Study abroad

Study abroad: University application process for expats

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If you plan to study while living abroad, learn what makes expats strong candidates for college admission, college scholarships and university grants.

Studying abroad can offer a range of opportunities for an international career. But how can you apply for college as an expat or global nomad?

Perhaps you've relocated to a country in Europe via Sao Paulo via Hong Kong via the United States; such is the path of many expat families. This path often includes making new friends, learning about new cultures and experiencing new educational systems. Differences in curriculum, extracurricular offerings and grading systems are sure to be discovered as you move between countries.

Families whose children have spent their school-age years living abroad can often reach a state of frustration or panic when embarking on the college application process. Questions arise such as, 'will my child’s transcripts make sense to the admission committee?', 'will they understand why my son hasn’t completed the full IB diploma?', or 'will the fact that my daughter hasn’t been a club president be viewed negatively?'

It’s important to remember that the majority of universities have worked with international and expat students. The breadth of knowledge that each school has regarding the application and visa processes for students can vary, however, most schools will have enrolled someone in your situation in the past.

“Universities want students who have had international experience because they bring global connections to the campus and enrich the student body,” says Aaron Andersen, an International Recruitment Manager at The University of British Columbia. “Even a Canadian or American returning ‘home’ brings a unique individual perspective.”

Making your application stand out as an expat

According to John Sullivan, Dean of Admission at Eckerd College, students should use their applications to distinguish themselves.

“Rather than stress about how your transcripts and ability to be involved are different than students who have attended the same high school for four years, you should capitalise on the different experiences you’ve had,” says Sullivan. “Bring it to life in the essay.”

A common difficulty for expat applicants is how to provide a stellar list of extracurricular activities, including leadership positions, which is often assumed to give an applicant the edge in this process. Lin Larson, Coordinator of International Admissions at Saint Mary’s College of California, says that students need to concentrate on a few things in which they have a strong interest, instead of being non-active participants in many.

“It’s more important for a student to be consistent in an activity than to have 30 on their application. Colleges like to see commitment and dedication,” says Larson. “Leadership is good as well, but we also know that if families are moving every year or two, this isn’t possible for the student.”

Joan Jaffe, Associate Dean of Admission at Mills College, echoes these sentiments regarding extracurricular activities.

“We’re not interested in the laundry list of activities or in ‘what looks good on a college application’,” says Jaffe. “We’re interested in those activities or interests that show real depth and commitment on the part of the student. We want to know what inspires the student and what he or she is passionate about and to bring that depth of commitment and passion to our campuses.”

Tips for writing your application essay

Depending on where you apply, your college essay can be important. The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2014 State of College Admission survey revealed colleges ranked the essay as the 5th most-important factor in the application process, after grades, curriculum and related test-scores. Recommendations, extracurricular activities, class rank and interviews were further down the list. It's advised to start writing your essay early.

Some general tips for writing your application essay include:

  • Write as you would speak; read it aloud and ask yourself 'would I actually say that?'
  • Tell your story – this is about the real you, not about who you think you should be.
  • Share something new – if your essay is going to repeat what's already outlined in other parts of your application, choose a different topic; use this opportunity to expand your depth and breadth of interests/experiences.
  • Be genuine – admission officers are trying to get to know you via your writing, so let them in.
  • Avoid the 'shock and awe' tactics – your essay isn’t about showing your best comedy act or gross-out story; while you should be authentic, it's not the avenue to go over the top. You never know which admission staff will read your essay and while offending them with your essay may leave an impression, it’s probably not the one you’d like to make

Documents required to study abroad

When sending in application materials it’s important that expat students include all necessary documentation such as transcripts and school profiles. Families should work together with the student’s college counsellor to ensure that all paperwork is completed and sent by required deadlines.

Remember, all students have the same deadlines, regardless from which country they’re mailing their application materials.

“Universities need the official transcripts sent directly from the original institution; if there have been multiple high schools that may mean contacting the previous institutions to request that a document be sent directly to the university,” says Andersen. “Be sure to start the application as early as possible so that documents can be processed on both ends.”

Get help during the application process

It’s also important to develop open lines of communication with an admission representative from the university using email or Skype. This relationship can, and should, be started well before a student actually submits an application.

“I always encourage applicants to keep in touch with me throughout the application process; admission committees don’t need to be nameless or faceless groups,” says Jaffe. “Students have access to an admission counsellor who will assist and advocate for them in the admission process and it’s okay to contact your admission counsellor with any questions.”

As the college admission season approaches remember to highlight your strengths on your applications – being a global nomad should be at the top of your list.

Kristina Dooley, Estrela Consulting / Expatica
Originally published in The Forum, a monthly publication of the American Society of São Paulo.

Kristina Dooley is the founder of Estrela Consulting, an independent educational consulting firm helping families navigate the college and boarding school search processes. A former college admission counselor, Kristina enjoys sharing her tips with families embarking on this exciting experience. Kristina can be reached via email at kristina@estrelaconsulting.com or online at www.estrelaconsulting.com.


Updated 2011; July 2015.

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Michelyne Callan posted:

    on 13th January 2014, 09:55:13 - Reply

    While this advice is relevant, and sage, one thing that most parents do not consider or realize is the cost of attending university for an expat TCK who chooses to go abroad, and the LACK of financial grants/loans/scholarships. I was a university counsellor when we lived in Turkey, and have helped students with college applications for a long time. I now have a HS senior who wants to go to university.

    Our son is Canadian (as are we). He was born in Hong Kong, lived in Turkey, Abu Dhabi, and now Malaysia. He has never lived in Canada. He has been accepted to his first choice university, Berklee College of Music in Boston. Very prestigious, very hard to get in, and ghastly expensive. Because he is a non-resident Canadian going to the US, there is NO funding available to him. None. The tuition fees are prohibitively expensive. The school has ONE scholarhsip for a Canadian citizen. One. If you don't get it, there is no other financial help for you available in the first year. That's to the tune of $60,000 for ONE year!

    Everyone assumes we are rich because my husband is an international school teacher. Not true. We also don't have pension plans, or governmental savings opportunities because we have been living outside of Canada for 22 years.

    So, if you are in similar shoes, plan on coughing up a lung, or selling your kidneys to pay to go to university. If you are Canadian, you need to be resident for two years in Canada before you are eligible to apply for a student loan. Never mind grants or scholarships. And the US won't let you apply until you are a resident there. So no money to help pay for that first tuition bill. My advice? If you think university will be financially easy for your pocketbook, think again. move back to Canada and get two years of residency so you can apply to owe the government money so your kid can go to university and compete for good jobs.

    Good luck. I don't mean to be sarcastic. I have worked as a positive, happy expat counsellor for many years. But this reality is horrible We're hemorrhaging at the thought of paying for university.