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Managing “negative” information in your graduate school application

We all have them. Those unflattering points in our academic path, and subsequently – in our application package: grades (GPA) that aren’t as high as we wished; a reference letter that is not as shiny as expected; a suspension; or a story not coherent or focused enough. Recently, we received a question in our forum on how to present unflattering information in an application. We decided to elaborate on it here for the benefit of our community.

Here is GradTrain’s 3 stage process to address this issue:

First step:  If you determine that this information will be known to the committee through your transcripts, resume or any other application materials, then you have no choice but to discuss it. 
Otherwise, you need to identify whether this information is really important and negative, or if it is only important and negative in your own subjective eyes.
The test of whether it is important and negative, includes two components: first, will it seem negative to the admissions committee? We receive questions from great applicants who did not meet their personal expectations, and thus undervalue their achievements. Others are trying to demonstrate high standards by “complaining” about what is actually a great GPA. Not a good idea.
Second - is this information important? You really don’t need to explain dropping out of that extra-curricular activity in 7th grade. One low grade from 5 years back would also not raise any eyebrow. Take into account that as an international student, the school you are applying to will not know all the nuances of your past experiences. Get out of your own skin and seriously think whether they will even interpret whatever this is as negative.
If this is not important and negative information in the eyes of the committee, just don’t say anything. Discussing it may portray you as someone negative, or someone who cannot tell what is important. Just move on!

Second step: You have concluded this is important and negative information. Well, you need to explain it then - but in a way that does not leave the committee with a negative impression of you.
First, ask yourself: Is there a possibility to represent this information in a good way? If so – try to do that. For example, if your experiment in the lab was based on false hypothesis and you have no publication to show for it, you can say that you found that the hypothesis was invalidated, and that this is going to serve as a basis for new research.

Third step: If you come to the conclusion that there is no good way to present this negative information, you need to do damage control. Here are some ideas on how to frame it in a way that will minimize the negative impact on your application package:

  • Everything in the world can be explained using positive language or negative language. Choose the positive track. Avoid words that convey negativity, like: failure, shame, loser, blame, difficulty, fault. Instead, use: learning experience, challenge, responsibility, independence, lesson, improvement, growth. 
  • Indicate positive change. Show that you understood the source of the problem, learned from it, implemented what you learned and used it to grow and improve. It can work to your advantage that you have improved. Use this experience as an honor, rather than a source of shame. It shows your self-awareness, diligence, and drive towards continuous improvement. For example, “My first year grades were a wake-up call for me. I decided to learn to prioritize my goals, and to focus on what was important for my future. This approach was reflected already in my second semester grades. This also taught me that improvement is always possible, a lesson I am implementing now as a TA. I believe my students now benefit from the learning experience I had.” 
  • Don’t come across as insecure, judgmental, whiny, or disrespectful. People want positive people near them. Positive people also have bad experiences. But they view them positively. 
  • Never say anything bad about anybody. Even if you are correct. Don’t criticize. Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame. Don’t bad-mouth anything or anyone else on your application. Ever.
  • Show excellence and balance in other academic fronts to overcome any negative information.

Applying to graduate school abroad is a stressful process, and may cause us to act irrationally and exaggerate items in our past that may not actually seem so bad to others – and most importantly – not to the admissions committee. Follow the process described here to determine whether or not you should mention it, and if you do – how to frame it in a way that will best position you. Most importantly, understand what the committee is looking for – and focus the presentation of your profile to fit that framework.

How to: student visas for the United States

F-1, J-1, OPT, SEVIS, D/S, FSO -- what is this alphabet soup?!?!!

This week we are happy to have a guest blog by Sharon J. Phillips, a New York City attorney specializing in immigration and nationality law. Beyond choosing the right program and getting in to graduate school abroad, immigration is perhaps the most complex part of preparing to study abroad. The following piece will help you navigate the domain of visas, immigration status and the related ability to work while and after you are studying abroad. Enjoy!

Even if you are fluent in English, you may find that becoming a foreign student in the United States will require you to learn a new language. This FAQ (:-)) should give you a crash course in the jargon you need to know to navigate the immigration process.

What visas are available for foreign graduate students in the U.S.?

