When contacting admissions officers, what factors should you consider?

As usual, as the August to February admissions frenzy rolls back around, I find myself reading more and more college admissions blogs, thinking about what might be most valuable for my students.  Recently, I found myself on a USC blog post called “making the college admissions process about you”.  And I was struck, not by the words of the article, but by the student comments at the bottom.  And the first thing I noticed was, wow, I can identify the internationals right away!  The second thing I noticed was how unfair it was that an international’s lack of familiarity with the process might detract from his/her application. Here are some thoughts about any contact – big or small – you may have with a university: commenting on a blog, attending a presentation, asking a question in an online chat, etc.

First of all, universities file everything.

You email someone – it gets filed.  You make a phone call – it gets filed. You send in a poem – well, you get the idea.  What does this mean for you? Well, most importantly, this means that all contact should be treated as important.  You are making impressions on the admissions office as a single body despite speaking to a different person each time. Here are some big red flags that I’ve noticed with international students in particular:

1. Asking questions that can easily be answered on the university website

This isn’t fair to us as internationals.  The process is so overwhelming that when an admissions officer visits, or a phone call begins, and that person cheerfully says, “Ask me absolutely any questions you might have,” it becomes extremely tempting to use those people as guides to the process.  And often it is quite alright to ask a single question with an easy answer.  But when a student starts asking numerous questions like, “When are your deadlines”, “What tests do I need to take to get in” or “Do you have study abroad programs”, I see the admissions officers recoil slightly.  They want to answer intelligent, curious questions – questions about student life or campus culture or famous professors, for example.

Let’s look at this well-meaning response from Sam:

The unfortunate truth is that, apart from some of the most selective or diverse schools, (and USC is the 21st best in the country and very selective by the way!), many US universities assume that students have dedicated guidance counselors at school.  So, sometimes, unfortunately, they think these questions are just laziness or a lack of desire to do the research (with a counselor or without). So, ask lots of questions, but not the ones that can be answered with a little more effort on your part.

2. Pay attention to your use of language

The student question above also brings me to my second point. This student is from India.  Being bilingual is a fantastic achievement.  But even though we should be appreciative of her ability, we notice instead her spaced out punctuation, grammatical mistakes, and poor sentence structure.

Here, in the Caribbean, we have it worse in some ways.  We don’t even get the tiny amount of respect afforded to someone for whom English is a second language.  And yet, for many, that is exactly what speaking proper English is.  Creole/ patois/ pidgin languages have their own sets of rules and studying Caribbean Studies, which codifies and applauds these rules, can make speaking standard English even harder.  Just remember, when you write or speak to university representatives, use standard English where possible, even in a simple web chat or quick conversation.

These two points can be daunting and students may already be thinking that they just won’t speak up. You definitely should ask questions! Admissions officers love seeing genuine interest.

3. One easy mistake to fall into is to let your counselor or parents do the talking and emailing for you.

This isn’t really a good look.  College is the time in your life when you are supposed to become independent, successful adults.  And one indication of that is your ability to handle communication on your own.  Get lots of guidance if you need it, but always take responsibility for being proactive about following up.

4. As you put yourself in front of admissions officers in any capacity, be aware that they may look you up.

Make your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. private if there is anything inappropriate there.  Better yet, pull everything inappropriate down completely until this period is over. Make sure your email address is something normal.  Ladiesman1234@xyz.com is not someone to be taken seriously. Create a new email address if you need to – in fact, this can be fairly useful for keeping all your university related information completely separate.

5. Don’t reach out to a lot of different people in the admissions officers with the same question.

Remember, you should be treating all the admissions officers in a school as one body.  I remember being so excited, at first, when a prospective student asked me some insightful questions about the application process for Wharton.  That same night, I discovered that he had emailed almost all of the other thirty-nine Welcome Committee members (then current students who helped prospective and admitted students to navigate the process).  We were all extremely put off and one person was tasked with replying politely to convey how serious we felt about crafting thoughtful answers and how irrelevant we felt when students solicited advice from too many similar sources.


My final takeaway – part summary, part new advice, as conclusions should never do – is that you should never make the mistake of assuming that anyone who works in an official capacity at these universities is your friend.

Treat them with the genuine respect and affability they deserve – be friendly and engaging – but never devolve into the speech patterns or topics that you explore with your peers.  I look forward to comments and questions below!


Seven Ways US College Admissions Differs for International Students

Being an international student can make an already difficult process even more daunting. This article was based on unexpected sources of stress that cropped up for my former students during their application processes.  It was supported by further research into top US universities and their specific international procedures.

First of all, who qualifies as an international student?  A good rule of thumb is that if you need a visa to study in the United States (even if you have a pending Green Card application, for example), you are an international student.  If you already have a Green Card, then you typically qualify as domestic, but should check each of the following factors at each university of interest to be sure.

