Admission to Ivy League colleges and universities is highly coveted by not just students around the country but students around the globe. In the previous installments of this three-part series, we discussed the Ivies and the chances international students have of gaining admission to the Ivy League. In part two, students learned how to plan and prepare for standardized tests and the importance of extracurricular activities. In this final installment, we’ll explore how you can write a strong personal essay, key details you shouldn’t overlook in your application, and some final advice to keep in mind as you wrap up your college admission process.
Make sure your personal essay shines
The single most important factor in distinguishing yourself from your peers is your personal essay and other supplemental essays. How to write a good personal essay is a topic unto itself, but for international students specifically, you need to at least consider a few key things. The most important thing to reflect on is why you want to go to a school in the US rather than in your home country. Even if you don’t know if you want to get a job in America after graduation, you should still have a specific and personal reason why you want to go to a US school. Do you want to experience another culture in a meaningful way? If so, why? Do you want to take advantage of the networking opportunities only available at that specific Ivy League school? If so, is it because of your future career goal or for some other reason?
These are all questions you should reflect on and develop and answer to in your essay. However, you don’t need to stress about the answers to these questions before your 12th year of schooling. You may be more mature by then, or your goals and aspirations may have evolved throughout secondary school. If that’s the case, that’s also something you can potentially bring into your essays.
Additional considerations for your essay
Some additional things you should consider for your essays include emphasizing your diverse background. If you do so, you should not only highlight what makes you distinct from prospective American students but also from those applying from your home country. You should also consider highlighting why you pursued the extracurriculars that you did. Reflect upon the personal reasons you were drawn to those activities and relay those reasons as compellingly as possible in your essay.
Small but important application details to focus on
Since the American education system functions a little differently than many other countries, there are a few things you should give extra attention to in order to avoid confusion or missing materials from your application.
Your official academic transcripts
In America, secondary school is from ninth grade through 12th, and universities want to see your grades from each of those years. If you live in a country where secondary school is only from grades 10–12, you may need to get an official transcript of your grades from year nine.
Translating your application
Depending on what universities you apply to, you may need to have your credentials verified and translated for your application. You should research if the schools you’re applying to have specific translation requirements. No matter what, you shouldn’t translate your own materials. Most Ivy League schools prefer your application be translated by your secondary school rather than a third-party service. Harvard University states that they’ll accept materials “translated by an English teacher,” and Cornell University goes so far as to have an admission revocation policy that bans the submission of materials through paid agents or credentialing services, stating they will “revoke admission offers, cancel admission, or involuntary withdraw a student from the University” if it’s found that a student used such services for their application.
However, if the colleges you plan to apply to allow it and if your secondary school can’t translate your materials for you, the safest organizations to use would be agencies that are members of either the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) or the Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE). Also, keep in mind that translating takes time. Third-party agencies can take weeks to completely translate an application. You should aim to complete your application and request translation weeks, if not months, before your application deadlines.
Financial aid for international students
You should be honest—both with yourself and the universities you’re applying to—about if you’ll be able to attend without financial aid. If you don’t need financial aid, you should let the school know because it’s an opportunity to increase your chances of admission. Some Ivy League schools, like Harvard, claim they’re need-blind for both international and domestic students alike. However, most schools, like Cornell, are openly need-aware for international students, meaning they take your ability to pay tuition into account when making admission decisions. Still more schools, such as Brown University, don’t allow international students to apply for financial aid later if they didn’t do so with their initial application for admission, regardless of any changes in your financial situation. The consensus among people who study college admission is that the vast majority of accepted international students pay the full tuition rate without financial assistance. This fact, though it disproportionately affects less wealthy international applicants, is unlikely to change any time soon.
Common mistakes to avoid on your application
- Hyper-focusing on prestige. Each of the Ivies is unique. Successful students focus on institutions that match their academic needs and future career goals rather than simply name recognition. This issue is just as prevalent for domestic students as international ones.
- Neglecting extracurriculars and essays. Schools in the US value “soft” skills just as highly as academics. Watch out for this mental trap, especially if you come from a country where college acceptance is vastly more dependent upon grades and test scores.
- Struggling to tell a compelling story or fully convey who you are through your personal essay.
- Misunderstanding what US universities want, and underestimating how much passion and authenticity matters to US college admission.
Additional factors to keep in mind
Again, international students have some extra things to think about when it comes to US college admission compared to American students. Here are a few final things to know and do during the application process.
International student “quotas”
Many schools have quotas for international students—yet many Ivies state on their admission pages that they don’t abide by quotas for international students. You should be skeptical of this statement. The percentage of international students in each graduating class stays consistent at most Ivy League schools year to year at about 10% or a less of the entire student body. So while they may not abide by an “official” quota, they clearly stick to admitting a general approximate number of international students. For many schools, the international admission rate is less than half that of the overall admission rate. This means international students are competing against each other in numbers just as large as domestic US students but for fewer spots.
Applying for a student visa
Once you’re accepted to and enroll in a US school, that school will enter you into a system called the Students and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Depending on what type of visa you’re eligible for, you’ll be sent one of two forms. Since you’re applying to a four-year undergraduate university, you’re most likely going to receive and fill out the F-1 form. (M-1 forms are for vocational studies only.) You’ll then need to go to the US embassy or consulate in your home country to fill out your F-1 student visa application. You’ll also need to be interviewed by an embassy official to determine your visa eligibility.
Once your interview is finished and your application complete, the waiting time for your paperwork to be processed and approved can take anywhere from one to two months. You’ll need to make some additional appointments after this, such as to get your biometric screening done. While you should begin this application process early, an F-1 visa only can be issued up to 90 days prior to entering the US to begin study. With the average paperwork processing time in mind (60 days or more), you should begin your visa application about three to four months before your school year starts. Look into all of the various documents you’ll need to provide for the application process before that time.
While the requirements and dates you need to keep in mind to give yourself the best chances of success on your university applications are specific to the schools you choose to pursue, hopefully this three-part series has given you a useful baseline to begin your application game plan. As you prepare to apply to the Ivy League schools of your choice, remember to be authentic, pay attention to the little details, and plan ahead.
For more helpful advice to get you into the US school of your dreams, check out our International Students section.