You may study in the U.S. on an F-1 Student visa or a J-1 Exchange Visitor visa. The choice between the two visa types will be made by your school, but some schools will take your preferences and individual circumstances into account, so it's useful to know the difference.
 The F-1 visa allows the student to enter the United States to undertake a full-time course of study at a college or university.  An F-1 visa holder maintains lawful status in the U.S. as long as he or she remains a full-time student. An F-1 student's spouse, and children under age 21, may join the student in the U.S. on F-2 visas, but are not allowed to work in the U.S.  The F-1 visa offers a grace period of 60 days after the conclusion of study (or any authorized period of post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT), discussed below), before the student must leave the U.S.
You may be eligible for a J-1 visa if your academic program is financed by a source other than your personal or family funds, including, for example, the U.S. government or your home country government or certain international organizations (i.e., Fulbright scholarships). A J-1 student's spouse, and children under age 21, may join the student to the U.S. in J-2 status. J-1 students have a 30-day grace period after the conclusion of their J-1 programs before they must leave the U.S.
An attractive feature of the J visa category is that J-2 spouses may be allowed to work (they need to apply for employment authorization after they arrive in the U.S.). On the other hand, some J-1 programs require students to return to their home countries for two years at the conclusion of their studies, before they can apply for most other visa categories in the U.S.  The two-year home country residence requirement can be waived under certain circumstances, but waivers can be very difficult to obtain, particularly for U. S.-funded programs such as Fulbright.

What is the process for obtaining a student visa (F-1 or J-1)?

The first step is getting accepted to a college or university program. After you are accepted, your school's DSO (Designated School Officer – for F-1 programs) or RO (Responsible Officer – for J-1 programs) will issue you a document that you will use to apply for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. If your school is offering F-1 sponsorship, your DSO will issue you an I-20 form. If your school is offering J-1 sponsorship, your RO will issue you a DS-2019 form.
Once you have received your form, you must pay an I-901 SEVIS enrollment fee of $180 (J-1) or $200 (F-1) (in most cases), a visa application fee of $160 (in all cases) and a visa issuance fee (in some cases). SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) is a program run by ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) to keep track of F-1 and J-1 students during the course of their stays in the U.S. The best way to enroll in SEVIS is to complete the I-901 and pay the SEVIS fee online at the SEVIS website, Some schools will coordinate your SEVIS enrollment and fee payment before issuing your I-20 or DS-2019. In this case, you can print your SEVIS I-901 fee confirmation from the SEVIS website.  
You also need to schedule an interview to process your visa application at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate serving the area where you live. Procedures for paying the visa application and visa issuance fees vary from country to country -- as do procedures for visa interview scheduling -- so please check the website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your country.
Before you go to your visa interview, you must complete a DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. The DS-160 (which you may recognize if you have ever applied for a U.S. tourist visa) can be found at Save a copy of the DS-160 application before you click the submit button, so you will have a record of the information you submitted. Print out the barcode that the system generates, as you will need to bring this to your visa appointment.

What are the main eligibility requirements for an F-1 or J-1, other than acceptance to a U.S. university?

The main eligibility requirements for both F-1 and J-1 students are (1) an appropriate background and/or qualifications for the academic program, as well as adequate English language skills; (2) possession of sufficient funds to cover the cost of study and living expenses, and (3) the intention to return to your home country at the conclusion of your studies. You will need to present financial documentation to show that you can afford to pay tuition and fees, and pay for your living expenses in the U.S. without working during your studies. While there are limited provisions that allow some foreign students in the U.S. to work during their studies -- to gain practical training and/or due to unanticipated financial hardship -- you cannot rely on these provisions when you apply for your visa.
Although the benefits to the U.S. of retaining the talents and skills of U.S.-educated foreign students through long-term post-graduation employment are widely understood, U.S. immigration law requires that foreign persons who wish to study in the U.S. not intend to remain in the U.S. as immigrants. Consular officers make judgments about prospective students' intentions based on a variety of factors, including the student's expressed intentions, the student's age and family situation, the student's ties to the home country, previous extended stays in the U.S., the existence of close relatives (especially fiancées or spouses) who are U.S. citizens, and the logic of the student's desire for a U.S. education based on the student's career plans in his/her home country.

