01 February 2019

Five Mistakes International Students Make When Applying To College In The U.S.

Published by Lisa Choy

Talk about competition.There are now more than one million international students that apply to college in the United States each year. To increase your odds of getting accepted, you'll want to avoid these all-too-common mistakes. Read these top tips below and for more information attend our upcoming session on Feb 13 @ 6 pm: Tips to get into top universities with The Spike Lab

Mistake #1: Presenting yourself as “well-rounded”

Conventional wisdom dictates you must do a lot of extracurriculars because colleges like well-rounded candidates. But if you want to be admitted to a more selective college, don’t follow this advice.

Good grades and well-rounded extracurriculars just won’t cut it anymore to get into a great college.

This is because you’re competing with a huge number of other strong applicants with very similar profiles. According to the last annual Open Doors Report put out by the Institute of International Education, the number of international students in higher education has increased 73% in the last decade and 10% last year alone, the fastest recorded annual increase ever.

The goal is to stand out from the crowd. Selective colleges tend to look for “T-shaped” applicants: students who are accomplished at and interested in a wide array of things but also have a "spike," a special depth in one area of genuine passion.

Mistake #2: Preferring “big brand” or high-ranked colleges

Professional college counselors don’t rank colleges; we tend to think of them in tiers. For example, Princeton is in the first tier, UC Berkeley is in the second, UC San Diego is in the third and so on. If you’re like everybody else and want to go to the “best” college, official rankings might be useful to a certain extent to give you a sense of tiers, but otherwise they are not helpful.

You’re much better off creating your own tiers, keeping your needs in mind. Try categorizing colleges into reach, match and safety groupings, and then picking the ones that will be your focus based on criteria like educational fit, campus culture fit, etc.

Similar to rankings, international students tend to have a strong bias towards well-known U.S. universities and underweight other potentially excellent undergraduate programs at smaller liberal arts colleges or at lesser-known regional universities. Don’t let a name sway you away from other equally strong undergraduate programs, especially because you might have a better shot at admission because those schools often have fewer international student applicants.

Mistake #3: Applying without a “narrative”

When you apply to college, you are not just sending in your application. Whether you realize it or not, you are submitting a story about yourself and that story can be told well or told poorly.

Many people within the college admission office read your application and come away with a narrative about you that forms the basis of their picture of you as a person—they don’t remember details. Here, you have the power to frame that impression.

Instead of trying to explain everything you are doing in high school, focus on the one or two primary areas that you are most passionate about. And be sure to backup your passion with impressive achievements.

For example, if a student loves environmental sciences, then she should make sure all the components of her application emphasizes this area of passion, and she should be sure to highlight all related achievements. She should showcase her summer research with respected college professors and her research papers that got accepted to and published in science journals.

Another thing to keep in mind: It is important to put together the major elements of your narrative long before college application season. If you start outlining your story at the beginning of high school, for example, then you have many years to work on building out the achievements that make a great story stand out.

Mistake #4: Starting test prep in your senior year

We talk to so many students who start too late prepping for their standardized tests, like the ACT/SAT and the SAT II subject tests. Don’t wait until the end of junior year and the beginning of senior year to take these tests—and definitely, don’t wait until then to start studying.

Whether we like it or not, standardized tests are one of the most heavily weighted part of the college admissions “formula” and if you plan in advance, you actually have a big advantage over other students. Don’t be one of those late starters. This is something under your control.

The SAT II subject tests are best taken soon after studying the subject at school because the material is fresh in your mind. So if you take Chemistry in 10th grade, take the SAT II right afterward (leaving time to study for it, of course).

Mistake #5: Having no clear passion

This ties back to the first mistake: Your application is unlikely to be compelling to colleges if you’re not accomplished in an area of genuine passion.

College admissions officers are looking for students who show deep curiosity and interest in some academic areas and some non-academic extracurriculars. It’s not enough to just get very good grades and test scores, you need to have an authentic passion and have attained some notable achievements that area.

In our experience with the students we coach at Uni Prep, with the right guidance, it’s not actually too difficult for high school students to identify their interests and passions. Most just don’t take the time to reflect properly and figure it out, and nobody is coaching them to do so. As early as possible in high school, take some time to explore what academic and non-academic areas you are most excited about and then find the time to develop them further.

Meet the Author


Lloyd Nimetz is the founder of The Spike Lab. He is a serial entrepreneur and start-up investor who has been a founder of five for-profits and non-profits in the US, Taiwan, Argentina, and India. Previously he directed the education start-up accelerator of 4.0 Schools and before that was the co-founder of Dev Bootcamp NYC (parent company was acquired by Kaplan Inc in 2014). Lloyd went to Stanford University for his MBA, studied undergrad at Williams College and was a Fulbright Scholar. He travels frequently to Taiwan and lives in New York City with his wife, who grew up in Taipei, and his two daughters.

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