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Top 5 Mistakes International Applicants Make When Applying to US Universities

By Katie, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Attending university in the US is an appealing prospect for an increasing number of international students. Choosing to study abroad can improve a student’s resume, demonstrating to future employers an appreciation and understanding of the broader world. Studying in the US also offers students pathways into top US employers, and therefore possibilities for career opportunities that might be different than those available in their home country. However, because the US university admissions process is foreign to international students, many of these applicants make the same mistakes when applying year after year.

The process of applying to colleges and universities in the US differs greatly from most other countries where university entrance is often based solely on academics or an entrance exam. In the US, most colleges and universities admit students using something called the “holistic admissions process.” What this means is that admissions officers are seeking to admit people, not numbers; people who will come to their school and engage with the many opportunities in and outside of the classroom; people who will bring a unique perspective and are willing to share that diversity of experience and background with their peers. Applications are meant to give you a space or canvas where you can paint a picture through your words and experiences of who you are, what your passions and ambitions might be, and what you aspire to do.

Given the unique nature of American college and university applications, international students often fall into some common traps that can impact their chances of admission. I’ve worked with applicants from across the globe, and here are the top five mistakes I see international students making in their approach to the US admission process.

Not Thinking Beyond the Prestige of the Top 20
Often international students only consider highly ranked schools from US News and World Report or similar rankings systems. There are over 3,000 colleges and universities of every size, type, location, and range of offerings in the US. By limiting themselves to only colleges that top rankings lists, international students miss out on so many fantastic schools that might offer a more specialized major that combines several interests, or maybe has a campus culture that matches better with who they are. Another danger of only applying to the small list of highly ranked schools is that those schools tend to be much more selective, leaving you without a backup plan if you aren’t admitted. By applying to a balanced list of schools that are a good match for you and range in selectivity, you will ensure you have at least a few options to pick from.

But I’m a Good Student, Isn’t That Enough?
Involvement in extracurricular activities beyond sport teams is rare amongst international students, but something not to be overlooked when building the best profile possible as an international applicant. While schools in many countries outside the US do not typically have extracurriculars like a student newspaper, student government, or academic interest groups (as is common in the US), it is important for international students to find ways in which to explore their interests beyond academic success.

The activities section of the Common Application can be one of the more daunting sections for international students to complete, but there are many ways to showcase your interests and passions in ways that will help round out your application. Getting involved outside of school is hard. That being said, use your summer months or long school breaks to take on experiences in the areas you are interested in. If a certain subject fascinates you, explore related books, podcasts, news articles, and take advantage of free online college courses in those topics. Get a job, whether during the summer or year-round. Get involved in a club sports team in your local area, join a hobby club, volunteer at a place that is meaningful to you. For example, if your interest is in STEM, you might explore ways to get involved in regional, national, and international competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), International Physics Olympiad (IPHO), or International Biology Olympiad (IBO.) If you are interested in business, you can apply for an internship at a local business or start your own company to solve a problem in your local area. As an admissions officer at MIT, the most compelling international applications were those where a student demonstrated a pursuit of something beyond their school day and sought to make their community better in some way.

Applying Without a Compelling Narrative
Admissions officers reading your application want to put together a story and a picture of who you are, what your life has been like, what motivates you, and how you will make the most of the opportunities their school has to offer. It’s not enough to be a student who gets good grades – you need to think about the whole story of “you” that you are conveying to admissions officers and what select pieces you want to emphasize through the various sections of the application to paint a picture of what drives you. Begin outlining and establishing this narrative at the start of high school and add to it over your four years. It’s great to want to go into STEM, but that’s a broad field. What elements of your academic and extracurricular or personal life help show how you have distinguished yourself in the pursuit of STEM, and furthermore what specific area within STEM interests you? If you want to be a doctor, what ways have you found to pursue that interest, gain exposure to medicine, and contemplate why you want to go into medicine? Use the courses you take, your summer activities, hobbies, interests, and personal background to tell the story that will bring you to life to an admissions officer and allow them to really picture what a day in your life might be like.

Essays: Where Authenticity Counts!
Another common mistake I see amongst international students is their approach to college application essays. Essays for universities in the US are designed to convey a personal voice. They should help admissions officers learn something about you that cannot be gleaned from your transcripts, test scores, and resume of activities and achievements. They should not be a retelling of every award and distinction you have ever earned, but instead paint a picture of who you are as a person and what drives you. Your essays should help connect the dots amongst your various academic, personal, and extracurricular experiences listed on your application.

There are two common traps that international students fall into when they approach the essays. First is having someone else write your essays. This is completely unethical and has severe consequences. Admissions officers can usually tell when an essay is written by someone other than the applicant and can result in your application being immediately denied. While I definitely recommend having a native English speaker proofread and provide suggestions for your essays, if you aren’t a native speaker, or your TOEFL or IELTs score isn’t perfect, admissions officers will be suspicious of essays written in incredibly strong English. It is very hard for admissions officers to come back from a suspicion that your essays are not your own work, and this will have them going over the rest of your application in great detail to confirm or deny the suspicion that the applicant isn’t who they say they are.

The second mistake I see is writing the essays in their native language and using a translation software or thesaurus to bring “more impressive” sounding language into the essay. This is stands out to admissions officers because the word choices are close, but don’t exactly convey the message you are trying to communicate. Certain ways of phrasing things in one language don’t translate to another. If it isn’t a word you use in your every day speaking and writing, it is best not to try out your new vocabulary in your essay. If it is easier to get your thoughts out in your native language, that’s fine, but I caution students against just clicking “translate” and thinking they are good to go. Again, you should always have a native speaker proofread your essay and offer suggestions. There may be a hidden meaning to a word you that doesn’t show up in the first couple results in a Google search, or a cultural connotation to the word that you might not realize will have admissions officers reading your application unfavorably.

One of the most memorable essays I read was from a young man with a TOEFL score just above 90. His essays were so authentic in their message, and even though the English was far from perfect, I connected with the story he was telling about his life and why he wanted to come to MIT. He was pretty average for the MIT applicant pool (in terms of strong academic achievements – a few national-level Math competition awards), but it was the essays that had me fight for him to ultimately be admitted.

Too Much Everything
Nothing makes an admissions officer groan more than when application that should normally be 20 pages tops out at over 60. International students are often the most common offenders of submitting way too much material. While there are often more documents required for international students (like authenticated transcripts and recommendation letter translations), it is not necessary to send originals or photocopies of every award or certificate you earned in high school – or earlier. These types of recognitions can be reported on the activities section of the application. If you have an important update about an achievement or change in an academic course, by all means send an update to the admissions office. But think purposefully about what you are sending: is this something that drastically changes your candidacy? Are these updates that could be submitted with a midyear report? If you are constantly sending long email updates or new documents not required by the college, it makes the school question your organizational abilities and your forethought. For example, why weren’t these explanations included in your application? You have the whole application to convey who you are – use that to the best of your ability and in the most thorough manner. The forethought and organization to fully complete your application the first time will reflect well on you as an applicant, whereas constant updates will have the admissions officers questioning if you are capable of succeeding at their school if you can’t even complete the application based on the instructions.

At the end of the day, international students have an amazingly diverse and unique perspective to offer, and that diversity as a student is exactly what admissions officers are seeking in the application process. Be your true and authentic self when applying to US universities. Think purposefully about each part of the application. Seek out help from those who know the process of applying to US universities, like an IvyWise counselor or your school’s career or university counselor.

At IvyWise we work with students in over 40 countries to help them find and apply to the best fit universities in the US. Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services and download our free International Guide for an in-depth look at the admissions process in the US.

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