Deadlines: Applications, Financial Deadlines, Standardized Testing

  • 1. Applications: Typically, deadlines for applications are the same for international students as for domestic students except in a few rare cases. However, since internationals need to apply for and await approval of their student visas, I still recommend applying by the end of March, even for schools that have rolling admissions until May or June for admission that September.
  • 2. Financial deadlines: International aid has different considerations, so the deadlines for aid or scholarships may be sometimes take place earlier for foreigners. This will differ by university.
  • 3. Standardized testing: Any candidates testing at a non-US center must register by the registration deadline: the “late registration deadline” only applies to US centers.

Fee Waiver Eligibility

  • Some fee waivers are easily available to international students if approved by your school guidance counselor e.g. Common App.  Other waivers, such as those for the SAT and ACT are only available to U.S. citizens.  Still others, such as individual school applications, can be obtained by internationals but with considerably more difficulty.

Financial Aid: Grants, Scholarships, Loans and Work Study

Understanding the ins and outs of financial aid is a time-consuming process and more stressful for internationals.

  • 1. Some schools are need-blind and/ or need-based for citizens but not for internationals. For example, some might be need-based for internationals but not need-blind (i.e. identical domestic and international applicants would have different chances of getting into those schools.)
  • 2. Some scholarships are only open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
  • 3. Some loans, e.g. federal loans, are only available to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
  • 4. The process and forms that need to be filled out are slightly different. FAFSA for example is a federal aid form that internationals should not submit, although some universities may ask candidates to fill it out and submit internally as part of the application process. Internationals on the other hand need to fill out the CSS profile if they are applying for financial aid.

Extra Application Requirements

  • There may be some extra requirements that are requested either in the application.  Universities may also contact you, after you submit an application, to request more information.  Always monitor communications from your universities closely.  Examples of additional requests include: Proof of English language proficiency (usually waived), certification of finances (usually one-year’s tuition), transcript evaluation.

Contextual Chances of Admission

  • Schools typically have approximate quotas of internationals as a whole and by different regions.  This may work for you or against you, depending on the college and depending on your competition in the region within a particular year.  Reading about a college’s diversity initiatives and international acceptance rates is a useful measure of what your chances of acceptance might be.

Post-Acceptance Requirements

  • Joseph Herrera laid these out well in his IvyEdge Global article.  Internationals are required to obtain visas, immunizations, and sometimes more information even after they have accepted a school’s offer of admission.

Sports recruiting

  • If you are being formally recruited to colleges or eventually want to take this route, there is too much that would have to be included in this article.  The college coaches should have all the information that you need; I simply wanted to make future student-athletes aware of their international status as a potential consideration.

Once students arrive at college, there are culture shocks to be overcome, questions about internships and jobs to be answered, and resources to be explored.  This article does not address the aspects of what being international in college means for a student.  I will do so in a future article.

Some disclaimers.  First, while this article sheds light on some of the finer print of being international, remember that each university has its own nuances. It is therefore important to check the international requirements at every school to which you are applying.  Second, this article focuses on the differences between regular and international admissions, which assumes that the reader already has some advance knowledge of the application process e.g. typical application deadline dates (between October and June), or the differences between need-based and need-blind financial aid.  Third, this is meant for first-time undergraduate applicants.  The policies for graduate schools and transfer applicants may be similar but not entirely the same.

I hope that this article will make or has made the application process easier for internationals out there. As always, questions and comments are welcome!

Spend Your Summer Meaningfully

Note: Scroll down to the numbered items if you want to just get to the ways in which you can spend your summer.

I was thirteen years old and the end of Form 2 (Grade 7) was quicklyapproaching. My seventeen-year-old sister came home bursting with excitement.  She and her friends were going to start a summer camp to make some extra money and please, please, could she do it at our house? Always on the lookout for a sibling bonding moment, my mom agreed, with the non-negotiable stipulation that I would be made an equal partner and a full-fledged camp counselor.  The quintessential second child, I saw nothing unfair or unusual about this. I was immediately on board.  When the dust settled, my sister was left with the difficult task of founding a summer camp with a person who had no inkling of business fundamentals, and who was only three years older than the oldest camper.  Somehow, past the inevitable disagreements and repeated vows that we would never, ever do something this crazy again, we hosted that summer camp for two years together and I continued for two more years when she left for college. In the summer after Lower Six, I got a more conventional job, where I learned an entirely different, but equally useful, skill set.

So, when college application essays asked what I had done for my summer and what my most rewarding summer experiences had been, I had an excess of stories.   I eventually focused on the challenge of managing thirty campers with varied interests, from the initial phases of marketing and registration, to organizing transport and permission slips for outings, to the grand finale: a dance show for the parents and take-home CDs with pictures of the children’s exploits (both my sister’s brilliant ideas).

