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Articles / Applying to College / U.S. Citizen or International Student: Which Carries More Admission Clout?

Dec. 30, 2002

U.S. Citizen or International Student: Which Carries More Admission Clout?

Question: I am certain that nationality plays a big part in college admission decisions. So if I'm an American attending a high school abroad (and holding a second passport) what should I do? Do I apply as a U.S. citizen or as an international student?

Different colleges go about “coding” students in different ways. There is no consistent system that determines how applicants who are dual-nationals (or biracial, multiracial, etc.) are viewed.


Your best bet is to indicate that you are a citizen of the U.S. and of the country in which you reside. If you are applying for financial aid, it is critical that your target colleges are clearly aware of your U.S.-citizen status because non-citizens are held to a far higher standard than citizens are when they require financial assistance. (That’s because they don’t qualify for aid from the federal government.)

Living in a country outside of the U.S. will definitely give you a “hook” in the admission process. That is, admission officials will recognize that you have had experiences that the average candidate has not. If you hail from an “underrepresented” nation (i.e., one that does not send many applicants to your target schools), then this will mean an additional hook for you. Often college catalogues and Web sites list the geographic distribution of the student body, so you can tell at a glance how many current enrollees are from the country in which you live. Typically, students are listed by residence rather than by nationality, butâ€"againâ€"it depends on the college’s policy.

Some colleges have separate applications for international students. In many cases, any student applying from outside the U.S. regardless of citizenship, should use the international form. If instructions aren’t clear, e-mail admission officials and ask which form to complete. Don’t worry, though, your application will not be discounted if you use the wrong one.

While colleges will ultimately decide in which pile to put your application (American, international, or other), it is still wise to emphasize your overseas background and show officials that you have fully embraced the uncommon opportunities you’ve been exposed to. You might do this in your main essay or in a supplemental one. Your list of extracurricular activities, too, may include some unusual undertakings that are peculiar to your part of the world. That will be a plus, but make sure you fully explain these, if applicable. For instance, if you play a sport, pursue a hobby, or belong to an organization that is not a household word in the U.S., a sentence or two describing it is imperative.

Finally, most admission offices have at least one staff member who serves as the liaison to international students. This is a good contact for you to make. Get names and e-mail addresses from admission offices at your target colleges and direct your questions to this official. Not only will he or she be best prepared to answer any questions that arise, but also it will be helpful for you to have an “ally” as you go through the admission process from afar.

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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