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How to Navigate College Admissions as an International Student

With its plethora of choices, components, and deadlines, the college application process feels daunting for most high school students and their families.  College admissions becomes further complicated for international high school students, who are navigating the process in a different language and culture, and who often require additional documents and proficiencies for admissions. As the number of international students spending the duration of their high school education in the U.S. continues to climb, this is an area of research and development that more American high schools, both public and private, will need to explore.

Annie Ma, a senior from The Wilberforce School in Princeton Junction, NJ, arrived in the U.S. three years ago from Taipei. She describes her first year abroad as a whirlwind, during which she immersed herself in American language and culture by spending several hours per night translating classical texts, watching short inspirational videos in English online, and practicing conversational skills with classmates and her host family. Though she felt hesitant to participate in class discussions at first and opted to listen most of the time, she is now one of the most vocal members of her humanities classes. 

“I really look forward to my [history and literature] classes. It used to be too intimidating for me to speak in class my sophomore year, but now I really enjoy that.  It is fascinating to me to see how deeply I can engage with a text when I take the time to read and study it thoroughly. In fact, I have a pen pal from Italy, and we often discuss our thoughts on philosophy and literature in English.”

private school

After applying to a number of U.S. colleges and universities, Annie received acceptances to: James Madison, St. John’s, Roanoke, LSU, and Stony Brook, amongst others.  She is continuing to narrow her options, based on scholarship offers, course selections, location, and the accessibility of professors outside of class. She also hopes to attend a school with a sizable international student population. She feels that she is well-equipped to help other students who are new to the U.S. adapt more easily into American culture.

Her primary advice to other international high school students applying to American colleges is to start early on applications, the summer before senior year if possible.

“Even if you aren’t sure where you want to go yet, it is an advantage to start early. It doesn’t really matter if you have a definite top choice school or not, you can always apply to a range of colleges and make final decisions later. I made sure that I had a few different drafts for the Common App essay before the school year started, and that I had a head start on test prep. Then, as I learned more about myself and what I’m looking for in a college experience, I already had a lot of work behind me.”

Annie also noted that applying early cut down on stress later on in the school year and allowed her time to focus on her homework, in addition to being an advantage when applying for scholarships.

“In the end, I got into 13 different schools. I understand that many students won’t apply to that many, and many may not want to spend that much time on their applications, but for me personally, it really helped me to think about life. You learn a lot about your interests, and that helps you think about what you’d like to study.  I came out of the process knowing myself much better.”

college admissions

Annie advises forming a close connection with your high school guidance counselor. This individual should be able to help guide students through initial match and fit schools, in addition to clarifying requirements to attend those schools, and helping to identify strong programs for international students.  Spending frequent time with a guidance counselor is beneficial to all high school students, domestic and international, as it will give that individual plenty of material to write a personalized college recommendation letter and to advocate for students personally with admissions offices.

“Working with Mrs. Antlitz was so helpful.  She gave me a starting point for schools to look at that were a strong fit for me, and she read my essays many times.  Whenever I felt like I needed some extra help, I could contact her to look at my applications.”

When it came to college essay content, Annie leveraged her unique story of studying in three different countries to provide insight on how being an international has prepared her well for pursuing a career in business.  Studying in Taiwan, the U.S., and Italy, she contends, has given her experience with an increasingly globalized marketplace, a keen sense of adventure and grit, and the assertiveness to thrive.

In short, Annie attributes her success in U.S. college admission to planning her schedule well in advance, examining her own strengths and interests, and asking for help to determine a comprehensive and realistic college list.  For more college admissions tips, please visit our guidance resources page, or check out our upcoming College Night event, designed to help high school students and families plan the next four years strategically.