At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was: that my sister had been entrepreneurial, that my mother had demanded my involvement, that she had also allowed us to use our house as a base, and that I had continued down the path they paved for me.

Universities looked at my application and thought: entrepreneurial, self-starter, passionate, creative, leader, management skills.  My primary thought, on the other hand: super tough for three weeks, but more money than I could make in six.

Now, as an admissions consultant, I speak to Form 6 students, who want to know how to craft fantastic applications.  And, without freaking them out, how can I explain that one of the keys to my success was accidentally handed to me at age thirteen?

Snapshot of the activities section of the Common App


First of all, how important is the non-academic part of your application?  Speak to colleges, listen to webinars, google “factors affecting undergraduate admission” and, for the more selective schools, you will come up with similar results:

Academics 30%
Extra-curricular activities (and summers) 25%
Essays 25%
Letters of Recommendation 15%
Interview 5%

What this quick breakdown fails to point out (shout out to a College Vine webinar that explicitly focused on this) is that your essays often focus on one of your extra-curricular activities, so extra-curricular may affect as much as fifty percent of your application.


Snapshot of a supplemental short essay topic required by Amherst University


What does this mean for current Form 6 students? Is it too late to supplement your application? Of course not.  My sister founded the camp when she was in Form 6; she subsequently attended the University of Pennsylvania, at the time ranked fifth in the U.S. alongside MIT and Stanford.  Does it mean that you should start a summer camp? Also no.  Many people do not have the resources to do this.  More importantly, you are trying to create an application that shows your personality and how that personality will contribute to college and beyond.  I was applying to a major in Economics, so starting a business made complete sense.  However, there are many summer activities that may supplement your specific application in a more cohesive manner.  Finally, I am writing this primarily for internationals and, this year in particular, applicants from Trinidad and Tobago.  Although universities see thousands of applications, those from Trinidad and Tobago tend to be few and therefore unique, and it might look a little strange if this year’s applicants all founded some version of a summer camp.

So let’s focus on how you can make your application as strong as possible this summer.  (I will address school term extra-curricular in a different post.)

Selective colleges are searching for students who enhance the school community.  They are also looking to find students who will be successful well after graduation.

Below, I have broken down four ways in which you might signal to colleges that you are one of those students.

1. Pursuing passion

One of the key indicators of community participation and future success is passion. And passion is observed in activities that go above and beyond the normal.

Examples include an aspiring writer successfully creating and marketing a blog, a musician teaching music to younger children in his free time, a future lawyer spending time at court listening to court cases, a student-athlete attending a specialized, technical summer camp, or a potential doctor doing work at a research lab or in a pediatric ward.

In these examples, students aren’t just happy doing what interests them.   Instead, they feel the need to share, teach, expand upon, or practice these interests.

Since students have so much more free time during summer vacation, this is where admissions officers can identify students with passion according to how they spend their time.

2. Showcasing talent

Another key indicator of future success is talent and strong performance of that talent.  Examples include regional or national team tournaments, dance performances, music recitals or competitive academic pursuits.


Think about cataloguing your performance, from MVP in a specific game, to bronze medalist of the league.  Keep videos or pictures of your performances and document events that might be significant to universities.



3. Stepping outside your comfort zone/ broadening your interests

A third indicator in identifying strong applicants is looking at instances in which they have tried something unique.  Athletes are a dime a dozen, but an athlete who has also learned to play the violin well is much more difficult to find.  Again, summer is when students have more free time, so while a deep focus on one extra-curricular may be understandable during the term, candidates who use their summers to explore other interests are considered more desirable. Other examples include traveling alone for the first time, taking a coding class, or learning a new language.

When admissions officers see international students trying new activities, they identify these students as more likely to easily adapt to a new country, unfamiliar classes and a different culture.

4. Supporting your community

Not everyone has the luxury of exploring an interest, or the depth of ability to perform at a competitive level.  Good news – the final indicator of unique, desirable candidates is how they contribute to the community, from strong service records, to getting jobs that helps support their families, to taking care of ailing relatives, to participating in political youth groups.  These candidates show that their communities – which can be defined in many ways, including family, neighborhood, race, gender, religion, country and more – are of paramount importance, sometimes more important than their own pursuits.  This signals to universities that the candidate will both value and enhance his/her college community.

Conclusion: Creating an application narrative

In the application, your summers will feature prominently in your essays and in the extra-curricular section.   Universities are not looking for students who pad their resumes with a million summer activities.  They are looking for genuine students, and this will be apparent in the way you write and the emotions evoked by your summer activities.

Summer should complement your existing resume, either by deepening and exploring current passions and talents, broadening your existing pool of interests, or contributing in a meaningful way to your community.

