When applying to US colleges and universities, international students often face lower admission rates than their US counterparts.

In this video, I discuss why many colleges show preference to US applicants as well as some of the typical ways that international applicants may put themselves, unknowingly, at a disadvantage in the application process.

  1. Money.

One of the top reasons why many competitive US colleges show preference to US applicants over international ones comes down to cash-flow. First, US citizens and legal permanent residents generally qualify for financial aid in the form of government sponsored loans and/or grants. Though grants, which do not require repayment, are typically only available to low-income students, loans are available to the majority of US college students. That means if a college admits a student, ability to pay is not necessarily a commonly prohibitive factor in attendance: if a student gets in and doesn’t have the money to pay, she can borrow it. Even middle class or upper middle class families in the US that may not qualify for government grants, but still may not have the liquidity to pay steep tuition prices, can likely qualify for a mix of public and private loans if they’re willing to take them on.

For an international student, however, loans and grants must be secured from private lenders or other programs, which are not as universally available or as much of a “sure bet” in many instances. Thus, if colleges admitted international students on a “need-blind” basis, and didn’t meet these students’ full need with their own institution’s scholarships or aid, many colleges fear these students might withdraw before enrolling (lowering the school’s yield rate) or drop out of school before graduating due to an eventual lack of funds (lowering the school’s retention rate).

As a result, while over 100 universities and colleges are “need-blind” for qualified US students, only a handful (5 or 6) are for international applicants. Thus because international students are held to a higher standard in terms of ability to pay, they face lower admission rates.

Additionally, regardless of whether US colleges are “need blind” or “need aware,” colleges can offer more aggressive aid packages to US students than to international ones because the package can combine both scholarships from the college and US federally available grants and/or loans, meaning the entire cost of accepting a low-income student does not fall solely on the university.  Even MIT, which is need blind for international applicants, shares on its website that this accounting fact influences its admissions rate for international undergraduates: MIT can simply accept more low-income, qualified US students than they can low-income international ones.  Thus the international admissions rate at MIT hovers between 1-2% most years, while the US admit rate is many times that (though MIT is likely one of the most extreme examples of this effect). The goal is thus to admit more students with need– or “regardless” of need– but doing so means favoring those eligible for US only aid.

2. The Culture Divide.

I often see international students rejected by colleges because their applications aren’t reflective of US educational values, culture, and norms. Their grades can be spot on, their test scores impressive, but the other elements of their application– their essays, their voice, their activities– fail to appeal to an American audience of application readers.

Some international students craft their applications according to the same norms and expectations of their home countries, where test scores rule and grades matter above all. But the American educational system is different. International students who realize this and appeal specifically to the American sensibility of education tend to fare better in the application process. In the US, colleges don’t just care about your scores and grades, they care about who you are, what you value, and your personal qualities. They want to know that you’re involved in your community, that you have a vision to make a difference in your world, and that you’re the kind of person that would be enjoyable to have a cup of coffee with.

Often other cultural differences can also emerge in a student’s essays that further deepen the divide and make candidates seem less relatable. For example, in some cultures, it is customary to brag about how well received or praised your particular actions were on a project. In the US, effective self advocacy is a subtler art, and essays that can pull off humble bragging as opposed to obvious self aggrandizement also tend to fare better.

Finally, the US loves the story of the rugged individual. I often coach students from cultures that may be more group oriented and value obedience or conformity. These students often struggle to understand how being unique is an asset: offering a personal perspective or reflective insight in an essay is more important than achieving a specific goal.

3. Ideas get Lost in Translation.

The third hurdle I see many international applicants face in the US admissions process is that of translation. While this is certainly an issue with students who speak English as a foreign language, students from other English speaking culture aren’t exempt from this issue, either.

What I mean by translation is the fact that you come from a place that is not common-place to most admissions staff in the US. While a US admissions officer understands readily what it means to be captain of the soccer team or senior class president at an American high school, she may not understand what a “prefect” does at your English boarding school, or a “monitor” does at your Chinese one.  Are these elected positions from the student body? Appointed by a teacher? Understand that what activities you do in your country may not translate immediately to an American, and be sure to explain any jargon or involvement that may be culturally specific to your area, and be particularly careful when translating activities (this holds for both the essay section and the activities description).

While the “mountain in the air club” might sound like a cool name for an environmental action group in your native language, it might not sound so awesome if literally translated into English. Be sure to have a native English speaker (preferably American) review your complete application, including your activity descriptions to be sure nothing comes off as idiomatically awkward or opaque. Likewise, you can use the additional information section of your application to clarify any alternative grading methods, achievements, or other elements of your general “resume” type entries in the application that may need more explaining.

Also understand that activities your culture may highly prize may not come off as impressively to an American audience (see #2 above). Remember your biggest competition for admission are those who are most similar to you, so if your high school’s culture emphasizes STEM and studying all the time, remember American colleges want to see how you stand out from this mold in some way. They want to see your personal, human side, too.

4. Lack of Extracurricular Involvement

Many school systems outside the US do not offer extracurricular activities at all. Those that do often have school clubs that require minimal commitment.

Understand that the majority of US students applying to competitive (<30% admission rate) colleges are spending 8-35 hours a week on extracurricular activities in addition to their regular schooling. For top 20 colleges, most of the students I work with average about 20 hours/week. Often I find with international students, this commitment level is closer to 1-4 hours per week.

Even if your school does not offer formal activities, you have the chance to involve yourself in your community. Most often, I see international students volunteering with NGOs, working at tourist attractions, participating in scientific research, or attending low commitment clubs at their schools. You will need to create your own opportunities, but the more original your efforts are in this case, the more you’ll likely stand out. Participate in music, try to write for a local paper, audition for local theater productions, pursue a sport, or try to be the best at something that isn’t academic.