International Students: Avoid These College Admissions Errors!

Although I am in awe of the intelligence, talents, and maturity of so many students from afar who are aiming for U.S. colleges, I also see mistakes—the same ones made again and again. So, as another admission cycle begins—and, along with it, the ADMISSIONS WITHOUT BORDERS blog—I’ve compiled a list of the 5 college selection and application screw-ups that international students make most often. (What’s a “screw-up”? It’s a big mistake. If nothing else, you can learn some helpful American slang from this blog. 🙂 )

5 COMMON COLLEGE Admissions Screw-UPS:

#1.  Stats too low for dough

Need money for college in the U.S.? You may have heard that some schools do have aid for internationals. But it’s really hard to get. If you’re seeking aid from a U.S. college or university, the “average” admitted student statistics (grades, test scores, etc.) don’t apply to YOU.  Your “numbers” need to be higher than the norm …  higher, too, than those of classmates or fellow countrymen who have been admitted to those same institutions but without asking for aid. It also helps if you come from a country that doesn’t send a lot of students to the colleges that you’re pursuing. If you’re applying to one of the very few U.S. schools that is “need-blind” for international students (i.e., they don’t look at how much money you’ll require when making acceptance decisions), you still must have super-high stats because these colleges (mostly Ivy League or highly selective liberal arts colleges like Williams and Middlebury) are extremely hard to get into for everyone and are always flooded with applications from abroad. So here’s your new application mantra: Need dough? Aim low! (Dough=Money. More slang for your list.)

#2.  Unaware of WHERE

Often international students are better schooled in U.S. geography than their American counterparts are.  But when it comes to choosing colleges, foreigners sometimes forget to check a map. I knew one student, for instance, who was in love with New York City, so his college list included St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY (known for good aid to internationals) and Canisius College in Buffalo, NY—both about a 7-hour car ride from Broadway.  Many U.S. states are as big as your home nation (or bigger), so check a map (or Mapquest ) to see where your target colleges really are.

#3.  The Name Game

The majority of international students apply only to colleges that they’d heard about before beginning the application process. This list typically includes Ivy League members (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania), prestigious schools such as MIT, Stanford, and Duke, and also a list of miscellaneous others that can vary from student to student and can sometimes be tied to the institution’s athletic success and the publicity it provides (e.g., Ohio State, Penn State, U. of Florida, Syracuse.)  However, there are lots of lesser-known schools that welcome international students and have good financial aid, too. So keep an open mind and don’t rule out places like Bates College, Occidental College, Brandeis University, and many others that may be unfamiliar to but might be great fits for you. See this list for suggestions: Also check out this thread on the College Confidential discussion forum: “Would you pick a college no one seems to know about?”

#4.  The Third-Rate Degree

If your dream is to attend an American college and then remain permanently in the U.S., it probably won’t happen. So that expectation is another mistake in itself, and you need to be sure that the degree you earn as an international student will be recognized when you return to your own country. This can depend on where you live, what you plan to study in the U.S., and where you study it.  Even though I just made a plea, above, to research colleges beyond the most well known ones, this isn’t always the best advice.  Not every U.S.-earned degree “translates” into job or advanced studies opportunities in your home nation, so do your “homework” before you apply. Find out if the field you plan to pursue—and the American colleges you’re considering—will enable you to return home with the qualifications you need. This warning for aspiring medical students from the Amherst College Web site is typical of what you should consider when choosing an American school and academic concentration:

#5. Essays that DON’T work

Recently I received a college essay from a Vietnamese student applying to a prestigious American women’s college. She asked me to read it and tell her if she was on the right track. I told her she wasn’t.  She’d written about how she used to be extremely shy but finally learned to be confident in front of groups after reading her poetry aloud. The writing itself was alright, but the topic was all wrong. She’d missed a valuable opportunity to “remind” admission committees about the diversity that she would bring to their campus. The essay she sent me could have been written by almost any American teenager. So she started again from scratch, this time focusing on an important Vietnamese holiday in her native village with her grandfather. A homerun! (More American slang 🙂 )

In an upcoming ADMISSIONS WITHOUT BORDERS entry, I’ll talk more about why U.S. colleges seek international students and how, in turn, you can take full advantage of your differences when you apply to American schools. Meanwhile … please DON’T send me your essays to critique. I’m swamped already.  Instead, check out this advice from the National Associate for College Admission Counseling: And, if  the topic you have in mind for your essay is one that a typical American student might pick as well, make sure that your version includes some local flavor, too.