Applying to foreign universities when you’re an international student is probably one of the scariest things you’ll ever have to do. The process is opaque and uncertain, making it hard to navigate. By the time you realize what mistakes you can make, you’ve already made them.
In some countries, there’s entire industries set up to help you through this process… if you can pay a hefty cost, of course. I have a problem with these companies that claim they can help you put your best foot forward. They argue that there is an ideal college applicant, and that they can help you achieve this ideal, and I categorically disagree with this claim. I argue that their process is counterintuitive — they paint all students with the same colors, instead of helping you stand out.
Instead, this article is going to teach you to optimize for what’s unique about you, then learn to demonstrate it. It attempts to be as honest as possible about this entire process.
This article is written for people who are going to apply to colleges soon — likely within an year. If you’re in eleventh or twelveth grade, this is targetted to you. But I believe that our younger friends— those for you entering or just having entered high school— will also get value from reading it.
Part I: Understanding Incentives#
As an aspiring college student, there’s a few things you care about when applying to colleges:
- You want to get into a reputable college whose degree holds value in the industry you’re planning to pursue a career in. You’re looking for this university’s degree to help you signal to employers that you are capable.
- You want to find a college that would help you grow into the kind of person you want to be, and have the resources to do so.
- You want a college where you’ll be surrounded by like-minded individuals, where you feel like you can fit in.
The college you’re hoping takes you also cares about a few things:
- It wants to be able to earn a profit on you. Colleges, even public ones, are for-profit organizations.*
- It is trying to find the best talent for your university. It believes that if it invests in you right now, your future successes will increase its reputation.
- It is trying a space of like-minded individuals at the campus, such that the community is tight-knit and feeds into each other.
Notice how this arrangement works when you put these incentives together:
- Colleges are looking for quality people. You are looking for a quality university. Both of you are making an agreement that you are going to help maintain, and eventually, increase each other’s reputation.
- You’re both looking to see, as with any good relationship, whether you suit each other.
If these two things are true, you’ll pick each other. This is the ideal for college admissions.
Part II: Who’s Reading the Apps?#
College application readers don’t have much time to give to each application. They read more applications a day than most of us would see in our entire lives. They are therefore, excellent, at cutting through your bullshit and getting to the facts.
Your application needs to be straight-forward, clean and compelling. There’s a few things that need to be true for this to happen:
- “Who you are” should be clear and obvious from a cursory reading of your application.
- Everything should have evidence. If you don’t provide solid examples as evidence of your claims, they have no reason to believe you and no time to check.
- They’ve seen all the tricks. Using them doesn’t help you.
- You can’t fake excitement or passion, not to them. They seen hundreds of students faking it every single day. You have to be honest through this application process.
Part III: Start Being Introspective and Insightful#
Now that you hopefully understand the need for honesty, it bears asking — how do you be honest and yet compelling?
A big part of college applications isn’t that you need to be amazing. If universities were maximizing for amazingness, they would end up with a cohort of exactly the same type of person. There isn’t one singular way to be amazing, and a university is looking for all kinds of amazing.
The way to figure out how you are uniquely amazing is to be insightful. College are looking for people who have the potential to be impressive, and in the meantime be a positive influence on their campus. The easiest way to measure a person’s ability to grow and have a positive impact is their thoughtfulness.
To write a truly impressive application, you need to get thoughtful about your actions, your history, your mistakes, your successes and your future.
Part IV: Finding Passions#
The easiest way for a university to evaluate you is based on your passions — by their breadth, and the depth you invest in each of them. Your passion is the metric you probably want to maximize on your application.
There’s a few myths about being and showing passion to collges that I want to dispel:
- There is no right thing to be passionate about.
- There is no need to have to be passionate in what you’re planning to study at the university (though it admittedly doesn’t hurt)
- There is no right way to be passionate.
Don’t fake passion. It rings hollow, the reader can tell, and faking it is the worst thing you can make a reader feel.
I know that some of you are reading this with growing worry— AMKS, I’m not passionate about anything!! What do I do?? Lies! You are passionate, it just may not be about something you’ve been taught is important. Do you spend hours grinding League of Legends? Perhaps an egregious amount of time writing fanfiction. Maybe way too much time playing gully cricket. Maybe a deep fascination with cooking.
A passion is just something that you end up doing more intensely than other people. Everyone is passionate about something.
You passion does not need to be your major. I’m studying computer science and economics right now, but was intensely passionate about debating and theatre in high school. I spent hours every day joking around with other theatre folks, memorizing Shakespeare, singing musicals, practicing accents. It’s not something that I use much anymore, but it was one of the primary focuses of my application.