When can I apply for my student visa, and when can I arrive in the U.S. using my student visa?

An F-1 visa can be issued up to 120 days in advance of the program start date. There is no restriction on how early a J-1 visa may be issued.  Both F-1s and J-1s may be admitted to the U.S. on the F-1 visa no more than 30 days before the program start date.

Can I enter the U.S. as a tourist, enroll in a graduate program, and then get a student visa without departing from the U.S.? Or must I go back to my country and apply for a student visa at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate? Can I apply for a student visa somewhere closer, like Canada or Mexico?

It is important to understand the difference between visa status and a visa. "Visa status" means the length of a person's stay and the nature of permitted activities during a single visit to the U.S. A person's "status" begins when the person is admitted to the U.S. by a CBP (Customs and Border Protection) inspector, and ends when he/she departs from the U.S. A "visa" is a document that is affixed to a passport by an Embassy or Consulate that authorizes the bearer to enter the U.S. in a specific visa status.
If you come from a country that participates in the visa waiver program, you may visit the U.S. as a tourist for up to 90 days without obtaining a tourist visa from an Embassy or Consulate. You may not work or study in the U.S. during the visit, and you may not apply for a change to a different visa status within the U.S. You must apply for a student visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad.
If you enter the U.S. using a B-1/B-2 (visitor for business/tourist) visa, you may be granted visa status as a tourist for up to six months. You may not work or study in the U.S. during the visit. Under limited circumstances, a B-1/B-2 visitor who has not yet enrolled in classes may apply to U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) to change his or her visa status to F-1 or J-1 status without leaving the U.S., but this may not be the best approach.
An application to change status from B-1/B-2 to F-1 or J-1 can take several months for USCIS to process. USCIS is likely to deny the application to change status if the intention to apply to graduate programs was not disclosed to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate that granted the B-1/B-2 visa, and indicated on the visa. Even if USCIS grants the requested change of status, the effect of the change will end the first time the person departs from the U.S.
Thus, unless you plan to remain in the U.S. throughout your studies, without any trips abroad, a visit to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate to apply for an F-1 or J-1 visa will be necessary sooner or later. For this and other reasons, the best approach in most cases is to apply for an F-1 or J-1 visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate before you begin your studies.
In most cases you must apply for an F-1 or J-1 visa at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your home country, and not elsewhere in the world. Consular officers in your home country are considered the best equipped to determine whether you meet the eligibility requirements (especially nonimmigrant intent). While a post in Canada or Mexico may agree to process an F-1 or J-1 visa renewal, in most cases these posts will not accept applications for initial F-1 or J-1 visas from non-Canadians/non-Mexicans.

Can I work while I am on a student visa, or after graduation?

During studies:  on-campus. With permission from their DSO or RO, F-1 and J-1 students may engage in on-campus student employment for up to 20 hours per week. J-1 students may also receive permission to engage in employment that is required by a scholarship, fellowship or assistantship.
During studies: off-campus. As discussed above, a central eligibility requirement for both F-1 and J-1 students is the ability to pay tuition, fees and living expenses for the student and any dependents without working in the U.S. However, if serious and unforeseen financial difficulties arise after a student arrives in the U.S., and if adequate on-campus employment cannot be found, the student (in either F-1 or J-1 status) may request authorization from the DSO or RO to engage in off-campus employment. This type of employment authorization is difficult to obtain, and should not be counted on.
After graduation. F-1 students may apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization, to engage in employment that is directly related to the field of study. OPT may be granted either pre-completion, for part-time employment during the academic year, or for full time employment after graduation. Most F-1 students are eligible for a total of 12 months of OPT for each completed degree level. Students who earn degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics may qualify for an additional STEM OPT Extension of 17 months. To qualify for OPT, a student must have been a full-time student in F-1 status at the academic institution for at least one academic year.
OPT is not available to J-1 students. However, with the permission of the student's RO and dean, a J-1 student may engage in paid or unpaid "academic training" either on or off campus. The training must be directly related to the major field of study, such as student teaching or clinical work. Academic training may take place during the student's studies, or must commence within 30 days of completion of study. Academic training is limited to 18 months (36 months for postdoctoral training).

