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The 5 ways to make your application to US universities stand out

How do US universities consider and screen foreign / international applicants? How can I improve my chances?

If you are looking to study in the United States, you are probably asking yourself – how am I viewed as an international student and how does the admissions committee decide if to accept me or not? Will I be looked at differently than American students? This will be relevant whether you are applying for an LLM, MBA, PhD, Masters, MSc, or any other graduate degree, and whether it is to Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, University of Florida, New School or any other School.

First and foremost, international applicants are assessed very differently than US applicants. The country of origin is a consideration, and some countries become more attractive to schools than others. The financial situation of the applicant is also relevant, yet you may be surprised that the financial situation of the school is also relevant. Many schools are very keen on attracting foreign students for diversity value, but also for financial reasons - ~60% of US students only pay partial tuition, while foreign students pay full tuition and very few get scholarships directly from the schools.

Though these considerations are relevant, their weight is relatively small. The main factor they will consider is - are you a good fit for their program, both academically and personally. 

But how will they know if you are a good fit for the program?

US schools (same goes for US employers), tend to look for proxies that will help them make decisions. Since there are hundreds or thousands of applicants each year for each program - they need to use a filter. Yet, for foreign applicants, all of the standard proxies do not work. It is hard for US schools to know the quality of all of the schools in all of the countries in the world, and to understand extracurricular activities that are very different from what is standard in the US culture. There are even some unwritten policies in certain US graduate programs to give a negative weight to a certain origin because of an overflow of students from that country. It is not viewed as discrimination - the schools would claim that they are trying to avoid a situation where there is no diversity in their international student body.

So - what are the factors that can work in your favor?

1. Portray a strong and leading background. Every person who applies for school abroad has some strong points in their background that show some leadership capabilities: e.g., if you were at the top of your class, a leader and initiator of a business or social initiative, a - make sure to mention it. Don't be shy - the committee needs to know about your outstanding achievements.

2. Demonstrate that you excelled in the “objective” factors - great GMAT/GRE/TOEFL scores. This is the easiest point for the admissions committee to compare you to the other applicants. Having good scores here will significantly improve your chances.

3. Show that you will fit into the atmosphere of the school. Make sure to research and understand the unique approach and point of view of each school and tweak your materials accordingly. This could include some talents that you have or extracurricular activities you did, that show that you are a team player and get along well with peers and supervisors. The admissions committee will try to imagine how you, as a person, will fit in to the school and with the other students they accept for your class.

4. Show that you are somehow connected to the school. Familiarity is very important, and showing a direct connection to the school enhances this feeling for the committee even without meeting you in person. If you can, obtain a strong reference letter from a Prof. that was at the school as a visiting scholar, mention that you spent an exchange semester there or at a similar school, mention that your sibling / parent studied at that school etc. 

5. Demonstrate that the program you are pursuing fits in to your career trajectory and aspirations, whether in academia or in the private sector. For example, if you aspire to be a leading Professor in the field of Engineering, describe how the specific program you are applying to will put you on the right track to achieving that goal. Same goes if you want to be a consultant in a Big 5 consulting firm, a lawyer in a top 10 law firm, a banker, a teacher, or any other profession. 

These 5 points can make a big difference in your chances of acceptance to the programs of your choice. You will need to emphasize them in your application package and specifically in your essay / personal statement.  Take a look at our previous blog: How to write your statement of purpose, personal statement and essay for American graduate programs for more information. 

And – good luck! Millions of people study abroad every year – so it is not impossible. Make sure you stand out from the crowd and you can make it happen.