If you’re still in 9th or 10th grade, you still have time to drill down into what you have fun doing, and do it as much as possible. This is your passion, and I encourage you to chase it deeply.
If you’re older, look back at your high school journey and figure out what you’ve spent most time doing, most intensely. That is your passion, and that’s what you probably want to write about.
Part V: Demonstrating Passions#
You might be the most passionate person in the world, but if you don’t know how to express it, colleges aren’t picking you. To demonstrate your passion, you need to frame it properly.
Life is messy — you start things, you stumble, you forget, you do things you don’t care about. Our story is zig zaggy and unclean. A framed narrative is a reduction of your life journey — an easy-to-follow version of your experiences. You don’t need to share your life — the word limit on the application won’t let you do that anyway. Instead, you need to share your narrative.
Answer these questions about your passion to understand how to start writing about your passions:
- Why are you passionate about this in particular?
- When did you start pursuing this? Why did you first pick it up?
- What are all the ways you’ve demonstrated your growing passion and mastery over this domain?
- What were some of the pitfalls you faced while chasing this passion?
- How has being passionate about this made you a better person?
- How are you planning to continue pursuing this passion post-high school?
These questions are a trick for you to start getting a little more introspective. These are things that make for a good explanation of why you are who you are.
Try to reduce your passions to specific moments, victories, mistakes. Can you think of turning or critical points? These are moments that demonstrate who you are, and these are moments you’re looking to highlight in the application.
Part IV: Do Your Research#
There is nothing an app reader hates more than a flimsy reason to want to join a college. Yes, they know that their college is prestigious. Yes, they know that their college has some really fun classes. Yes, they know that their college produced 4 living presidents. They don’t need a fun fact list about their university.
They are interested in why you are interested in their university. Why do you think you’ll fit in here? What about the university connects with you? Forget the facts that anyone can look up — start searching through university subreddits and facebook groups. Look into what makes a student of that university unique. See where you might fit in to that ecosystem — perhaps the university has a huge underground improv comedy scene that few outsiders know about. Perhaps you enjoy some obscure tradition. Perhaps the university has a culture of being honest about your struggles that you connect with.
Dig deep. This is one of the biggest decisions of your life, and you should research it with the appropriate amount of weight.
Part VI: Evidence? Objection, Your Honor!#
Application readers don’t believe you. They do not have the time to check your background, and they have enough people lying to them on applications to not believe a word you say.
If you write about how you’re a great debator, a compelling speaker, and amazing at leading a team, they are going to read over that… and immediately going to ignore it. Why wouldn’t you lie about your skill level? Tricking them into thinking you’re better than you really are is a big win for you!
You need to provide factual evidence for any claim you make about yourself. So you’re a great team leader — talk about a time your team was going through a rough phase, and you lead them through it. You’re a great debator? Talk about a time you snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by making a compassionate, intense speech that wowed the judges.
There’s a common saying in screenwriting —show, don’t tell. I’d suggest taking this to heart in your application process.
Part VII: Don’t Play the Process#
Contrary to what I’ve been saying this entire article, let me tell you an unfortunate secret: College applications are crap-shoots. You might be the perfect candidate, and get rejected. You might be below all the universities’ averages, and still get in.
It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, which university you go to — all of us eventually end up being on the same playing field. If you go to a university that doesn’t fit you, you’re going to regret it forever — even if it’s an extremely prestigious place to study. Find something that fits you more than finding the most highly rated place that’ll accept you.
Part VIII: Advice to Parents Reading This#
I’m sure that this article will reach as many, if not more, parents that it will students. This section is for you, parents.
Allow your child to explore various things, and to abandon just as many. High school is probably the best time to explore what you’re interested in — give them the space to do that. Yes, trying ice-sculpting for a semester then abandoning it might not help them through college apps. But it is only through this process that they’ll find what they’re truly passionate about.
Invest in their passions once they find them, monetarily and time-wise. They need your support, your steadfastness, and sometimes they need you to be as passionate as them about something. Teenagers are flaky, hormonal, emotional, and confused. You can be their anchor.
Finally, the most important — don’t set unrealistic expectations on your kid. They’re just a kid. Please give them the liberty of fucking up.
This article talked majorly (and specifically) about the big picture stuff. There’s so many more details to worry about — SATs, AP Scores, grades, extra-curriculars, yada yada. If you’re reading this, you probably are already worrying about all of that. If you have any specific questions about any of those, drop me a line at
And of course, all the best! You’ve got this.
* This is why if you can pay the college your tuition instead of needing scholarships, your chances are better. This is of course if the college is not “need-blind”, which is very rare for international students.