I have more questions. Who can answer them? Do I need a lawyer?

Your main source of information about your student visa should be your DSO or RO. DSOs and ROs should be able to answer most questions that arise about the visa application process, the school's expectations, the SEVIS system and reporting requirements, and employment authorization.
You can also contact USCIS' customer service number (1-800-375-5283) - but be forewarned: the customer service agent you speak with will most likely be a contractor, not an immigration official, and will most likely answer your questions based upon a script, rather than based on a detailed understanding of immigration law and policy.
You may wish to speak with a lawyer who specializes in visa and immigration issues. The role of the immigration lawyer in student visa application is usually quite limited, since the process is administered by DSOs and ROs. You may want to seek legal advice if you have unusual circumstances that may interfere with your eligibility, or if you are considering working in the U.S. after graduation.

Sharon Phillips

Sharon J. Phillips is a New York City attorney specializing in immigration and nationality law (see or visit her website: 

Immigration policies and procedures change frequently. The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as, not intended as, and does not constitute legal advice. It does not create an attorney-client relationship, and it does not give rise to any duty of care or other legal obligation. 

GradTrain indiegogo campaign update

A few weeks ago, we launched our crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo. The reactions have been outstanding and we have received close to 7,000 views of the campaign so far. We are making great strides to reaching and even exceeding the campaign goal - all thanks to your support!

We have gotten some outstanding media coverage. Check it out here:

Please continue to support and share our campaign link:

Thank you!

The GradTrain team 

GradTrain is crowdfunding on indiegogo!! Back GradTrain and spread the word!

If you were wondering what we have been working on for the past months, here is the answer:

We are five friends from 5 different countries. We all share one important characteristic: we are passionate about international higher education. Studying abroad changed our lives for the better; not only did it help kick off and shape our careers, but it is now also an undeniable part of our identity.  That is what GradTrain is all about!
GradTrain is the first international web platform designed for people who want to attend graduate school in another country (no matter where they are coming from or where they are going to). GradTrain provides meaningful guidance from people who are what you want to be in a few years. People who understand your background, language and culture, and really care about providing you with the information that is relevant for your success.
We are building an online platform that will:
  • Connect prospective students with coaches who share a similar background to theirs who have been through the application process and can guide them to fulfill their potential.
  • Provide sophisticated algorithm-based decision making tools that will help students make decisions based on data on not on gut feelings.
  • Ultimately revolutionize the field of international education, by minimizing the information gaps that currently exist, allowing students and universities to find the right match for them.
Based on our vision, we want our first funding to be based on the power of the internet to mobilize people across the globe, to create a community and to increase the opportunity of many individuals to participate in a solution to a problem. We have thus decided to launch a Crowdfunding camapaign (what’s this?). This will also be a commitment vehicle to achieving our social goals.

“Crowdfunding democratizes start-up investment just as GradTrain aims to democratize the international education process”, says Jacob Bacon, a Former advisor at the United Nations and a GradTrain co-founder. “Building a community of friends and total strangers that come together and help each other because they have common goals and interests, is what GradTrain is all about.”

We need your help in making this dream a reality!

Back GradTrain on indiegogo and share the link to our campaign:

Visit for more information and ways to share the campaign.
Truly yours,

The GradTrain team

Research in the Humanities – the added value of international study

Thinking of studying abroad in the field of Humanities? Considering History, Philosophy, Languages, Cultural Studies or Literature? This week we are happy to host a guest blog by Prof. Gershon Bacon, a Historian from Bar-Ilan University (Israel), who explains the importance of international exposure in this field.

