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How to Wow U.S. Admission Officers

Tips for international students applying to U.S. universities.

Being an international student at a U.S. university is an enriching experience that allows the student to broaden her/his academic interests and cultural understanding. But in order to get accepted to a U.S. university, international students need to excel and exceed scholastic expectations.

Michele Hernández, former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and former academic dean of a private high school in South Florida, co-founded the college consultancy Top Tier Admissions in 2015, which organizes virtual workshops and an Application Boot Camp® program. Besides writing several publications on college acceptance, including her book “A is for Admission” and the BusinessWeek cover article, “I Can Get Your Kid Into An Ivy,” Hernández has helped countless international students get into U.S. colleges.

According to Hernández, competition is fierce for international students because there are record numbers of applicants and very few seats, especially at Ivy League schools.

In 2014, the Ivy League university with the highest percentage of international students was Columbia in New York City, with just over 15 percent. Considering the fact 26,178 students applied that year, it’s a highly competitive figure. The lowest was Dartmouth, with just about 8 percent of international students. The majority of Ivy League schools fell within the 10 to 13 percent range. These numbers are expected to decrease as more international students apply to U.S. universities each year.

Hernández advises international students to focus on larger schools that take a higher volume of international students like Boston University in Massachusetts, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the George Washington University and the American University in Washington, D.C. The U.S. colleges and universities with the highest percentages of international students for the 2014-15 academic year were: Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne with 33 percent, the New School in New York City with 32 percent, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago with 30 percent and the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma with 27 percent. Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and the University of California, San Diego were also ranked high.

So, what do universities look for in an international applicant? According to Hernández, it helps if international students are high school toppers and have secured high Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) scores, with three to eight SAT subject tests scoring in the 750 to 800 range. It’s also good to score a five on Advanced Placement tests or a six or seven on International Baccalaureate exams. Hernández says that one-on-one tutoring is the best way to prepare for standardized tests, including the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), SAT, ACT and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Online programs like the Kaplan Test, Princeton Review and Veritas Prep are also good for practicing.

However, top scores on standardized testing doesn’t guarantee acceptance. Hernández advises international students to invest time and develop a deep scholarly interest in their area of interest. In her experience, Indian students tend to focus on the fields of mathematics and science, but Hernández feels that succeeding in the humanities would set Indian applicants apart from the masses.

Of course, high-level awards and research help one’s application, but so do activities and leadership roles that show admission officers that the student is ambitious, proactive and willing to help others, beyond community service hours that schools are used to seeing on applications.

When it comes to interviews, Hernández advises students to practice and be prepared even though it is not a key part of the admissions process. She says that it is important that applicants demonstrate their love of learning and have genuine excitement for what they are talking about.

Studying overseas is one of the most incredible experiences a young mind can have because it cultivates greater understanding and appreciation between cultures. In fact, one could say that international students are unofficial ambassadors of their countries, which is a fascinating opportunity.


Kimberly Gyatso is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.