics:college admission