Let me sketch out a typical week in the past month: on Sunday, a colleague in Poland sent me a request to help chair an international workshop for graduate students from Israel and Poland to be held next June in Wrocław, and asked me to recruit appropriate graduate students for the workshop. On Monday I received an email from a major Slavic studies journal in the United States asking if I would review a new book (by coincidence, by the Polish colleague who had written me the day before).  On Tuesday a graduate student from England sent me a series of questions related to her doctoral thesis.  On Wednesday I contacted a colleague in Budapest to set up a time to meet during my planned visit to Hungary.  On Thursday I exchanged articles with a colleague in the States as part of keeping up to date on matters of mutual interest.
The point of this catalog is not to show how busy my week can be, but rather to illustrate that in my field of history and, I am sure, in most areas of the humanities, our enterprise has become a truly international ongoing conversation, and not just limited to conferences once or twice a year. 
Our research too takes place in an ever-expanding international arena, made possible of course by the Internet.  Again, during a typical week I might consult a number of databases based in Europe, such as Europeana or the sites of major university libraries in Poland or Germany.
Even as more and more of the world's scholars and databases can be accessed from the convenience of one's own desktop, for those of us in the humanities there is still no substitute for direct exposure to the subjects of our research and to colleagues engaged in similar ventures. Sustained hands-on contact with the sights, sounds, language and culture of our specialized fields of interest is a desired experience for making us better scholars, and certainly increases our value in the scholarly market.
Gaining this international exposure, however, demands careful planning and good advice. When is the best stage to travel abroad for intensive, full-immersion language study? What are the best places for such study? The attendant costs? Where are the best institutions for graduate study in one's field? Is it advisable in one's field to do a doctorate abroad and an MA in one's home country, or perhaps the opposite? Is it better to seek out an English-language course of study abroad or is study in the local language preferable? These are but a few of the complex issues that need to be addressed.  Only through the best kind of guidance, from people who have undergone this process and know the challenges and also the opportunities inherent in international study can one achieve one's goals in the optimal manner.

Feel free to sign up to this blog for updates. For specific questions on your desired field of study please visit or email us at

Online job search tips for international graduate students

…OK, these tips are good not only for international graduate students - but let’s put you guys first in line!

If you have been following our blog, you know by now that international education is likely to get you ahead in the job market search. Yet, finding a job in another country can be extremely challenging. In a past post, we provided you with tips for finding a job abroad after graduation. This week, we will focus on using online tools to maximize your results in your job search, with a focus on the United States job market. We will not focus on the process of obtaining a work Visa / permit in this current blog.

The biggest challenge job-seekers face is to stand out from the crowd and get noticed. The US job market is huge. And with the economic downturn, employers and recruiters have thousands of CVs to go through and an unending pile of qualified job-seekers. For international students, the size of the market in the United States, combined with the cultural differences and lack of a network in that country, make finding a job all the more challenging. Understanding how to use online tools to search for a job in the United States will position you one step ahead in this market.

1.     Build your online profile: Having a comprehensive online presence that clearly and effectively represents your experience and aspirations will help employers find you and notice you among the thousands of others who are looking for jobs just like you. Use sites like LinkedIn, Monster, Indeed, Careerbuilder, dice (for IT jobs), simplyhired and many more, and create a profile on many of them (only those you trust, of course!). Recruiters (people who work for companies and are tasked with finding new employees, or people who work in placement companies that find candidates and match them to employers who are seeking new employees) search through these databases based on the information and keywords not only on your resume but also on your profile. Once you finalize your profile, you can choose to receive job recommendations from these sites. Sign up for these recommendations! Most of them will be irrelevant or even junk, but for the one or two jobs that are relevant – it is totally worth it. You can create a special email address just for that purpose if you wish.

2.     Create a resume that works for the local market: An online profile is vital to catch recruiters’ eyes, but it is your resume which is the most important component of your job application package. Make sure to make your resume relevant to the US market. Some things are cultural: in the US, do not include in your resume a picture, age, social security number, date of birth, sex, race and any other personal information. It is not culturally acceptable and may cause employers to disregard your resume for fear of discrimination lawsuits. Here are some good samples of professional resumes that you can get inspired by.

3.     Use keywords and buzzwords: A recent study found that  recruiters spend on average only 6 seconds reviewing an individual resume. A critical way that employers and recruiters will find you is through the keywords and buzzwords on your profile and resume. Make sure to put in relevant words to your field of study and career aspirations. To figure out what these words are, ask your Career development department at your graduate school, or ask recruiters who you speak with (see below on this point). You can also run a Google search for terms you think are relevant and see how many results come up. Use the ones that bring up the most results. Put the high-impact words at the beginning of sentences on your resume. Recruiters often do not read the whole sentences you write and skim through the resume.

