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Articles / Applying to College / International Student Anxious About Limited Course and Extracurricular Opportunities

International Student Anxious About Limited Course and Extracurricular Opportunities

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | March 30, 2016

Question: Where I live we don't have rigorous classes, AP classes or college prep courses, well we do have but only in private high schools where tuition fees are not on my acces. Here the education system is very different so I don't have access to all those amazing extracurriculars that Americans do in school. I want to know if you have any advice for me so I can meet the college desires in other ways. For example since I don't have the option to take AP History what can I do to make it seem like I learned History in other ways. I would appreciate any tips in all areas: academics, extracurriculars, community service, anything you think is relevant. Also do admission officers realize that international student don't have the same opportunities or they evaluate your application like any other. Hope that you could answer, this is making me very anxious. Thanks!

Whether a high school student lives in the US or outside of it, college admission officials are aware of what academic and extracurricular activities are available there. This is particularly true for international applicants whose schools rarely offer the range of Advanced Placement classes or extracurricular offerings that American high schools typically provide.

So college admission staff members who evaluate international candidates familiarize themselves with not only the academic offerings in the countries they cover but also with the grading systems, testing requirements, etc. So it's not necessary for you to “prove" that your prowess in history … or in any other subject … is on par with an American AP student. The college folks will only be comparing you with other applicants … current and past … from your own school or city or country. Of course, if you have a passion for a particular academic field, it can always help to demonstrate that passion by pursuing it through summer classes, your own writing or research, an after-school job, etc.

And that leads me to out-of-school pursuits. Several years ago I wrote a blog called “Admissions Without Borders," which was aimed at international student applying to US colleges. I've pasted two of those blog posts down below because they cover exactly what you've asked about.

The blogs should give you some suggestions on how to best convey your interests and accomplishments. And, hopefully, this 'Ask the Dean" reply has also provided some reassurance that you are not competing with U.S. candidates who have had different experiences and opportunities.

Here are the old Admissions Without Borders Blogs:

Too Few Extracurricular Activities? Take a Closer Look!

Recently I received a query from a prospective international student. He'd found his way to the College Confidential discussion forumand was daunted by posts he'd read from other high school juniors about their “EC"s."

“At first I did not even know this term, 'EC,'" he wrote me, “but then I realized that it means “Extracurriculars"–sports and clubs and other activities that students do outside of school. But in my school, we attend classes until nearly 5 p.m. and then we do our studies at night. Some students play on club football teams and do other sports, but it is not like it is in the U.S."

This student was concerned that his application would not be favorably compared with those of his American counterparts who were already producing three-page résumés.

I was able to reassure him that American college officials understand that in many other countries there is not the same emphasis on the non-academic endeavors that are so common here in the U.S.

On the other hand, college admission officials do want to know what truly interests their candidates outside of the classroom. When an American applicant lists participation in the Debate Society or the Spanish Club or the Choir, then admission folks will get a clearer picture of who this applicant really is. But even international students who take part in few organized activities (or none) usually spend at least sometime beyond their school and schoolwork in constructive ways. For instance, students might:

-read all the books by a favorite author or in a favorite genre

-write poetry, fiction, blogs, and songs

-teach themselves computer programming, video or film-making, or how to play an instrument

-take care of a an aging relative, an ill parent, or a young sibling

-run, hike, bike, swim



-tend pets or animals

-play chess or other games

-discuss world affairs at family or community gatherings

-work at a job

One of my favorite conversations with an international student about EC's was many years ago. A young woman who wanted to attend college in the U.S. was worried that her lack of sports, club memberships, school leadership positions and other activities would keep her out of her top-choice college even though she was an outstanding student with high SAT and TOEFL scores. “I've been totally focused on my academic undertakings," she told me. “I had been under the impression that earning top marks in my school subjects was the most reliable pathway to a university education that I neglected participation in sport and other endeavors. Now I am fearful that this will penalize me in my goals to obtain an American education." She explained her concerns so articulately that I interrupted her to ask her how long she'd been taking English in school or if she'd lived in an English-speaking country. She blushed then laughed shyly. “I did not study English in my school," she explained. “I taught it to myself."

Now it was my turn to laugh when I pointed out that she indeed had at least one excellent “EC" to include on her application.

And you, too, may be overlooking outside-the-classroom hobbies, interests, and talents that admission committees would love to know about, even if they aren't official organized activities. So as you fill out your college applications and write your college essays, make sure that you are giving yourself full credit for everything you do and that you tell the colleges, too.

How Will Admission Committees Know What You REALLY Do Outside of School?

Last spring, in “Too Few Extracurricular Activities? Take a Closer Look!, I explained that U.S. admission officials are aware that international applicants often pursue fewer outside-of-school activities than their American counterparts. But I also pointed out that international students don't always realize that their after-school, weekend, or summer pursuits are worth sharing with admission committees, even if they're not organized or official activities such as sports clubs or debate societies. I reminded readers, too, that writing poetry, fiction or blogs, caring for a sick relative or younger sibling, cooking, dancing, hiking, swimming, etc. are all interests that admission officials will want to know about.

This week, via the College Confidential “Ask the Dean" column, I heard from a young woman in Africa who is involved in several church and volunteer projects and is also working on a novel. She wanted to know how to convey this information to admission committees when she applies to U.S. colleges in a few years. I realized when I read her message that, although my earlier blog had instructed international students to report their extracurricular interests and endeavors to colleges, I never fully explained how this can be done. There are, in fact, several approaches. You can read about them here, in my “Ask the Dean" response: http://www.collegeconfidential.com/dean/how-can-international-student-convey-accomplishments-to-admission-committees/

Keep in mind that most college applications don't provide adequate space to explain your activities, only to list them very briefly. While this is often a problem for American students, it can be an even bigger one for international applicants, whose undertakings may be very different than those of the typical American applicant. So do take advantage of the “Additional Information" section of most applications and/or use your essays to tell admission folks about your activities.

Most colleges also allow you to send a resume (curriculum vita). However, if you follow the standard templates, you really won't have any place to explain your activities any more thoroughly than you did on the application itself. So you might want to consider an “annotated resume." This is when you not only list your activities but also briefly explain the ones that aren't completely clear. It's also a good opportunity to let your sense of humor shine through. And it's fine to brag a little bit, just don't go overboard.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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