I had one student who spent his entire summer reading philosophy and getting his life back on track.  I had another student who spent her summer struggling with remedial classes to cope with a recently-discovered learning disability.  There is no “right way” to spend your summer.  Simply make sure that what you do makes sense in the narrative of who you are and what type of college student you want to become.

Looking forward to comments and questions below!


If you can’t afford a US education, this article is for you.


My name is Joseph. I am a 19 year old, male, Trinidadian who, like many of you reading this, could not afford a US education. The day before I entered Lower 6 at Fatima, College I knew that I wanted to study away; because of this, I worked relentlessly for my two years in Form 6 trying to obtain a government scholarship. After graduation, I soon realised this was not happening and came to terms with attending U.W.I. (which is by no means a bad school). Then, U.W.I. rejected me. I had messed up my online application and, before I could fix it, my intended department was full. As I walked off campus that day, I told myself I was never going back to that place – a lofty goal that eventually would come true.

In this, I share with you how I will be attending a US school for less money than the University of the West Indies and what it took.

Standardized Tests

This is a biggie. Right after graduation I went searching for *SAT lessons; asking around a few times I found Paige. I began as soon as I could and worked like a dog. My practice tests were really good; 800s in Math, 730s in English. I was on my way to Princeton for sure! But, when I actually did the exam, I ended up underperforming with a 1430 (this is a very good score but it was just not competitive enough for Princeton whose average SAT is around 1520). I was profoundly upset. I felt like I had worked harder than everyone else in the class by far and still didn’t reach my goal. By now, a lot of you must be sarcastically saying “Oh poor you. You couldn’t get into Princeton because you only got a 1430” but hear me out. I needed 2 million dollars to go to school away and I was under the impression that only a handful of the top schools were capable of facilitating that absurd number – something I later learned is incorrect. Nonetheless, my anguish was fully justified.

As time went on I sucked it up and sat the November *SAT subject tests and did well. I also decided to do the December *ACT’s.  I had already gotten a 31 during upper 6 and felt like the exam was a better fit for me. I received my ACT results in January and did very well.


Cornell and ESSAYS

As November 1st approached *(Early Decision I deadline date) I realised I was in no shape for Princeton and decided to apply to Cornell. I was writing essays like crazy. For my Common App essay alone, I rewrote it completely 3 times with 2 – 5 drafts for each rewrite. This, accompanied by supplementary essays, was a killer combination and Paige was probably the only reason I didn’t succumb to the panic.

My understanding from research and in talking to Paige, is that essays are the most important aspect, apart from good grades, of your entire admissions process if applying to US schools. This is what allows admissions officers to determine who you are and if you belong in their distinct institutional cultures.

Eventually, I mustered up everything I needed the afternoon of the deadline and sent in my application. I was rejected a month and a half later. This was definitely the hardest part of the entire admissions process. When a school you weren’t even aiming for initially does not even *defer you, you feel like you are way over your head. I went into a mild depression for a couple days. It was like a war had begun in my brain. I was constantly criticizing myself: “You could not get a government scholarship or fill out a U.W.I. application and you expected for the 14th best school in America to give you 2 million dollars’ were among my initial thoughts. It took over a week and a lot of motivation from people around me to get out of that rut.


Regular Decision and ESSAYS….again

In hindsight, I really should have organized these much sooner, but as I mentioned before I was in no frame of mind to do so. I still had to write essays for Princeton University, Yale University, Vanderbilt University, The University of Notre Dame, Trinity College, Union College and St. John’s University before the New Year. This single handedly occupied my entire vacation. I was in Tobago writing for hours on end, every day. I was sending draft after draft to be checked over and constantly tweaking what I already had. Thankfully, by the time January 1st rolled around, I had – by the skin of my teeth – everything in order. I applied to all the schools above under Regular Decision and to Vanderbilt under E.D. II.



February 15th came around and to my complete surprise and utter happiness I was accepted to Vanderbilt University. There is nothing better than the feeling you get when you prove yourself right and the 14th best university in America (tied with Cornell) gives you a ridiculous grant. Looking back, after that day, I realised that even though I failed everything over the last 3 years, I really only needed to succeed once.  


*Technical Terms:

  • SAT/ ACT: A standardized test required for entrance to most US colleges
  • SAT Subject Test: A test specifically designed for one specialized subject area
  • E.D. I (Early Decision I): Most schools allow you to apply ED I. ED I has a higher acceptance rate; however, if you are accepted you must commit to that school.  In some cases, you can only apply to one school ED.
  • E.D. II ( Early Decision II): Same as E.D. I but only a few schools offer it and it typically has a later deadline than E.D. I.
  • R.D. (Regular Decision): This is what you apply to the majority of schools under and it gives you the freedom to choose between whoever you want.