4.     Emphasize your local experience: This is the Achilles heel for many good and proud international job applicants. It is a sad truth that employers are often not at all interested in your foreign experience. Even the most respected foreign companies are not likely to be known to them. Absurdly, a free internship position at an American company may be worth in their eyes more than a management role in the biggest company in your country! Therefore, in your resume and online profile, emphasize any experience you had in the country you are targeting for your job search (including unpaid internships and projects you did during your graduate studies). Especially in the US, but also in other countries, employers are interested in seeing that you can work effectively in the local culture and deliver results. Showing that you have already worked and succeeded in that environment will take you a long way.

5.     Get recommended: No need to include actual recommendation letters with your resume when you apply for specific jobs. Only provide recommendation letters or contact information if you are asked for them directly. Many US employers have stopped asking for recommendation letters because they feel they are not reliable, or are afraid of lawsuits related to negative recommendation letters. However, on your LinkedIn profile, it is actually helpful to get at least one person who you worked for or with to write a brief recommendation in perfect English on your profile. As we recommended in our blog about grad-school recommendation letters, have recommenders focus only on positive aspects – do not ask people who may write anything negative about you to write a recommendation.

6.     Be Active: Create a detailed list of employers that interest you and actively search and apply for jobs through their online job sites. All large employers have a “careers” website. Search their sites for potential jobs that match your background and aspirations and apply for these jobs. In many cases they will even keep your resume in a database and send you jobs that fit your background. Being active will also enable you to be among the first whose resume is being reviewed for a job. Considering the huge piles of resumes the recruiter is going to have within a few days or hours of posting a job, being among the first is a distinct advantage.

7.     Connect with people outside the digital world. You need a strong online presence, but having an opportunity to meet an employer or recruiter on the phone or face-to-face, will also make you stand out from the crowd. Meet, network, get introduced, try to schedule some time for coffee with them and do some “informational interviews” (an informal interview where you meet with someone from the company who answers questions you have about working there). It is good to look at LinkedIn if you and the person you want to meet have a common connection, and ask this person to introduce you. They will look at your online profile before the meeting, so make sure it is comprehensive and impressive. Oh, and here is an important note: when you speak or meet with a recruiter, try to also ask if they have any feedback about your resume. You’ll be surprised how nice and helpful people often are if you are just a normal person who asks politely for their help.

8.     Follow up, follow up, follow up. Be persistent, send emails to recruiters who have been in contact with you, find their phone number at work, call them directly, and politely say you have submitted an application for this role, and have some questions about it (prepare a couple of smart questions to ask when you call: about the role. NOT about the salary). It will make them pull your resume out of the stack of resumes they received and read it. This alone can make a huge difference.

9.     Spend many hours a day searching: finding a job is a full time job! If you are serious about finding a job in a country that is not your home country – you need to invest a lot of time in finding the right position for you and primarily – to spread your net as widely as possible so you get more exposure to potential employers. Set a goal for how many applications you will send per day and meet it! Check job boards at least five times a day. If anything new appears, you want to be among the first resumes to arrive.

10. Open your mind to related fields and jobs: Do not narrow your search so much that you will only have very few options. Look for related professional fields where you may gain practical experience that will allow you to later get the job of your dreams. For instance, you may want to intern at a prestigious employer so they, or other similar employers will later hire you.

11. Make sure you stand out “in a good way.” Recruiters do not appreciate a sense of humor in an application. Or anything that otherwise looks weird or out of line. They receive so many CVs that they do not feel they should take any risk with unusual candidates. As a foreigner, you have an inferior starting point in this sense. Don’t add to it by trying to be over-creative, funny or too personal. Make sure your grammar is perfect, your format is accurate, your style is culturally appropriate, and that you look as “American” and local as possible.
Within a few weeks, GradTrain will allow you to connect with people who have a similar background to your own, who have done what you want to do, and can guide you through the process. Many of them hold prestigious jobs and know a lot about applying for jobs in the US and other countries. To participate in our Beta program and to register for more information go here or send us an email to:

Been through this experience and can help others? Become a gradtrain coach!

