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An Expat’s Guide to U.S. College Admissions

By Katie, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Embarking on the U.S. college application journey as an expat can feel as puzzling as your first day at your new international school — despite your well-developed cultural adaptability, cross-cultural communication skills, and unique global perspective. Having spent my formative years attending an American school in the Netherlands, I felt equally perplexed by the U.S. college admissions process. I was excited at the prospect of living in the U.S. for the first time since I was four years old; however, I was scared to be an ocean away from my family and nervous about how to navigate the process.

I’m here to offer the valuable insights I gained from my own experience as well as from working behind the scenes in the admissions process and advising hundreds of expat students applying at U.S. schools.

The admissions landscape is an intricate mosaic for expats applying to U.S. universities. While we might attend high schools abroad, we’re often considered U.S. applicants, which opens the door to federal financial aid and places us within the domestic applicant pool — an advantage at institutions like MIT (where I used to work) that are notoriously even more selective for international students.

Below are my top tips for navigating the process as a U.S. citizen applying from abroad.

Visit Campus

Seize every opportunity to visit U.S. colleges. If you can, plan a visit to the States over one of your breaks. I recommend picking a big city and visiting a bunch of colleges from there. For example, you could visit Boston and hit places like Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Harvard, MIT, and Tufts University over a few days. Then venture a few hours outside the city to visit places like Amherst College, Williams College, and UMass Amherst.

This way you get a great sampling of a range of colleges and can build your list out from there. Nothing beats the insights gained from stepping foot on an actual campus and peppering current students with questions. Since attending a U.S. college is an especially big step if you’ve been living abroad, a college visit (or several!) is the best way to get a feel for what campus life is like and determine your likes and dislikes.

Subscribe to Mailing Lists

Subscribe to college mailing lists to get alerts on fairs and information sessions. Colleges often send admission officers abroad, and being in the loop means you won’t miss out when they’re in your corner of the globe. The Council of International Schools also organizes a number of University Recruitment Fairs across the globe throughout the year.

Prepare the Required Documentation

Just like you need all your ducks in a row to renew your passport, you’ll need your paperwork to align with U.S. university expectations. This is especially key if your academic documentation isn’t in English. Seek out certified translation services early to ensure you have everything ready well in advance of the deadline.

One document that often elicits stress is the amorphous Secondary School Report, which typically comes from a college counselor. The purpose of a secondary school report in college applications is to provide colleges with a comprehensive overview of a student’s academic performance and context within their high school environment. If you don’t have a college counselor, you can appoint a school official who can articulate your educational journey and advocate for your candidacy.

Share Your Story

Finally, I want to put to rest the misconception that you’ll be evaluated against stateside peers. Admissions officers understand the nuance and value the fresh perspectives that expats bring to the table. You are being evaluated in the context you are coming from, even if you’ve faced multiple relocations throughout high school or switched between different educational systems.

And in that same vein, don’t be afraid to share those challenges. Although they feel common amongst your school peers, they are part of your story and worth telling how they’ve shaped your perspectives!

Incorporating a trusted advisor like IvyWise into your U.S. college application process can be the beacon that guides you through these complex waters. I absolutely love working with students applying to U.S. high schools from abroad and can offer not only my expertise as a former admission officer, but my own personal perspective.

Just like your school likely had a student ambassador to help welcome you and orient you to your new international school environment, a college counselor can help remove a lot of the stress and unknowns of navigating the college process! Contact IvyWise today to learn how we can help you achieve your academic goals.


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