Food Shopping in America: A Survival Guide

This week, we are happy to host a guest blog by Deena Barselah , a Holistic Health and Wellness Coach, on a topic that is important to anyone who goes to study in another country – maintaining a healthy nutrition while you are abroad. Today’s blog provides useful information and survival tips for food shopping in the United States of America.

Everything is big in America and one of the places that can be most overwhelming is a supermarket. You’ll see aisles upon aisles of products with flashy colors, health claims, advertisements and marketing. The most seasoned shopper can find this dizzying, but for anyone new to this country, it can be downright overwhelming and intimidating.

The reality is that with so many food buzzwords, it’s hard to know the difference between good marketing and meaningful information. Some of these health claims have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA - a governmental body in the United States that regulates human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation), while others are simply at the discretion of the individual company. You’ll encounter many of the terms I outline here and I want to set you straight right from the start.


The FDA says, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term “natural” or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

By the above definition (or non-definition), high fructose corn syrup is natural.

Other claims that sound meaningful but are not at all regulated:
· “Doctor recommended”

· “Heart healthy”

· “Green”

· “Eco-friendly”

· “Sustainable”

· “Strengthens immune system”

· “Guilt-free”

“Made with whole grains”

You might think that all of the grains in the food are whole grains, but there’s no rule about what percentage of the food is actually made with whole grains. And, by the way, when “wheat flour” is listed in the ingredients, that’s just flour. Plain old refined, white, and refined flour.

Now onto animal foods… America is really into factory farming and so it is especially important to know where your animal foods are coming from to avoid these bad practices.

“Free range” or “free roaming”

This term usually applies to chickens. According to the USDA, these claims merely mean that “producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This leaves it up to the individual farmer to decide how much access the animals receive. The USDA considers 5 minutes of open air access each day to be adequate to approve the use of a “free range” claim on a poultry product.

“Cage free”

Implies that the egg-laying hens don’t live in cages. What it really means is that they can walk around, but they can also be fed, raised and slaughtered like any other chicken and there’s no official regulation for this term.

“Real fruit”

This is often listed on sweetened products and those marketed to parents and children. This term can be used when the amount of fruit is almost non-existent and can come from juice concentrate. These products can be mostly refined sugar with a small amount of actual fruit or fruit juice.

“Enriched” or “Fortified”

This is a personal favorite of mine. Whenever you see these words on your food (commonly on milk, boxed cereals, and milk alternatives like soy and almond milk), read this as “depleted.” A manufacturer adds these synthetic vitamins and minerals back into the food because they were lost in the processing of the food. A boxed breakfast cereal goes through very high processing to form a flake, O, square, etc and most of the nutrients are lost in that process. Milk loses most of its nutrients in the pasteurization process, so they add back in the vitamin A and D in synthetic form.


Poultry and pigs are not commonly given hormones (factory farmed often receive antibiotics, but that’s another story). It’s the cattle that get the hormones so they can grow big and fat and be slaughtered earlier than if nature took its course. The problem here is that it is impossible to show that hormones were not used for beef, so the designation comes entirely from the individual company. You are simply taking their word for it.

“Whole wheat”

This means that there is some amount of whole wheat in the product. If you’re looking for a food to be 100% whole wheat, check the ingredients. Make sure whole-wheat flour is the first ingredient and no other flours are present.

I’ve just listed a few here, but you get the idea. Investigating these claims is essential so that you don’t fall for a company’s marketing.

You are exposed to marketing and advertising everywhere. Your best bet is to buy food that doesn’t even have a label… like a carrot or lettuce or fish or cheese from a cheese counter. These are all real foods and always your most nutritious choice rather than things that come in a package.

Tips for Success:

Head to the periphery of the market rather than down the aisles. The produce section is a safe place. The coolers, for the most part, are better than the aisles. It’s around the periphery of the market that you’ll find meat, fish, poultry, dairy, produce and other food that can spoil. You don’t want to load up on food that has an indefinite shelf-life like chips, soda, salad dressings and other packaged and processed foods. Know that if a food has a health claim, there is a reason; the company is spending money on marketing. Remember, a carrot does not have a health claim for a reason! It's a whole food and it needs no marketing. You know it's good for you.
Deena Barselah is a Holistic Health & Wellness Coach.

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